By Owen George MBE
The St Helena Association was the brainchild of two headmistresses from St Helena, Mrs Lilian Corker and Miss Cardwell – a Saint and an ex-pat respectively. They were supported by another retired teacher, Miss Nel Lebreton, and Mr Fred (Sonny) Ward, who were also Saints. They decided in the latter part of 1959 that something ought to be done by our UK Saints to entertain people coming from the island to seek employment and support their families back home.
Having been inspired by pictures shown by Fred Ward, they contacted as many Saints as possible in and around London to convene an informal meeting.
I was approached by Fred Ward in Reading in November 1959, a month after I arrived here in the UK, to ask if I would support the idea. I agreed, and became a member at the association’s inaugural meeting in London in January 1960. As enthusiastic, loyal, patriotic and fun-loving people, we soon became established as The St Helena Association.
A non-political constitution was drawn up, with the objective to support charitable organisations on the island for Saints in need, and individuals who merited it.
But our first priority was to entertain Saints who immigrated, and those here on holiday. The knock-on effect from that was to start organising dances, the first of which was held in Victoria Hall in Bloomsbury Square, London.
We also decided to introduce an annual membership fee in order to accumulate revenue, but this did not work in practice. With membership growing fast and furious, collecting the fees became an arduous task for the secretary and treasurer, who already had full-time work, and so after three years it was abandoned.
The loss of this income put more emphasis on organising extra dances, one in spring, and one in autumn.
With increasing support, it became obvious a larger hall was necessary, and Hammersmith Town Hall became our new venue.
On reflection, 1964 was a year of radical changes. Cyril Brooks became our third chairman and presided for 24 years. The vice chairman’s post was created, and I was elected, and accompanied our chairman throughout that period.
Because the attendance for our London dances was increasing, I had a brain-wave to increase the sequence by organising an SHA branch dance in Reading. This caused some concern with our committee members, but our secretary and treasurer (the late Bert Joshua) saw it as progress.
Since this was a success, I encouraged other Saints to organise dances in their own districts, not only to support our London and Reading dances, but to sustain the continuity within our community. It would provide for people who could not attend the main dances, especially our students here on training and Saints coming on holiday, and it would enhance support to our island’s charitable organisations.
My theory was to work with the people, for the people, and I have the satisfaction of seeing that is still embraced today.
In the same year I decided to record Christmas messages for St Helena at our autumn dances on reel-to-reel tapes, and called the programme Keeping In Touch. The tapes were sent home to a friend, William (Billy) Stevens, who transmitted them on Christmas Day after the Queen’s Speech.
(Billy Stevens, known as The Ham of Half Tree Hollow, broadcast from the Three Tanks area every Sunday morning, charging three pence for a request. His role as a radio pioneer is mentioned in an article on the Saint Helena Island Info website).
Some years later Radio St Helena was formed, and took over the Keeping In Touch programme. For a short spell, Eddie Leo and his wife Audrey assisted with the programme.
It provided an important opportunity for Saints to keep in touch with their relatives, but when the internet became available, it was made redundant.
After 16 years, Hammersmith Town Hall became unavailable, and for a while we were organising dances in Fulham and Early town halls, but shortly they also became unavailable.
By then, our five branch organisers were also putting on dances, and with our annual Sports Day, contributions for St Helena were not affected.
In 1978 I made plans to entertain the children within our community, because they were restricted to accompanying their parents at our dances. If successful, it would be another source of revenue to support our objectives.
So on Sunday on the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1979, I organised our first St Helena Sports Day at the Reading Rugby Football Club.
I had no committee except my family to organise the mini sports, and on the day I employed volunteers – mostly former boy scouts from St Helena and some of the branch organisers. What started as the Saints’ Mini Sports Day became St Helena Sports Day, also sentimentally known as the Saints, Relatives and Friends Reunion Day.
I ran it for ten years, then invited our committee to continue. All went well for a while, then for diverse reasons our supporters began to lose interest and the situation was becoming serious. But from 2010 the expertise of Trevor and Vilma Toms came to the fore, and they revitalised this nostalgic event, recapturing the interest of our supporters here and beyond these shores.
In April 1986, our secretary and treasure took ill and was told by his doctor to retire from all activities with immediate effect. This could not have happened at a worse time, because for divers reasons other people found they could not continue. That situation left just the chairman and me.
I was given charge of our accounts and everything else related to the secretary-cum-treasurer’s post.
We were on the threshold of becoming dormant, and this was the time that showed the importance of the branch organisers, because without them we could not maintain our objectives. The only support for our island was coming from their dances, and of course Sports Day functions.
I kept in touch without our chairman to see if any people came forward to stand as committee members. Unfortunately, two years elapsed and the situation did not change, so I put forward a plan to try for the last time to recruit.
I took the opportunity at a dance in Cirencester to contact people there, and explained that our association would become history if we could not get enough people to join our committee.
Eight people responded, and with the help of Derek Bellord I immediately arranged to convene a meeting a month later in Portsmouth. The result is that we are here today.
Prior to that meeting our chairman decided not to stand again, and I was elected to fill the void. I accepted the post on the understanding that I would be looking for a replacement after one term, because I wanted a free hand to practise any theory I might have that would enhance our community of Saints, relatives and friends even further.
I was successful in convincing Keith Joshua to become our new chairman, and I was subsequently elected as president.
As time moved on we progressed from strength to strength, and became a registered charity.
I consider myself to have been fortune to be in a position to develop our association, but there can be no development without a beginning, and we thank the people who dreamt of such a plan in November 1959.
I resigned because of ill health, but with the satisfaction of knowing our committee will keep that dream alive, maintain our objectives, and continue to put smiles on sad faces back home.
Two St Helena Associations? That was banking on trouble…
We started out with the title SHA, and subsequently added (UK). It became necessary through a dispute with another organisation that decided it was the SHA. Both treasurers were summoned by the bank to get it sorted, because there were problems when donations were made by cheque.
Naturally, emergency meetings were convened by both parties, and it was mutually agreed that a representative from each would attend the other’s meeting, and after some discussion, I was elected.
I attended their AGM in Faith House, in Tufton Road in London, and the matter was sorted, but not before discussions to convince their chairman, who was adamant about not changing – until I pointed out that our inauguration was in January 1960, and theirs in April 1964.
To settle the argument, my friend Bishop Edward (Ted) Cannan suggested, “Since we solely support the Diocese of St Helena, why don’t we change our title to St Helena Diocesan Association, and perhaps Owen’s association will change to SHA (UK)?”
Both parties agreed, and so did the bank.
Ironically I became a member of the SHDA, and their chairman and I became the best of pals.
Owen A George