Feature: Why Sheffield Dunkirk veteran Robert decided in his 70s to become Louise

Louise Jennings with a photo of herself as a young sergeant named Robert.
Louise Jennings with a photo of herself as a young sergeant named Robert.
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One of the most famous events of the Second World War will come to Sheffield cinemas this week with the release of Dunkirk.

The film will undoubtedly stir up memories for one Sheffield veteran, who can still remember the chaos of the beach evacuation in France.

Robert, back left, with brother John, father Arthur and mother Ellen.

Robert, back left, with brother John, father Arthur and mother Ellen.

Back in 1940, Dunkirk was a key moment in the life of young Robert Jennings, then just 21.

But 72 years on it has arguably been overshadowed by several significant life events for the woman now known as Louise Jennings.

The 98-year-old, originally from Heeley, lived as a man for the first 70 years of her life, and was happily married to wartime sweetheart Edith for more than four decades.

But Robert always knew something wasn't quite right inside, and after Edith sadly died of cancer in 1989, he decided to act on feelings he had kept secret for years.

Robert (middle name Louis) in middle age.

Robert (middle name Louis) in middle age.

Robert underwent full gender reassignment surgery and adapted his middle name, Louis, to become Louise.

Even without the psychological effects of such a change, a major operation is a big risk for anyone in their 70s. But Louise had no hesitation once her mind was made up.

"I have always regarded women as superior," said Louise with a smile on her face. "As a man I considered myself inferior to women.

"I took the decision not long after Edith died - I don't think I spent a long time thinking about it.

Louise at home in Beauchief.

Louise at home in Beauchief.

"I rather felt that I was wrong anyway."

Louise's personality - both inward and out - has been influenced and encouraged by her talent as an artist, working with paint and sculpture in a range of styles. Her home is full of sketches and models for bigger pieces, and many of the originals are on display around the city.

Among that number is a painting of Dunkirk, which hangs in the Graves Gallery. The piece captures the sheer mass of people on the French coast, with the boats in the water lit up by gunfire in the sky.

The memory of the evacuation is still clear for Louise, who had only arrived in France shortly before it took place. Despite being called up to the Army in 1939 aged 20, she was part of the intelligence team in the Durham Light Infantry 10th Battalion and had spent the bulk of the war up to that point helping frontline troops from a base at Walworth Castle near Darlington.

Louise's painting of Beauchief Abbey.

Louise's painting of Beauchief Abbey.

"When we got to France we were lined up and started to walk inland," she said.

"But when we got a few miles from the see, it was 'halt - turn about and march back'. We had to get back to Dunkirk.

"I was extremely tired and extremely hungry."

She added: "God knows what we were doing there."

At the coast they joined thousands of men waiting for boats in the water.

Louise remembers collapsing in exhaustion against a huge concrete boulder that had once been part of the harbour wall, before having to row out to a British destroyer warship that was waiting to pick up the troops.

"There was no use being scared," she said.

"I was very lucky - I could have been involved in all sorts of things, but I wasn't."

In case they were in any doubt which nation had rescued them, the soldiers were greeted with cups of tea and were safely ferried back to Hastings, after which the 10th Battalion were sent back to Walworth Castle until the end of the war.

By that point the young Robert Jennings had met and married Edith, who came from a small village just outside Darlington. The Army ran dances there, at which Robert and two others played music.

Robert and Edith met on a Saturday morning while waiting for a bus into town. Love quickly blossomed and they and became man and wife in a small ceremony in 1940.

After the war the couple moved to Sheffield and soon bought a plot of land in Beauchief for £700.

Edith worked for a solicitors firm and Robert worked with concrete. But his passion for the arts soon came to the fore, and he eventually turned it into a career, exhibition as far afield as San Francisco.

"Art has been very important for me," said Louise.

"Living within sight of Beauchief Abbey has proved a tremendous influence."

Louise has fond memories of her marriage, describing Edith as 'a very sweet person indeed'.

And Edith will be remembered for many years to come thanks to a memorial painting based on the biblical story of Jairus' daughter, where Jesus heals a girl thought to be dead.

The 9ft by 4ft piece hung in Weston Park Hospital chapel, where Edith was treated, before being given to the Our Lady Mother of God Church in Abbeydale Road.

The couple had no children, but Louise has always been religious and still finds time to give readings at Beauchief Abbey, where she is supported by the congregation.

And although it was after Edith's death that she took the decision to become a woman, Louise is hopeful her late wife would have some understanding.

"Edith knew that whatever I did, it would be honest," she said.