It’s International Women’s Day and to celebrate I’d like to share the story of unsung hero and fantastically great woman, Peggy Larson.
After the publication of Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the world last year the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury, ran a competition for readers to nominate a fantastically great woman who changed their world – with me creating an illustration of the winning woman. The stories people generously shared were warm, funny, inspiring, full of bravery, determination and tear jerking (or rather, full on sobbing-at-the-desk inducing) moments.
Picking a winner was incredibly difficult but there was one woman’s extraordinary life story that was so vivid I had to illustrate her – the story of Peggy Larson. Wife, mother, grandmother, globe traveller, entrepreneur and fierce defender of those she loved. Also described as a “slightly terrifying red-head with a sharp sense of humour and movie-star poise”.
With so many amazing moments in Peggy’s life that her granddaughter Claire kindly shared with us I could have illustrated an entire book about her. One of the most remarkable parts was Peggy’s love for her husband, Thor Larson (a 6ft tall, dashingly handsome New Zealander and Air Force member) and the lengths she went to during World War Two to find news of him after receiving a ‘missing presumed dead’ telegram in 1940. This was the moment from Peggy’s life I chose to illustrate.
“Peggy refused to sit and wait for news when she heard her husband was missing. She hounded her local MP and when that appeared fruitless, she commuted down to London by train, sleeping on wooden benches never knowing when a train would arrive. She repeatedly sought help from the Red Cross in London as well as visiting the House of Commons to speak to her MP personally.
She was contacted by a woman in the South of England who believed she had heard … that Thor was alive, but it was a long time until she had confirmation.
Thor survived the bombing and made his way through Germany to France (following some starvation, some sickness and being hidden by a kind German couple), joining the groups of survivors heading for the coast. There were American soldiers he spoke to, strolling down the road. When he was past them, they called back to him: “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of a chap called Thor Larson? We’ve been told to look out for him?” – Peggy Larson’s searches had made it to France (all that from a working-class girl, taken out of school at 13)!”
Peggy and Thor went on to live with his family for a time in New Zealand, later returning to the UK. They had three children (tragically Peggy lost one child after a long illness aged 8), adopted a baby, at times held the family together on a shoestring and founded the extremely successful company, Linpac. Peggy turned 97 last year and although she now suffers from dementia her amazing life story has been told through her family and I’m sure will be shared with many more generations to come.
“Peggy is synonymous with ham hock soup, rhubarb and ginger jam, Scottish dumpling on birthdays, a fierce determination and red lipstick to match. She fought for everything and took pride in everything she had. She remains an inspiration.”
What I loved about Peggy’s story is how much greatness is in the everyday. She is a hero to her family and there are many other unsung heroes who, like Peggy, have poured their hearts into holding families together, raising the next generation and generally keeping the world turning.
Unsung great women of the world, this International Women’s Day, I salute you! (I’ll refrain from launching into a Beyoncé song now.)