Tynesiders are being asked to turn detective in the hunt for two schoolgirls, whose poignant letters written more than 60 years ago touched the heart of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable social reformers.
The Abbeyfield Society is enlisting the help of the public in a bid to trace the two girls, who would now be in their mid-70s, after the charity’s founder, Richard Carr-Gomm, preserved the letters for posterity.
Sheila Scott and Brenda Barker were 12-years-old when they penned the two letters to an elderly stranger living nearly 300 miles away from their Newcastle home.
It’s not known why the two St John’s Ambulance Brigade cadets and pupils at what was North Heaton Secondary Modern School decided to write to 80-year-old Mr Halnan at his home in Bermondsey, South East London.
But it was an act of kindness that captured the imagination of older people’s champion, Carr-Gomm, who spent more than five decades striving to improve the quality of life for the elderly. He added the missives to his personal scrapbook, alongside correspondence from Princess Anne, politicians and showbiz personalities, and photos and press cuttings charting his extraordinary work.
Now, 63 years after the heart-warming letters dropped onto the doormat of The Abbeyfield Society’s first-ever home in Eugenia Road, Bermondsey, in May 1956, the housing charity which works to alleviate loneliness and isolation in older people, is hoping people power can help track down Sheila and Brenda.
Sarah Heaney, Research manager for The Abbeyfield Society, says: “The letters are very emotive, not necessarily for the information that’s in them but for the fact that these two 12-year-olds took the trouble to write to a complete stranger.
“In his diary for May 1956, Richard Carr-Gomm makes a point of referring to some letters written by children in Newcastle arriving for Mr Halnan and a Miss Saunders, who were the first-ever Abbeyfield Society residents.
“No further reference is ever made to letters being written to residents, but these two from Sheila Scott and Brenda Barker obviously made such an impression on Richard Carr-Gomm that he kept them.
“The letters are written in a very caring way and are a wonderful snapshot in time. We get to know a bit about the girls’ backgrounds and what they enjoy doing, but they are also interested in finding out more about Mr Halnan and are concerned about his health.
“We have no idea why the two girls wrote them, but around this time Richard Carr-Gomm was starting to get publicity for opening the first Abbeyfield house, so it may have been as a result of that.
“We believe that Sheila and Brenda also wrote to Miss Saunders, but it is these two letters that caught Richard Carr-Gomm’s eye and which still survive. It would be wonderful to trace Sheila and Brenda, to discover more about the story behind these two incredible letters, and to know if they continued to write to the residents.”
David McCullough, chief executive of The Abbeyfield Society, adds: “We are hoping the letters will jog someone’s memory. It would be fantastic to find out what prompted the girls to reach out to Abbeyfield’s first residents, how they now feel about their letters being preserved by Richard Carr-Gomm, and what they went on to do with their lives.
“Finding these letters is like discovering a secret treasure, and I am sure there is a wonderful and inspiring story waiting to be told.”
Sheila was living in Chillingham Road, Heaton, Newcastle, in May 1956, and Brenda in nearby Guelder Road.
In her letter, Brenda reveals she is five foot seven inches tall, has light brown hair, and hazel eyes, that her form mistress at North Heaton Secondary Modern is Miss Booth, and that her favourite lesson is maths. She adds she has heard Mr Halnan is about to undergo an operation, hopes it will be successful, and promises to write again soon.
Meanwhile, Sheila divulges her hobbies as needlework and swimming and says when she first heard of Mr Halnan, “I took it upon myself to write to you. I hope it is a comfort to you.”
Mr Halnan had been a newspaper seller and was going blind from cataract. Miss Saunders was 82 and had been earning a living weaving neckties on a treadle.
But what she and Mr Halnan had in common is that they had been leading a lonely and isolated existence until moving into the first Abbeyfield Society home, opened in 1955 by Carr-Gomm with £250 taken from his Army annuity after resigning his commission as a major in the Coldstream Guards.
Carr-Gomm died at the age of 86 in 2009, and two years ago his family donated his scrapbook and around 1,000 documents to The Abbeyfield Society, which Sarah Heaney has been cataloguing.
It was during this work that she came across the letters from Sheila and Brenda, and like Carr-Gomm was moved by both their compassion and expressiveness.
“It is rather incongruous seeing these two letters stuck into the scrapbook alongside four or five from Princess Anne, photos and press cuttings of Abbeyfield’s early days, and mentions of Richard Carr-Gomm’s celebrity friends.
“He was very well networked. He knew Billy Graham and was influenced by him, was friends with Audrey Hepburn and her mother who were benefactors of the first home, knew Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and was close to King Freddie, the deposed king of Uganda.
“Yet, amongst all this, we find these two extraordinary letters from two ordinary school girls. Richard Carr-Gomm identified them as being special, and we think they are too. It would be lovely to think we could trace Sheila and Brenda and reunite them with their younger selves through these two letters.”
Anyone with memories of either Sheila Scott or Brenda Barker or who knows the whereabouts of the two women now is asked to contact Sarah Heaney on either 01727 734067 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org