Rose Thirkettle, now 80, still runs her photographic shop in South Street, Axminster. Rose tells her story:
‘I was born near Westminster Cathedral in London in 1925, fifth in a family of eight. Educated by nuns, I was confirmed by a cardinal! My mother left home when I was ten and I never saw her again. We went to live near my grandmother in Harrow. I left school at 14, and looked after my father and my two little sisters until I was 18. Then I applied for war-work in a factory. We made enormous blinds for aircraft cameras and that’s where I met my husband Alec, a widower. When we married in 1948 I inherited three lovely stepsons; then we had our daughter Sue.
After the war we rented premises in London’s Soho Square, because Alec’s main job was making and repairing cameras. He used to do work for hospitals and the police and was really well known in the trade. We came down to the West Country to be near our family. We hadn’t been here long before the word got around that there was a camera repairer in the district, and people were knocking on the door.
It got too much doing it all in the spare room, so when the cottage became available in South Street in 1968, we jumped at it. It was mainly somewhere for Alec to repair cameras and binoculars, but then people started asking for films and so on, so we opened the shop. He was really good at binoculars; we used to have a collimator to make sure they were adjusted accurately. When Alec died in 1975, aged 70, he’d been working with cameras for 55 years. He was unique round here. Even in London it was like a doctor’s waiting room: they used to sit and wait to see him.
When Alec died I couldn’t just sit around at home, so gradually I taught myself to run the shop. People were very helpful and now I do everything, except the VAT returns and accounts.
I’ve been around cameras since I was 18 and I can load a Leica which a lot of people can’t. Unlike other cameras, you load it from the bottom. I like meeting people, and I go out of my way to help.
At 80, I’m pretty sure I’m the oldest lady in the camera trade in the country; probably unique. My second partner, Gordon, was a wedding photographer, and a marvellous salesman in the shop. Sadly, Gordon died six years ago. I’m still running the shop by myself – it’s what I know, so here I am.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to go into the business now, as so many small photographic shops have gone to the wall. With the onset of digital photography, the big chains have almost washed their hands of black and white film and chemicals. People come here from as far away as Salisbury for specialist materials and I think film-based photography will run alongside digital for quite some time. I don’t think you can beat film when it comes to picture quality. You’re just pointing and shooting with a digital camera – you’re not learning photography. It’s not cheap either.
I’m very lucky to have reached 80 and still be working. What’s my secret? Getting up early, I think; getting into a routine. I get up at half past six, do some exercises and am in the shop by quarter past eight. Axminster is a lovely place to live and work, and I’ve got two wonderful grandaughters, Kim and Natalie. I don’t get a lot of spare time, but last year I gained a long service medal for singing in the Operatic Society for 35 years. I can’t imagine ever retiring.’ PJ