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.’’