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Marlborough Midweek - - BIG READ -

soft smile plays around her face as she looks at the photo, trans­ported back to a time when she was more nim­ble of foot and old age seemed a life­time away.

The hands grasp­ing the photo may be decades older but they are still strong. These are the hands that used to hug a cry­ing child, put plas­ters on scrapped knees and soothe away the anx­i­eties of tear-sod­den tod­dlers.

Shirley Bowie, 87, founded Marl­bor­ough’s first child day­care cen­tre in the mid 1960s, help­ing pave the way for­ward for women to work out­side the home.

She may be small of frame but her slight frailty is only skin deep. The woman who bat­tled against bu­reau­cracy to help hun­dreds of chil­dren and their fam­i­lies is still there; fire in her eyes as she re­mem­bers a time when strength was all she had to fight with.

Born in York­shire in England, the mother-of-four re­mem­bers car­ing for chil­dren when she was 13-years-old.

‘‘Moth­ers went out to do war work and older chil­dren looked af­ter the younger ones. If we heard planes over­head we had places to go and hide, mine was in the ink cup­board.

‘‘I think the idea for the child­care cen­tres was a throwback from England,’’ she said.

In 1952, Shirley and her fam­ily set­tled in Blenheim. Mother to three boys and one girl, she de­voted her time to her fam­ily un­til the 1970s ar­rived and with it, an era of eco­nomic and so­cial change.

Sit­ting on the soft blue sofa at home, rem­i­nisc­ing with daugh­ter Julie Spencer, Shirley re­mem­bers those early years vividly.

‘‘Women were get­ting edgy spend­ing all their time at home and wanted to be out work­ing.

‘‘There was plenty of op­po­si­tion ini­tially, mostly men who thought a woman’s place was in the home. The women, how­ever, were happy to see plans mov­ing ahead, al­beit rather slowly,’’ she said.

With only play­cen­tres and kinder­gartens in place in Marl­bor­ough, Shirley, a mem­ber of the then Na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Women, set to work to cre­ate the first ded­i­cated child day­care cen­tre. A com­mit­tee of like­minded peo­ple was formed and premises se­cured.

The cen­tre on High St opened its doors. It was so ground­break­ing at the time, said Shirley, that they did not even know what to call it.

They held a li­cence to care for up to 50 chil­dren and, ini­tially, no fees were charged.

‘‘Ini­tially we didn’t charge any­thing as there were no guide­lines in place and we just kind of mud­dled along.

‘‘There was no such thing as cer­tifi­cates in child­care back then so we had to do a cer­tifi­cate geared to­wards play­cen­tres.

‘‘Even when we did charge, and I think it was about $2.30 an hour, we of­ten let chil­dren in for free as their fam­i­lies were some­times strug­gling and had lit­tle money to spare.

‘‘We did all we could to help save money and I re­mem­ber mak­ing name tags on pieces of lino for the chil­dren as there were so many at one stage,’’ she said.

Shirley’s vi­sion for a day­care cen­tre be­came so much more. While she and other staff had plenty to cel­e­brate, es­pe­cially when they moved into big­ger premises where the coun­cil build­ing sits to­day, there were mo­ments of un­cer­tainty too.

She de­voted hours each week, fran­ti­cally fill­ing in forms to ap­ply for any grant the cen­tre, now called the Blenheim Com­mu­nity Creche, was el­i­gi­ble for. Shirley flexes tired fin­gers and winces as she re­mem­bers.

‘‘I was for­ever writ­ing away for grants, it was a con­stant bat­tle. When I look back now, I’m amazed that we ac­com­plished so much and re­ally don’t know how we did it.

‘‘In the early days es­pe­cially, I bat­tled hard. A lot of the time it felt like I was only a woman, and what would I know about any­thing?

‘‘It was re­ally quite sat­is­fy­ing when some of the men who had op­posed the plan started to drop their chil­dren off while their wives went to work,’’ she said.

When daugh­ter Julie turned 18-years-old, she was con­va­lesc­ing at home af­ter break­ing her leg in a mo­tor­bike ac­ci­dent.

She laughs as she re­calls Shirley telling her she wasn’t go­ing to get away with ‘‘just sit­ting round the house’’.

She too went on to be­come qual­i­fied to care for chil­dren and the pair worked along­side each other over the years, shar­ing gig­gles, wip­ing noses and shar­ing a strong bond that came with car­ing for the chil­dren.

Look­ing through the agespot­ted photo al­bums at their feet, Shirley and Ju­lia are excited, ex­claim­ing with de­light over shared mem­o­ries and precious faces. Not one name has been for­got­ten.

‘‘They were all our babies and it’s hard to re­alise that some of them will be 50-years-old now,’’ Julie said.

‘‘We got busier and busier, women were start­ing to work more and go on cour­ses as well as do­ing hob­bies away from home and needed some­where safe for their chil­dren.

‘‘The teach­ers were all won­der­ful and we ended up with a lot of sup­port from peo­ple and busi­nesses in town,’’ she said.

The Wes­ley Cen­tre on Henry St was home to the third day­care cen­tre be­fore it moved to its final home on Hospi­tal Rd and be­came the Up­town Com­mu­nity Creche.

A labour of love for Shirley and her fam­ily, hus­band Ron helped gut and then re­fur­bish the cen­tre. He also built a sand pit and hand­crafted out­door fur­ni­ture.

Lis­ten­ing to Shirley from across the room, he chor­tles from time to time, ob­vi­ously proud of his wife and her achieve­ments. ‘‘It was the most amaz­ing pe­riod in my life,’’ she said. ‘‘I wouldn’t change a thing to be hon­est.’’

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