I think I was a bit of an odd teenager, desperately trying to conform. I do believe character is moulded very early in life. I was an unaccompanied [Kindertransport] child refugee [sent from Germany to live in England in 1939] and that left me with a very odd childhood. I was ﬁ ve years old when I arrived. I was lucky because I was clutching the hand of my nine-year-old sister, poor thing, who had the responsibility to me as well. We had a new nationality, new food, new language, new parents. It was traumatic and it took me many years to get over that trauma. Literally, six years of analysis at a very good clinic. Because it really mucks your life up.
I remember someone saying to me, aren’t you lucky to be saved. Which is not a healthy thing to say to a child. It left me with this strong feeling that I had to make something of my life, that I had to make sure the life that was saved was worth saving. Already in my teens I was beginning to get that serious intention that I mustn’t fritter the day away. What was I going to do that day to make it worthwhile, how could I make it better than the day before? That feeling has stayed with me all my life, right up until today.
I think in my teens I was already starting to be charitable. I remember doing things to support a little animal charity. I was aware that so many strangers have given to me that I had to give back. I’ve done that all my life, whether it’s advice or contacts or money. I didn’t have much money until recently but those childhood motivators have never changed. Obviously I can get frivolous about clothes and things like that but I do know the spiritual side of life, the non-material things – the art, the literature, the friendship, the love – these are so important to me. I have tried to live a spiritual life. I don’t think I would have been very happy if I hadn’t given much of my money away [around £70m of her personal wealth]. I could have had a lot of great paintings on the wall and a very nice wardrobe. But my husband wouldn’t like that, and I don’t think I’d have liked it either.
I had a lovely relationship with my foster parents. I am their child in all but birth. I had all their values. We were lucky in that both of my [biological] parents survived and we were reunited. I lived with my mother again for some years. But we never really bonded again. I was enormously proud, particularly of my father, who was a brilliant man. But I never really knew him as a person.
The culture when I started working was that women were not expected to do serious things
I went to a Roman Catholic primary school. The nuns were lay teachers, and the values they gave me were terriﬁ c. But they were suffi ciently professional enough to say to my parents after a couple of years, look, your child is gifted in mathematics. We cannot teach her, she’ll have to go somewhere else. So I got a scholarship and went to a very good grammar school. And I thrived there. It was intellectually challenging, I loved it. I would have loved to go to university but again, that wasn’t really possible. We were poor and I needed to start making money. When I was a teenager I was going to be the world’s greatest mathematician. I was going to work in an academic environment and ﬁnd out new theorems and theories. I did actually start work after school as a mathematical clerk, but I soon realised I didn’t have it in me to do that sort of work. I was lucky that the computer industry came along and I really was able to contribute. I decided almost overnight, it’s not maths, I’m going to work in computing.
When I started my company [Freelance Programmers] I was writing letters to promote it, telling people what we did. And I got no replies whatsoever. So my husband suggested I use the family name of Steve rather than the double feminine of Stephanie Shirley. And I began to get some replies and interviews and eventually things took off .
- The People’s Republic of China is founded
- South Pacific opens up on Broadway
- After 12 years as World Heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis retires
The culture when I started working was that women were not expected to do serious things. All the emphasis was on home and family responsibility. We weren’t allowed to work in the stock exchange, we weren’t allowed to ﬂ y an aeroplane. There was legislation to stop women working at night. As time went on I began to get really quite aggressive about it. Starting my company was part of a woman’s crusade. Every survey we did told us women workers wanted flexibility and family- friendly work. So that’s what I did. We all worked from home. We worked as a team. We helped each other out. I knew whose child had measles, whose marriage was in trouble. It was like a family company and it stayed like that for many, many years until there were thousands of us. We had proﬁ t sharing, and eventually, when the company went public, 70 of the workers became millionaires.
My son [Giles] was autistic. I think now I’d tell my younger self to talk to other people more about the problems I had. Most of my colleagues didn’t even know I had an autistic child. He was extremely di ffi cult. He needed a lot of help. My sister came and lived with us with her daughter. Those were very tough times. For a long time I felt very much, why me? Am I not ﬁ t to have a healthy child? And it took two years for me to think, well, why not me? I’m able to ﬁght for him. And so I did, and he did ‘well’ as the expression goes. He died 20 years ago [after an epileptic seizure when he was 35]. I was very sad and I could hardly work. Sadly, my husband wasn’t good at talking. Our son’s name is hardly mentioned. Still. The death of a child is unbelievably painful. My husband just has not recovered. I think I have. I work for autism charities now and that pervades every part of my life. That’s just my way of coping.
Imagine telling my younger self not only that one day I’d write a memoir of my own life but that it would be made into a ﬁlm! I only hope I live long enough to see that ﬁlm. We’ve just got a screenwriter and a producer – Joe Oppenheimer from the BBC. It’s going to be good. Who would I choose to play me? Well, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but they’re talking about Emma Thompson! She’s wonderful isn’t she? I know if she was in it then it would be really, really good.
I’m very comfortable in my old age. But if I could go back to any time in my life it would be early married life with a baby. I just could not believe how lucky I was. My marriage was a love match. We’d found a lovely little cottage in Buckinghamshire and I was doing it up. I was starting my company. I had this lovely placid little baby. It was perfect.
Let It Go: The Memoirs of Dame Stephanie Shirley is out now (Acorn Books, £8.99) steveshirley.com
Image: Dame Stephanie Shirley at London School of Economics