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."

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