When millionaire Emma found herself scrubbing pub floors in Dagenham

Emma Harrison swapped her country mansion for a week on a council estate and the experience changed her life. Chris Bond reports.

A COUNCIL estate in Dagenham is a far cry from the grandeur and beauty of Thornbridge Hall.

But for high-flying businesswoman Emma Harrison it was her home for 10 days while she took part in Channel 4's reality TV show, Secret Millionaire.

For those who haven't seen the programme, each week it involves different multi-millionaires ditching their wealthy lifestyles to go undercover and live in some of the UK's toughest areas.

These modern-day philanthropists then spend 10 days looking for people who they think deserve their help.

This culminates on the last day when they come clean about who they really are and hand out cheques to the unsuspecting recipients.

Although it might sound exploitative and patronising, it is one of the few programmes that gives credit to that ubiquitous phrase, "reality TV".

It is one of the reasons that Harrison swapped her Victorian mansion in the heart of the Peak District National Park, for a council house on the edge of east London.

Since appearing on Channel Four's Make Me a Million a few year back, she's had several offers to do reality shows but turned them all down, until she was approached to do Secret Millionaire.

"I was offered quite a lot of that celebrity-type stuff and it was just a bit cheesy, but as soon as I'd seen the pilot for this, I agreed, because I thought it was the most fantastic concept and it was quite gritty.

"I knew there would be claims of poverty tourism but I thought that's not a good enough reason for me to not go and do something to help other people.

"It was a chance for me to try to find some answers to the crap lives that some people lead," she says.

Harrison is sitting in the boardroom at Thornbridge Hall, the stunning 100-acre country estate bought five years ago for 5m, where she lives with her husband, Jim, and 18 friends and relatives.

It is, she says, more of a community than a commune and acts as both her home and headquarters of her training company A4e (Action for Employment), which finds new jobs for the unemployed.

The firm was set up 15 years ago to "improve people's lives" and employs more than 1,500 staff.

But Harrison, worth 55m according to the Sunday Times Rich List, wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

Brought up in Sheffield, she studied engineering at Bradford University and transformed her father's small business, retraining redundant steelworkers, with a combination of entrepreneurial skill and missionary zeal.

The mother-of-four is passionate about helping people, "I don't give them the fish, I give them the fishing rod," she says.

But her philanthropic nature was tested to its limit during her 10-day visit to Dagenham, hundreds of miles away from her family and friends.

Harrison, 42, was born in Essex and her cover story was that she was going back to find work. The only money she had was what she earned doing manual jobs in the town.

"I was on my own in the middle of the largest council estate in Europe and it did feel a bit scary. The house was freezing, the heating didn't work and the bathroom had ice on the inside of the windows.

"So at first, I thought, 'Oh my God,' but I went to the local shop and made a big vegetable soup and made myself at home and within a couple of days I was perfectly comfortable."

The next day she found herself scrubbing floors.

"I was a cleaner in a couple of very rough pubs and my main job was to clean the gents urinals. I don't think those toilets had been cleaned for years, but they have now because I did them."

Getting her hands dirty, she says, isn't a chore.

"I didn't come from a very posh family, I've worked all my life and I've always had to earn money."

With a TV crew following her around, the idea was she could identify people she might be able to help. But this was easier said than done.

"What I gathered pretty quickly was they had put me in the most racist area I had ever come across, it was absolutely gutting."

The borough of Barking and Dagenham has 12 BNP councillors and Harrison says she was shocked by some people's attitudes.

"I would ask someone what's good about Dagenham? And they'd say, 'There's nothing good around here; it used to be good but it's all their fault'. This was a common theme and it got me feeling really low."

She reached her lowest ebb, she says, doing a stint as a barmaid in a working men's club.

"I left after two-and-a-half hours, I couldn't take it any more. It was as though I'd been beaten up. I heard racist language that I

didn't think people used any more, and it made me feel physically sick.

"The worst thing is because I was undercover, I didn't have my normal voice, I wasn't me. I was this new person who was quite timid who had moved into a new area.

"I wanted to say, 'It's not about other people, it's about you'. That was the most profound experience I had.

"I couldn't be who I needed to be and I was taking this onslaught from these white guys who were blaming everything on these 'f****** n******', as they sat there drinking their eight pints and smoking themselves to death in this filthy hell-hole of a place," she says.

"It was as if I'd had a fight, I felt crushed. But looking back it was a real life experience. This was my reaction to racism, my reaction to hatred and the utter hopelessness of it all."

Despite being forced to endure such bilious racial hatred, she did find some answers.

"I went to the shopping mall and there was this black guy sweeping and I went over and had a chat with him and I found out he was a Kenyan refugee and he worked as a cleaner in the mall.

"We got chatting and I told him about what happened to me and he said, 'I can understand. When I was in Kenya, we had racism and hatred between the tribes'.

"And it was one of those cathartic moments. Here was this guy who has sod-all of nothing who was cleaning the shopping mall and he could understand," she says.

On her second night, she met a 78-year-old woman called Wyn Chapman. "She brought me some food. She said, 'I noticed you'd moved in and were on your own so I've brought you some bread-and-butter pudding.'

"We sat and told each other our stories and it was lovely, and that's when I started to feel at home."

She discovered that Wyn worked four days as a volunteer and, following her daughter's death a few years ago, now looked after her grandchildren three days a week.

"This is a woman who has offered me friendship, who has looked out for me, and I went to her house to discover she has a broken fridge and a broken cooker. She keeps the house really smart, she's lived there for 72 years, and I asked her when was the last time she'd had a hot meal at home and she said, 'I'm eating banana sandwiches at the moment'.

"I asked her about the cooker and she said, 'I've been putting a fiver away a week but it's not enough yet' and in the meantime she's giving away money to Children in Need.

"This is what's going on, this is today's Britain," she says.

"The people that I met who were still in dire circumstances but had happiness were the people who were either learning something new or doing volunteer work, they're the ones who seem to have it sorted.

"The ones sitting all day in pubs drinking and smoking don't seem to have anything at all."

Harrison is one of the country's top female entrepreneurs and has never shirked from putting her money where her mouth is, raising millions of pounds for organisations like the NSPCC.

"My way of thinking is, 'As long as I can pay my mortgage, then I can still afford to give money away.' But I think it's got to hurt to make it real.

"I've always given money away but I've never had to do it so personally, and outside of family issues, it's the most difficult thing I've ever attempted," she says, of her experience on the show.

"I can't believe I was lucky enough to be part of it, and everything that happened to me in those 10 days will affect all the decisions I make going forward.

"1 can be worth 100,000 in someone else's hands. It's not just about the money, it's about what you do, it's about getting involved and helping people, and in Wyn I now have a new friend. And how good is that?"

chris.bond@ypn.co.uk

Secret Millionaire can be seen on Channel Four tonight at 10.