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Older Women Of Whitechapel

March 22, 2024
by the gentle author


Join me on Easter Monday, April 1st, for THE GENTLE AUTHOR’S TOUR OF THE CITY OF LONDON. Meet me on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral at 2pm. We will walk eastward together through the Square Mile to explore the wonders and the wickedness of the City. Photo courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute





Photographing daily on the streets of Spitalfields and Whitechapel for thirty years, Phil Maxwell took hundreds of pictures of older women – of which I publish a selection of favourites here today. Some of these photos were taken over thirty years ago now and a couple were taken 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 women 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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Wendy permalink
    March 22, 2024

    They certainly have a look of ‘no nonsense’ about these ladies. They look fabulous though I’m glad the fag hanging out of the mouth fashion has died off these days. I wonder how old they are at the time of their photo.

  2. March 22, 2024

    Wonderful! I have great respect for these women who have worked hard all their lives and achieved a lot. The special thing about them is that THEY are the ones who have a clear view of many essential things in life!

    They remind me of my mum, who died at the age of 84.

    Love & Peace

  3. March 22, 2024

    A wonderful series. Some of the most remarkable FACES I’ve ever seen. Enduring, tenacious,
    bleary-eyed, world-weary, tender-hearted, savvy and oh-so-wise. “Living in the Layers” indeed.
    (a favorite poem about aging by Stanley Kunitz)

    In the past couple of weeks, there has been a lot written about the role of older women, in the wake of the passing of fashion icon Iris Apfel. She died at 102, after becoming “a thing” (influencer)
    in her 80s. She refused to be invisible, and described herself as an “accidental celebrity”. I am not comparing her directly with these ladies — however, the larger discussion is how women in general are often marginalized once their beauty fades. Their value, their contribution, their gravitas, their life lessons, etc. — All these assets are over-looked once they no longer are “decorative”.

    These photos (and the comments by the photographer) uplifted the value of older women;
    most appreciated, especially since I am a “senior” woman myself.

  4. Susan permalink
    March 22, 2024

    I am 74 years old. The thing I appreciate about these women is that there is no obligation to be forever youthful, forever slim, forever beautiful (in the traditional sense). They are who they are. If you had walked around the city where I live in North America even 40 years ago (let alone today), people would have looked on you with pity.

    To be honest, I’ve always loved the photos of older women you’ve shared – especially the rollicking groups of older women on bus tours, or in pubs.

  5. Cherub permalink
    March 22, 2024

    They look to have had hard lives touched by poverty, but I bet they were all strong characters because of it.

  6. Catherine permalink
    March 22, 2024

    How fascinating it would be to sit down with some of these women and hear their stories! I love seeing older women with their shopping trolleys, perhaps because I have one (and am one) too.

  7. Susan Levinson permalink
    March 23, 2024

    I would love to have a book of Phil Maxwell’s photos.

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