Steve – ‘A Life Worth Saving’ by Julia Hall 2024

(Dame Stephanie, Germany – 85 x 85cm)

Dame Stephanie Shirley CH (otherwise known as Steve) arrived on a Kindertransport train from Vienna on 6 July 1939, aged 5 with her older sister. She remembers the noise of women wailing on the platform in Vienna, and the silence of the arrival at Liverpool Street station. Her doll was mislaid in the chaos, which became symbolic of everything else she had lost, and she wept all the way in the car to her new home. She spoke no English apart from a couple of sentences her father had taught her, including ‘slow combustion stove’! Surprised by the English putting milk in their tea, fish paste sandwiches and how cold it was with no central heating, her primary emotions were trauma and exhaustion. It took six months to feel settled, once she started school and started speaking English properly. Hitler allowed the children’s belongings to be sent on, and her mother had bought clothes for her to grow into – she particularly remembers a hated green tweed coat with a grey fur collar. Although both her parents survived the war, she never bonded with them properly again. She says of her wonderful foster parents: “I’m their child in all but birth”. At the age of 10, Dame Stephanie took a solemn vow never to return to German soil, but in the end she had to if she wanted any kind of relationship with her father. Hitler had taken her German nationality away, all the children arrived stateless in the UK. After Brexit she did consider getting her German passport again, but decided not to as it felt disloyal to Britain.

Dame Stephanie says she thinks of herself as a refugee, she has the scars from the pain. She went through years of depression and therapy as an adult, but has come to see her start in life as a positive. She believes the cure for depression is compassion. Her childhood experiences have moulded her whole life – because she came through that change, nothing else threw her. Now she likes change, she likes to make new things happen.

In 1962 Dame Stephanie started a software business from her dining table, which initially employed almost entirely other women working from home – highly unusual at that time, especially in the technology sector. She adopted the name ‘Steve’ to help her in the male-dominated business world. The company grew to 8,500 people, and was ultimately valued at almost $3 billion. When she first arrived in the Midlands, Dame Stephanie’s new neighbours kept saying “aren’t you a lucky little girl to be saved”. It gave her terrible survivor’s guilt which took a long time to get over, but it did make her realise that she needed to make hers a life worth saving. Motivated to share the rewards of her success with a society that had extended such generosity to her as a child, she decided to give away her wealth. The Shirley Foundation was set up in 1986, and has so far given away more than £70 million to charity. At the age of 90, Dame Stephanie told me: “I love this country with a passion”.

SKU JU/HA010 Artist

Additional information

Dimensions 85 × 85 cm


1 in stock

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