Quietly Getting On

Photographer Christian Doyle’s project beautifully captures the strength and resilience of 12 women born before WWII.

Quietly Getting On is a series of portraits of women who were born before World War II, growing up in an era of economic deprivation with little or no support available during difficult times. The current ideas and expectations of self-entitlement and personal fulfilment wouldn’t have been understood in the traditional society which was the 40’s and 50’s. On the whole women were expected to marry, have children, to stay at home and cope with the ups and downs of family life, and pretty much keep their personal problems to themselves.

During the Covid pandemic when we were all fearful to switch on the news, I thought about how this generation had survived a world war where nobody knew when or how it would end. I wanted to photograph and listen to the stories of that generation now that they are reaching old age, with all the challenges, physical, material, emotional and mental that this stage of life brings with it.

Despite the fact life wasn’t and isn’t always easy, it’s the bright spirit that comes across, the desire to put others first, to listen and to help. ‘Will you be alright getting home? Would you like to use the loo before you set off? How about something for the journey?‘ When I ask the question ‘how do you manage?’ The response was more or less the same ‘Well you’ve just got to get on with it haven’t you?’

It was not only a privilege to hear their stories and to photograph them, but it was also very reassuring when the world seemed and continues to seem, turned upside down.

Camille, 86 was born in London and has vivid war-time memories of the houses in her street being bombed and the glass blowing out of a bedroom window, shattering over her baby brother in his cot. He wasn’t hurt but soon after the family moved to The Midlands leaving her father on bomb duty at The War Office going around the darkened streets on his motor bike.

Inspired by her mother, she has always loved France, lecturing in European Studies in London for many years in between holidays to Provence. Today she and her husband (they married in 2014 in Cornwall) are preparing to emigrate to the South of France where both their children’s families are residents. When we met there were maps spread out on the kitchen table as they plan the move. As John says ‘it’s never too late to try and do something new.’

Caroline, 87 was married to the rector of a small parish in Sussex. Mother of 5 and foster mother to the countless children she looked after all her married life. Her children remember a household full of noise and fun, sharing everything they owned and their mother organising camping trips and long walks with incredible energy. Although she lives alone now the house is a warm and welcoming place with Caroline baking, sewing, knitting and growing food for charity – and never wasting anything.

Christabel, 86 is a breeder of British White Cattle and she lives in an unmodernised ancient farmhouse on the Sussex – Hampshire borders. She doesn’t like talking about herself so the facts of her upbringing are hard to get. She speaks in a clipped upper class regal voice as she walks at speed through the common in search of her cows, walking stick in one hand and a machete in the other, chopping her way through the bracken and brambles.

While she doesn’t offer much of her own life story, she has sacks and sacks of information, certificates, rosettes going back decades about her cattle. She’d trained as an Obstetrician at St. Thomas’ in London and has an encyclopaedic memory, loving to share her knowledge on animals, insects and plants as well as international politics.

According to her neighbour, the only reason she agreed to be photographed was because I included one of her beautiful cows in my own project on animals in agriculture so she felt she could trust me.

Eve, 88 trained as a midwife and then a district nurse in Liverpool, before going back to midwifrey for another 26 years. She was married to Stanley for 56 years and together they moved down to the South Coast when Stanley retired. Her story is a reminder of how hard life could be in community nursing and is a small slice of British history.

‘Poverty was rife; most of the people I visited were very poor indeed, with every home having just an outside toilet and no bathroom. Equipment such as forceps, scissors and kidney bowls had to be boiled up on kitchen stoves. Dressings were prescribed by the doctors and picked up by patients at the surgery with bandages being washed at home and rolled up again ready to reuse.

As district nurses, we rehabilitated stroke victims, gave patients bed baths as well as tending to bed sores and cared for the dying. There was great respect shown to us always as we travelled from house to house on our bikes. Our uniforms had to be immaculate, and a strict code of dress and behaviour had to be adhered to at all times.

Iva, 93 was born in Wales but she ran away from home at 13  to escape an abusive childhood. She went to work as a servant in a country house where they treated her like family. She never married and was quite scathing about the men she had met along the way.

She was completely at ease with me, choosing this beautiful colour to show up her bright blue eyes – even though she had been about to get on a bus into town when I saw that wonderful face in the doorway of her sheltered housing. There was such a sweetness about her and a lack of vanity. She didn’t know me but she was so at ease rifling through her wardrobe in her petticoat looking for this jumper.

Jenefer, 85 is a retired Master Mariner, one of the very few women in the world to have the qualification. She has rewritten the rules for the RNLI on sea safety as she witnessed first hand near fatal accidents, finding solutions to problems and suggesting where things could be improved. She organises holidays for the homeless and provides a refuge for soldiers suffering from trauma in her own home on the East Coast of Scotland. She was diagnosed with cancer last year but is determined to battle on while she can.

Marjorie,85 ‘The Garden is my salvation’ calling the plot of land which surrounds her cottage an accidental rewinding. She and her husband bought 3 acres of derelict farmland 30 years ago and set about planting native trees which are now tall and golden in the morning light. I loved a story she told me; she and her husband whom she met at 17, used to walk all around London with newspapers stuffed up their jumpers to keep warm – they had no money and walking is free.

Alfred, a surgeon, had prostate cancer in his 60s and insisted on having an operation when they said it was pointless. He lived another 20 years and they both made a promise to each other to make the most of every minute they had together. ‘Do you curl up your toes and die?  No you do not!’ She is such a warm and joyous person with an open house with friends and neighbours popping in, helping out, staying over. A nurse all her life, she looked after the terminally ill until her husband’s diagnosis ‘somehow when you are dealing with that at home you can’t cope with anything else’.

Nora,88 came to London from Donegal as a young woman in the 1950’s, joining her 6 older brothers. All nine of them had lived in a small farm cottage with one bedroom reserved for the visiting priest. By the time Nora was born the elder boys had left to find work and she couldn’t wait to get to England to join them, to be independent. Her son recalls that even though they were poor, family was everything – birthdays and Christmases for up to 60, music and dancing always.

Nora met her husband in England and together they took on two pubs on the coast. She says she was a very strict landlady ‘No drunkenness, no swearing or I’d send for the taxi with the blue flashing lights!’

She has dementia now and doesn’t speak much but loves to reminisce in her beautiful Irish lyrical voice. She lives at home looked after by friends, family and carers. She still loves a party and at her last birthday she sang all the old songs and was the last woman dancing.

Norma,95 was born in the East End of London to a British father and a mother who had come to England from Lithuania at the age of 4.

They moved to Harrow at the beginning of The War and she remembers all the desks at school being lined up in the corridors for easy evacuation into the shelters under Harrow-on-The Hill.

She won a scholarship to The Royal College of Music at 16 and was in the same group as Sir Colin Davis, Sir Neville Marriner and Sir Edward Downes. After graduating, she was unable to become a concert pianist due to debilitating stage fright so she taught private pupils at home.

Through a series of chance encounters and coincidences involving the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co., she met her husband Bill and moved from Holland Park (‘very grotty then’) to a flat in Chelsea – a vibrant community in the 50’s and 60’s . They moved to the South Coast once the children were born.

She has been a Ashtanga Yoga practitioner since the age of 30 and this shows in her strength and poise – she spends as much time as possible in her small garden, and where once she played the piano every day, she can no longer read the music owing to poor eyesight.

Rayna, 85 I met Rayna in a wool shop; she was wearing a fur coat and walked with two sticks having driven 30 or so miles through motorway traffic to find some wool to match her jumper. She was immediately engaged in my idea of documenting her generation of women, and invited me to her house and to her stables where she kept her horse.

She’d contracted polio in her 30’s she thought as a result of the jab she’d needed to nurse overseas, so she retrained in fashion teaching design and tailoring at Westminster College and was a costume conservateur for Sothebys. Riding and music had always been part of her life growing up and she is a champion side saddle eventer. ‘I’d turn up in a wheelchair and then go on to win my competition – that made the judges jaws drop!’

I rang her to tell her about the success in various competitions of this series of photos and she was thrilled – for me of course.  ‘I’m off to California with my new boyfriend, I think the climate will suit me better!’

Ruby, 88 met me at Balham underground having emailed me precise instructions so I didn’t get lost. We went for coffee,  her battling elegantly in her hat along the thundering traffic of Balham High Road, people barging past on phones.

I was expecting reminiscences instead we talked about now, how she kept herself living with a sense of purpose trying to navigate the ins and outs of an online world, never being able to talk to anyone to help, a real challenge when your eyesight isn’t good. She keeps moving, never taking the lift in her monumental art deco block of flats, pushing open the heavy brass embellished fire doors with her long thin arms. We talked like old friends. She thought that people needed to listen to each other and never waste time, or things, and to treasure every moment.</p

She told me she is a quaker and quoted a phrase she had heard somewhere. ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’

Willow, 88 is a sculptor and artist who trained at Chelsea School of Art in the 50’s where she met her husband Ron. She was elected to the Society of Portrait Sculptors following her work at Tussauds Studio in London. She openly talks about the loss of two sons without self-pity, and with a sense of quiet resilience – a quality which all these women seem to share. Her work reflects the stillness in her character, beautifully sculpted forms of babies, children and animals; they are sublime. She says she never stops learning. She sings in a choir, walks daily, does pilates and takes life drawing classes.

The series was shortlisted by the RPS IPE 164 and had an Hon Mention in the Julia Margaret Cameron Portrait Prize 2022. Nora’s portrait was selected by The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize for exhibition in The National Portrait Gallery.


The photographer

Christian Doyle

Christian Doyle trained in professional photography at Central St. Martin’s School of Art in London after graduating with a BA hons degree in French and European Studies at Sussex University. Her commissions include a residency at The Royal Shakespeare Company, and as artist in residence in theatres, hospitals and schools in London.

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