Over the last sixty years, 99-year-old Edith Oakley has raised over £240,000 for UK based blood cancer charity Bloodwise, after the death of her son led her to dedicate her life to trying to prevent others from losing their lives to the disease. Today, Edith is the charity’s longest-serving volunteer, and her passion for the cause still burns just as brightly as it did in 1959.
Edith and her late husband Laurie, from Radlett, Hertfordshire, were left devastated on 2nd June 1959 when their son John lost his life to Leukemia; a type of blood cancer where the large numbers of abnormal blood cells take over the bone marrow and spill out into the bloodstream.
Frustrated by the lack of medical knowledge and treatment available to blood cancer sufferers during the 1950s, Edith and Laurie realised that something needed to happen if others were to stand a chance at surviving the disease. They still had a daughter – John’s older sister Rosemary – and the idea that the disease could strike the family again weighed heavily on their minds. But it was a chance sighting in the newspaper one evening that gave them an idea for those first steps towards making a difference…
Edith says, “In 1959, my son John was 10 years old and he died of Leukemia at Great Ormond Street Hospital. There was just nothing that could be done to save him at that particular time. No one knew the cause of it, and we felt we couldn’t be sure that it wouldn’t hurt our family again.
“My mother used to read the evening newspaper and she saw that another man [Mr Eastwood] had also lost his six-year-old daughter [Susan] to the disease. He had contacted the House Governor of Great Ormond Street, Gordon Piller, who told him that if he went away and raised a few thousand pounds, then the hospital could start a research unit. Once Laurie and I saw that something was actually being done about the lack of treatment available for Leukemia, we wanted to join in. We got in touch with Gordon Piller ourselves and the rest is history.”
Time to get started...
Laurie and Edith began fundraising for the Leukaemia Research Fund (now called Bloodwise), by selling handmade aprons, holding dance events and taking part in sponsored walks and bike rides.
She reflects on her experience of volunteering thus far, and remembers how she first began trying to sell handmade aprons to raise money:
“I’ve made a lot of friends doing volunteering and I’ve always really enjoyed it. But it’s been hard work at times – especially all the knitting and sewing we did.
“We also weren’t very well off, and to start with, I couldn’t even afford to go to the market on the bus to get the material for the aprons. I had to ask a friend if she could bring the materials back for me. When I made my first apron, Laurie took it to work and sold it. Then with that money, we had enough to buy the materials to make three aprons. That’s how we did it in the beginning, and all profits went to Bloodwise.”
In 1961, two years after Edith and Laurie began fundraising, the first Leukaemia research unit opened and since then Bloodwise have invested £500 million into scientific research on blood cancer. This has had a huge impact on the survival rates of people diagnosed with a range of different blood cancers – and currently, 6 out of every 10 people diagnosed with blood cancer in the UK survive for ten years or more. At the time that John was diagnosed, doctors told Edith that the average span of the disease was nine months; John became unwell in September 1958 and he died on June 1959.
Over the last sixty years, Edith has made an outstanding contribution to these medical advancements by raising a total of £241,710 for blood cancer research.
This year she won the Times/Sternberg Active Life Award, presented by Baroness Ros Altman, as well as the UCL Circle of Benefactors Award. On receiving The Times/Sternberg Active Life Award, Edith says, “I was invited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to No.11 Downing Street, where I was awarded £1,000, but I’ve given that to Bloodwise because I wouldn’t have received the award if it wasn’t for them, and they need the money more.”
Edith, who lost her father to Tuberculosis when she was just 15 years old, is no stranger to hard times and hard work. As soon as Edith left school, she began working long hours in her local Co-op, to help support her family after her father’s passing. Ironically, she eventually left the Co-op to start a new job in a blood laboratory, where she stayed until she became a full-time mum, a few years after marrying Laurie.
Reflecting on her first meeting with Laurie shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Edith says, “We had a local cinema in Radlett, and there were two usherettes who worked there at the time. Eventually they both got boyfriends and wanted a night off of work, and they were told they could if they could find someone to cover their shifts. So they asked me, and I was happy to do it! Laurie was one of the projectionists who worked there at the time and that’s how I met him. It was love at first sight, I suppose.”
Retiring at 80
After John and Rosemary reached school age, Edith returned to work in a range of different roles, right up until the age of 80, when she made the decision to retire.
She says, “I didn’t work when the children were small, but when they went back to school I got a part-time cleaning job in a hall. It meant that even during the holidays, they could play in the hall whilst I cleaned. When the children grew up, I worked in a dry cleaners. I learnt how the cleaning was done and did the accounts. Then after a while, I left and worked in a shop but decided to retire at 80 when a new owner took over.
“Laurie retired as well and we went dancing a lot. We did old-time modern sequence about four times a week.”
Laurie passed away in 2003, but Edith has continued her commitment to the work that they started together all those years ago.
She explains, “I’m 99 now so I can’t get about quite so much, but whenever a chance presents itself for me to do something to help, or raise something, I’m there.”
Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Edith’s granddaughter has also become involved in fundraising for Bloodwise, taking part in sponsored events (including a 26 mile walk) to raise money – although Edith modestly says that she doesn’t know whether or not this is due to her influence!
Edith has been approached on several occasions by people who have wanted to thank her for all she has done to support the life-saving charity over the years. And she says to anyone thinking about fundraising or volunteering, that she would definitely recommend it:
“You get a lot of fun out of volunteering and it’s really rewarding when you find out how much money you’ve raised.”
As Edith approaches her 100th birthday, she continues to live independently and enjoys socialising at local clubs (such as a lunch club in Radlett), and receiving visits from her family. She is also the main contact for the Borehamwood and Radlett branch of Bloodwise, and stays connected with them in any way that she can.
It is without question that Edith’s pioneering courage, dedication and hard work over the years has helped save many lives and keep together many families.
Edith, we thank you!
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