A well-loved agony aunt with a matronly air

Claire Rayner was Britain's best-known agony aunt, loved and respected for her straightforward advice, her warm personality and her often frank attitude to sex.

An unmistakable figure with her matronly air and gravelly voice, she was queen of the daytime TV phone-in, often speaking to callers with real passion and cheerfully addressing them with a "lovey" or a "dear".

At the height of her fame as an agony aunt on national newspapers and magazines in the 1970s and '80s, she received 1,000 letters every week and, with a small army of secretaries, read them all.

But her positive, energetic attitude, evident in the numerous good causes she championed over the years, masked a childhood blackened by abuse and neglect, and a serious bout of illness with breast cancer.

Claire Berenice Rayner was born to Jewish parents on January 22, 1931, in east London. Her early life in Stepney spanned the difficult years of the Second World War, during which she was once buried alive for 28 hours in rubble.

She was known to her parents as "the problem child" and as an evacuee ran away from four separate families during the war.

Aged just 14, she enrolled as a trainee nurse at Epsom Cottage Hospital in Surrey, and instantly felt she had found her vocation.

"The moment I set foot inside, everything felt right for me," Rayner recalled in her autobiography, How Did I Get Here From There, published in 2003.

But, at the age of 16, Rayner's abusive mother forced her to leave her hospital job, so she could emigrate with the rest of her family to Canada.

While abroad, she developed an overactive thyroid and spent more than a year in a Canadian psychiatric hospital because her parents refused to pay for a thyroid operation.

Rayner was classed as insane and deported back to the UK, where she underwent treatment on the newly formed NHS which damaged her throat and left her with that instantly recognisable husky voice.

At this time, aged 19, she cut off all contact with her parents, after a childhood in which her mother would regularly beat her and her father would lurch from one financial crisis to another.

She went back to nursing and started to train as a doctor, before meeting her beloved husband, actor and artist Desmond Rayner, whom she married in 1957.

During her medical career, she worked at the Royal Northern Hospital in London, studied midwifery at Guy's hospital and became a sister in the paediatric department at the Whittington Hospital.

Rayner started writing for nursing journals. But she quickly found work on the advice pages on various newspapers and magazines, including the Sun and the Sunday Mirror.

She was medical correspondent on Woman's Own, writing for nine years under the name of Ruth Martin, before using her own name from 1975 to 1987.

Rayner was also a prolific novelist, publishing dozens of novels, including the Performers series, The Poppy Chronicles, and a number of books published under the pen name Sheila Brandon.

But, appropriately for a woman who listed "talking" first among her hobbies in Who's Who, it is for her work as a broadcaster on daytime TV and radio that she will be most clearly remembered.

Rayner's career in radio and television was extensive. She appeared for many years on such popular programmes as Pebble Mill At One, TV-am, and Good Morning With Anne And Nick.

Later, she campaigned to raise awareness of the high levels of women pensioners in poverty, among many other issues often linked to health and childcare.

She was involved with more than 50 charities, and was a member of the Prime Minister's Commission on Nursing and the last government's Royal Commission on the Care of the Elderly.

She also held the posts of president of the Patients Association and the National Association of Bereavement Counsellors.

In 1996 Rayner was awarded an OBE "for services to women's issues and to health issues".

But in 2001 the personal happiness which she had described as so "blissful" was threatened by health problems of her own.

She underwent a double mastectomy following a diagnosis of breast cancer, an operation which she dismissed with a typical lack of fuss. "I'd had them a long time, they were nothing special," she said.

Rayner wore two digital hearing aids and walked with a stick because of problems with her fourth artificial knee.

But she never recovered from emergency intestinal surgery she had in May this year and died in hospital near her home in Harrow, north-west London, yesterday.

She wanted her last words to be: "Tell David Cameron that if he screws up my beloved NHS I'll come back and bloody haunt him."

It was her marriage in 1957 at the age of 25 to Des which was the foundation for her happiness. The couple had three children.

"I'd grown up, I'd developed some self-esteem. And that made all the difference," she recalled.

"And then dear old sex raised its ugly head of course. You can't ignore it forever, thank heavens - I love it."

Overall, she counted herself lucky to have had such a happy adult life.

"The first 20 years of my life were grotty in the extreme.

"And the rest was absolutely bliss. I've no complaints to make, 50 good years against 20 bad, it's a fair deal."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

HR Assistant / Human Resources Assistant

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An HR Assistant / Human Resources Ass...

Talent Community Coordinator

£Neg + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Talent Community Coordinator is nee...

Business Support - Banking - Halifax - £250 pd

£150 - £250 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - HR - Halifax - £150 - £250...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried