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The Magnificent Old Ladies Of Whitechapel

February 3, 2020
by the gentle author

Photographing daily on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel for the last thirty years, Phil Maxwell has taken hundreds of pictures of old ladies – of which I publish a selection of favourites here today. Some of these photos of old ladies were taken over twenty-five years ago and a couple were taken quite recently, revealing both the continuity of their presence and the extraordinary tenacity for life demonstrated by these proud specimens of the female sex in the East End. Endlessly these old ladies trudge the streets with trolleys and bags, going about their business in all weathers, demonstrating an indomitable spirit as the world changes around them, and becoming beloved sentinels of the territory.

“As a street photographer, you cannot help but take photos of these ladies.” Phil admitted, speaking with heartfelt tenderness for his subjects, “In a strange kind of way, they embody the spirit of the street because they’ve been treading the same paths for decades and seen all the changes. They have an integrity that a youth or a skateboarder can’t have, which comes from their wealth of experience and, living longer than men, they become the guardians of the life of the street.”

“Some are so old that you have an immediate respect for them. These are women who have worked very hard all their lives and you can see it etched on their faces, but what some would dismiss as the marks of old age I would describe as the beauty of old age. The more lines they have, the more beautiful they are to me. You can just see that so many stories and secrets are contained by those well-worn features.”

“I remember my darkroom days with great affection, because there was nothing like the face of an old lady emerging from the negative in the darkroom developer – it was as if they were talking to me as their faces began to appear. There is a magnificence to them.”

Photographs copyright © Phil Maxwell

See more of Phil Maxwell’s work here

Phil Maxwell on the Tube

Phil Maxwell & Sandra Esqulant, Photographer & Muse

Phil Maxwell’s Brick Lane

The Cat Lady of Spitalfields

Phil Maxwell, Photographer

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Lorraine permalink
    February 3, 2020

    Amazing photos…every picture tells a story

  2. February 3, 2020

    (is anyone else thinking about “The Triplets of Belleville” right now…….?)
    I predict that hanging in the hallway of each elderly lady is a vintage photo; revealing her beautiful,
    glowing, earlier self. That beauty is still there, latent, ready to be reawakened.
    Thanks for this stirring series.
    Let’s hear it for the ladies!

  3. February 3, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for featuring Phil Maxwell’s gallery of old women “going about their business in all weathers, demonstrating an indomitable spirit as the world changes around them, and becoming beloved sentinels of the territory.”

    My own dear mother had such a shopping cart a mid century. Memories…

  4. Jo N permalink
    February 3, 2020

    Proper coats.

  5. February 4, 2020

    In the 1980’s we were fortunate to visit the UK. The very first week we were there we decided to visit the Porotbello Market and various other markets, seeing and meeting so many people was amazing. Looking at these photos brought back so many happy memories.Each and every photo tells a story of love, hardship and life. When we arrived in London and I stepped off the plane I looked at my husband and said “I feel as if I have come home”. I have never felt this way about the country or its people where I stay. Who knows perhaps its because my great grandparents were from the UK.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 4, 2020

    I agree with Phil Maxwell that the more wrinkles, the more interesting is the face and I bet all these old ladies have amazing stories to tell.

    Great photos which give another good opportunity to play guess the name game. I’m thinking Queenie, Hilda, Peggy, Pat, Joan, Ruth and Zena… with the odd Jean, Liz and Barbara. Sylvia? Marjorie? Vera? Beryl??

  7. February 4, 2020

    Old and Slow, but still making it through. Great Pictures!??????

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 4, 2020

    Not forgetting Phyllis of course – known as Phil..

  9. Carel Buxton permalink
    February 4, 2020

    I love these photos. I can see my Nan and my Mum in several of these women’s faces. They had hard lives in poverty and in struggle but remained committed to family and a better life for their children and grandchildren. Every face is authentic and beautiful. Thank you.

  10. February 10, 2020

    Wow! What characters…

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