A charity founded in the great Victorian age of philanthropy has a new beginning, and is building on the work of a woman who devoted her life to it. Andrew Vine reports.
MAVIS Holey was only supposed to work for eight hours a week helping elderly people fallen on hard times. Instead, she gave every waking hour to them for 43 years.
For all that time, she befriended and brought aid as the quaintly-titled Lady Visitor of a charity set up in the 19th century to help distressed tradesmen, only retiring at the age of 81 when she was older than several of those she was visiting. The charity to which she was devoted, Leeds Tradesmen’s Trust, not only lives on, but stands at the brink of a new beginning that will see it helping more pensioners – and in doing so, fulfilling the wishes of the wealthy tea merchant who established it in 1843 to save the needy from the workhouse.
The trust has merged with Leeds Community Foundation, which brings together organisations to encourage philanthropy. The foundation has taken over its administration and is now looking to pay out more pensions about £500 a year from the trust’s coffers. And that’s welcomed by Mrs Holey, 83, who when she became Lady Visitor in 1967 found a charity largely unchanged since it was founded by Thomas Sydney as the Leeds Tradesmen’s Benevolent Institution with a donation of 500 guineas.
Elderly people shaking with nerves would still have to go before a committee of trustees to make their case, as they had in Sydney’s time. If successful, they were granted a pension of £1 a week. In the 21st century, such a sum sounds absurdly small, but this was still an era before the widespread expansion of benefits. Apart from their state pensions, the applicants often had little or nothing, and that £52 a year – paid quarterly - was a boon.
The trustees of the institution – its name was changed to Leeds Tradesmen’s Trust in 1978 – acted in the same patrician spirit as Sydney, a model Victorian philanthropist. His firm supplied tea – with his capital letters – to “the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry and families resident in Leeds and the Northern Counties”, and his prominence in business brought him the post of overseer of one of the city’s workhouses.
There he found tradesmen fallen on hard times, which prompted him to found his charity with the aim of paying 150 pensions. The number paid out fluctuated over the years, with the highest – 126 – coming in 1938. Today, there are 32. The number was back above 100 when the institution decided it needed a new Lady Visitor. Mrs Holey, a former district nurse, went for interview and found that her Christian faith chimed with the very upright committee.
“There were six of us, and I was the only one who didn’t have an ‘ology’,” said Mrs Holey. “I said, ‘Why have you chosen me? They said, ‘Because you’re the only one that dare say to us that you believe in taking your problems to the Lord’.”
Mrs Holey was only paid to work for eight hours a week, but devoted all her time to the pensioners, for years refusing any wage increase and insisting that all available funds should go to the old people. They needed them. The poverty she found was grim – tradesmen who had worked hard all their lives, but never made enough to provide properly for retirement and were left scraping by on very little in dilapidated homes. She also found a sense of shame, particularly amongst pensioners who had allowed their customers to run up bills they could not pay.
“They didn’t like to talk about it, because to them it was disgraceful,” said Mrs Holey. “I used to say, ‘It’s not you, it’s people who have taken advantage of your good nature, and you should not feel guilty’.”
Besides the £1 a week, the pensioners were given a television licence costing £4 a year, and a reconditioned TV if they did not have one. At Christmas, those with open fires received four dozen briquettes of compressed coal dust. There was also a visit from a trustee who would grant a request for a modest and practical gift – a cardigan, nightdress, bedding or saucepans.
“It was very Victorian, very old-fashioned, but very, very sincere,” said Mrs Holey. As the decades passed, Mrs Holey grew close to her pensioners, travelling around Leeds by bus to visit them. She turned out late at night to sit at the bedsides of the dying, organised funerals and cleared their homes.
“Those people were my friends,” she said. “They were mothers and my aunties and my uncles.”
Mrs Holey went out of her way to help. A woman approaching her 100th birthday asked for a signed photograph of Margaret Thatcher, because the pensioner had been a suffragette in her youth and admired Britain’s first female prime minister. Mrs Holey wrote to Downing Street, and the Iron Lady duly obliged. The former suffragette was so delighted that when she died in hospital a year later, she had the photograph in her hand.
Eventually, her own frailty caught up with Mrs Holey. “It broke my heart, but I couldn’t carry on,” she said. “It was the best day’s work I ever did, going for that job. I loved every minute of it.”
Time was also catching up with the trust, which was having trouble finding pensioners who came within its remit of having run their own business for at least five years. It found an ideal partner to help it look to the future in Leeds Community Foundation, also a charity.
Former trust chairman Sandra Moss – still a member of an advisory group working with the foundation – said: “In a sense it’s amazing that it’s lasted for 170 years and it’s still needed, which is tragic, and it’s still fulfilling the same criteria even though there are state pensions and people get benefits.”
The chief executive of Leeds Community Foundation, Sally-Anne Greenfield, said: “They have got more money to give out than they have beneficiaries, and we’ve got really good links with old people’s groups in the city, so it’s easier for us to refresh the applicants in a controlled way.”
Leeds Tradesmen’s Trust is one of several long-established charities the foundation has taken under its wing. Their original intentions have been overtaken by time, but by adapting them in the spirit of the founders, they continue to do good work. Several trusts set up to buy books for libraries that no longer exist now provide educational funds, and another with a mission to send people born in the south of Leeds to study chemistry at Oxford University has become a bursary scheme.
Mrs Holey knows that there remains a need for charitable help for the poor, but some attitudes towards benefits that have grown up since she started her journey bother her. “There are some very, very poor people today, and my heart aches for them, but there are a lot of people who just say, ‘I’m entitled’, and that’s what ruined this country.
“When I think of my pensioners, it was £1 per week and it was the world to them. One lady in particular used to save up half-a-crown a week, so at Christmas time she’d have a little bit just to buy her family a tiny gift.”