We often talk about who influences target audiences when we plan campaigns. As PR and PA professionals we then turn our focus on media and political channels, but we never forget that friends and family are the most important and trusted source of inspiration for most of us.

To mark #IWD2018 and the hundred years since (some) women got the vote, we are sharing some stories about those who experienced first-hand the changes since and helped shape our views of the world. Debutants, pilots, race-car drivers, chemists, teachers, wives and mothers, we feel we have a lot to learn and live up to still from our grandmothers. Happy International Women’s Day and happy reading…


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Isabelle Napier (nee Surtees)

Born in 1906, my grandmother was a remarkable woman who lived a long and fascinating life. She left home at 18 to travel the world, ending up in South America. On returning to England she entered the swirl of the 1920’s debutant party life eventually meeting my grandfather and marrying him in 1930. She also found time to become one of the UK's first women qualified pilots paving the way for women to join the Air Transport Auxillary.

Following the birth of my father and uncle, at the outbreak of WW2 she got involved with the Polish military forces based in Britain. She served as the Vice President of Poland’s Armed Forces Comforts Fund undertaking roles as a canteen organiser, wholesale supply administrator and from 1944 onwards running a rehabilitation centre for wounded Polish servicemen. After the war, she continued her links to the Polish army and in 1945 presented new colours to the 1st Polish Anti-tank regiment. In 1989, to mark her services to Poland she was decorated by the Polish Ambassador in London.

In her spare time, she loved fishing and golf and is featured on the honours board at the Berkshire Golf Club a number of times. She died aged 99 and would have been very miffed not to have got to 100 and receive her telegram from the Queen.


Paddy Pine

Paddy Pine (nee Trant)

Born in Devon in 1914, my grandmother was a curious book-worm and who believed deeply in service to others and her community. With long red hair, she was beautiful apart for one eye which “refused to look in the right direction”. Many operations during her childhood taught her to bear pain bravely and to love roman history. She wasn’t allowed into the grammar school in Kingsbridge because they only took boys, but did get enough of an education to be accepted to University College Exeter, completing her a teaching qualification in 1933. Whilst teaching in Birmingham, she met a handsome Welshman William ‘Bill’ Pine from the valleys, who had previously worked in the coal industry but left during the depression and ran the local YMCA.

Married in 1940 just before his call up papers arrived, she gave up teaching to be near where Bill was posted in Chester with the Royal Artillery and they had four children in eight years. When he was demobbed the family moved back to Devon, so Bill could work in the flour mill and Paddy returned to teaching to supplement their income when her youngest son Anthony was big enough to sit on the back of the bike for the precarious ride across town down the hill to the school. Reflecting the liberal-minded tolerance and internationalism of her local and Methodist community, the family hosted many of their german cousins in the immediate aftermath of the war to promote reconciliation.

Widowed in 1961, she embarked on a new adventure, moving across the country to Cambridge, becoming an assistant librarian at the University and teaching herself Russian in order to file some of the foreign periodicals.  She read and cycled almost every day, sometimes up to 150 miles a day well into her 80s and did 200 lengths in the local pool once a week. Always open minded, her compassion for and interest in all people and her ability to set aside judgement or complaint continue to inspire me today.


Pamela Heijbroek (nee Harding, formerly Howard)

Born in 1917, my grandmother started her life in the midst of war. At the age of 22, on the outbreak of WWII, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, tasked with the maintenance of radar systems. During this time, she met and fell in love with a young paratrooper, John Howard. After a whirlwind romance they married, but John was soon called out to participate in Operation Market Garden, an airborne operation attempting to liberate occupied Holland. When dropped over Holland, John found himself separated from his fellow soldiers and took refuge in a nearby Dutch house.

As this was German territory, the family took him in, hiding him in the basement alongside two other soldiers they had found. Unfortunately, German forces took over the house, leaving the Dutch family and soldiers hiding in the basement. This situation was volatile and after months of hiding, the Englishmen found their chance to escape. With the help of the eldest son, they left one night to cross the Rhine. Tragically, one of the soldiers couldn’t swim, and John, attempting to help his fellow countryman died trying to help him cross the river. A year later, in 1945 my grandmother received a letter from Holland, explaining the fate of her husband, with an invitation to visit the house where he’d spent his last months. She accepted and travelled to Arnhem, where she met the letter writer, and eldest son, Henri. It was love at first sight, and just 5 months later, they married.

Optimism, hope and strength through adversity were my grandmother’s great traits, as a working woman in the WAAF and in her personal life. Without such strength of character, she would have never taken the journey that changed her life.


Irene Morley (nee Stock)

My grandmother was a fan of chemistry and unfortunately for her, the school she went to only taught the subject to boys. Her mother took it upon herself and complained to the school and campaigned for the subject to be opened up to girls as well. Fortunately, (after a number of strongly-worded letters!) her mother was successful and my grandmother was able to pursue her scientific studies, a huge triumph for her in the early 30s. This opportunity meant she was able to pursue a chemistry degree from Aberystwyth University – almost certainly a rarity in her time!

A short while later and, no doubt after connecting over their love of science, my grandmother married and had to give up her chemistry career. Her priorities went from labs and periodic tables to looking after and caring for eight children! As money tightened and mouths needed to be fed, my grandmother had to go back to work (much to the displeasure of my grandfather), and this time she trained to be a teacher. She was one of the first people to take part in the on the job training scheme at the time, and was given the opportunity to talk about it on the national radio! Despite not always being able to pursue her own career ambitions, my grandmother was always there to encourage and support my mum in her career.


Mary Otoole

Mary O’Toole (nee Frost), 1919- 2014

Born in Wolverhampton in 1919, my grandmother led a sheltered, relatively privileged childhood as the baby of the family. She went to boarding school in North Wales and endured “character building’ swims in the sea. Her father would not allow her to go out and get a job when she left school, because he said she would be “taking work from someone who needed it more.” She was twenty when WW2 broke out and joined the Staffordshire 96th Detachment of the British Red Cross, experienced eye-opening culture shock when tending to wounded soldiers and making friends for life amongst her fellow nurses.

Mary fell for John (a fellow member of the Lawn Tennis and Squash Club) in the early 1940’s. Her father thought him “a bit wild” because he worked in the coal industry, but she got her own way and they were married in 1942 and went on to have four daughters.  She never worked, save for her roles as hostess, entertaining her husband’s business associates, and mother, teaching her daughters to cook, sew, swim and ride. She encouraged them to go to secretarial college so they could have “a bit of a job” before getting married, a piece of advice they universally ignored. Never actively political, she always voted because she firmly believed it was her civic duty.


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Jean MacMillan (1930-2010)

At the age of 19, my grandmother built her own car and went on to race and rally cars, which was quite unusual for the time. She married Paul Vasey after he lost a bet with her that she would not be able to beat him in a race. Men and women weren't allowed to race each other at the time, so to beat him she raced in her male friend's car and came out on top. She only stopped racing when she had her third of four children.

She always, always voted and did the 'telling' at the Village Hall for the Conservative Party from 7am-10pm on polling day. She said, often, that it was the best way of making sure she caught up with everyone in the village. She also kept a record of every dish she prepared for every dinner party, to make sure she never served the her guests the same thing twice. I love the balance she held between being a race car driver and the perfect host, it reminds me that you shouldn't make assumptions about people based on only one thing you know about them. 


Phyllis Sharpe (nee Mossman)

My grandmother was born in Cornwall on the 17th February 1934. Upon growing up in the Second World War, her school in Bude was home to a number of evacuees who had been forced to move as a result of the conflict. Phyllis then went on to work as a midwife and a nurse in Bristol in the 1950s, often riding a bike to arrive at different locations to help women in labour. Phyllis went on to have three daughters with her husband Ronald, becoming a full time Mum and housewife. Additionally, Phyllis would help Ronald who had become a doctor when on call with answering the phone and other tasks and also travelled across the globe to assist him with his work including spending some time in the Caribbean.

There are many traits which I admire about my grandmother. Her ability to accommodate and host, to ensure all people she met and visited the house were always made to feel welcome and her desire to help in all situations are just some of these traits. But above all, what I admire most is the fun and joyful atmosphere that my Grandmother and Grandfather have always gone out of their way to create.  For all these reasons, my grandmother will always serve as an inspirational figure to me.


Angela Harris (nee Withers)

My grandmother was born in the early 1930s and grew up in Wolverhampton, until was evacuated during World War II. My Grandpa worked abroad for British Airways, and after they were married she had to constantly move with him for his job. From Trinidad to Senegal, Bogota to the United States, there's hardly a corner of the world that she hasn't lived in.

She's a fantastic painter, wonderful mother and grandmother, a master of macaroni cheese and a devoted Christian. What inspires me most about her is her ability to encompass a full range of characteristics, from quiet and caring to devastatingly witty, and switch between them in a matter of seconds.

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