Lil Smith never planned to be a cook. But when a member of staff at her daughter's school rushed out one morning asking for help, she agreed to chip in for the day. That moment sparked a career spanning nearly half a century.
Great-grandmother Mrs Smith, 81, of Dorset Avenue, in Hayes, said: “I’ve loved it here, but I am enjoying being able to have a lie-in!”
She added: “Although I officially started at 8.30am, I liked to get there early to avoid all the children with their bags and things, so I used to get up at 5.45am and leave the house just before 7am to get in before the rush.”
The school, in Long Lane, organised a farewell tea party for the “super cook”, who joined as head cook in 1992, taking three buses to work each day, come rain or shine.
Throughout her time at the school, she and her four staff prepared up to 180 meals each day, plus an extra 100 or so on Fridays – fish finger day.
Headteacher Catherine Moss said Mrs Smith's "innovative approach to good homemade food" made her a star long before Jamie Oliver entered the healthy school dinners debate.
She said: “Her food is always wholesome, thought out and delicious.
“But her contribution to the school has been more than simply nourishing young minds and empty tummies.
"As an evacuee, her experiences being billeted first to Wales, and later to Berkshire, have proved an invaluable and rich source of history to the Year 6 children, who each year are invited to spend an afternoon with her hearing about her war time reminisces. She has already been booked to return on a regular basis to share her stories with the children.”
Before having children herself, Mrs Smith, who was born in Victoria, London, worked as an administrator for the Foreign Office, in a building in Whitehall overlooking The Mall.
She left when her first child, Martin, now 57, arrived. His sisters, Wendy, 56, and Sue, 55, soon followed.
One day, when Sue was five, Mrs Smith was standing at the school gates when a member of staff ran up to her asking if she could help out in the kitchen for the day.
She obliged and, not put off by a “long day”, she ended up staying at the school – now called Wood End Park Academy – for 26 years.
A bout of ill health kept her from working for a time, but after returning to the school, in Judge Heath Lane, Hayes, she opted for shorter hours and so transferred to St Bernadette’s.
At her leaving party on February 11, bingo-lover Mrs Smith was presented with a bouquet of flowers, a Marks & Spencer gift voucher and a bottle of Baileys, while also enjoying home-made sandwiches and cakes.
Headteacher Mrs Moss said: "She is a hard act to follow.”