From post-war Downtown to 21st century Beormund Centre, Coral Newell has been campaigning for those worse off from an early age, and she is still going strong now, writes Michael Holland.
Coral was born in St Olave’s Hospital and grew up on the Amos Estate. Her parents and immediate family were also from Downtown but says, ‘My great-grandfather came from Russia.’ She went to St Paul’s School, then Aylwin and on to Credon Road when it was a girl’s school. ‘I liked school,’ she begins, ‘but was a bit Bolshie,’ adds the lifelong campaigner, giving an insight in to her motivational traits. ‘I was always for the underdog.’
Of her early years she remembers, ‘My dad was a stevedore and mum unfortunately died when I was 6…We found space to play cricket and football and skipping on the estate, and the parents used to bring chairs to watch us play.’
But then the war came.‘I was evacuated to Newport Pagnell, to a policeman’s house, which I didn’t like… My brother was elsewhere and “loved as the son they never had”, while I was being Bolshie and complaining about everything I didn’t like!’
From a start that included war and a mother dying at such a young age, life could not have been easy for young Coral. Perhaps it was those formative years that laid the foundations for what came after: ‘I got involved with community work when I was about 15 when we set up our own youth club on the estate,’ she recalls. ‘There was no help from the council but Bob Mellish was really good.
Bob Mellish was one of Bermondsey’s longest serving MPs and an inspiration to the young activist: ‘He was one of my icons because he was a real man… He looked after my generation because he saw us as the ones that would be taking over from him… He used to take us to the House of Commons and the first time I went I didn’t realise exactly what it was, but looking back now I know it was Bob Mellish and what he did for young people that took me in to politics.’
Coral joined the Labour Party. ‘I was a local activist to begin with but campaigned wider for the NHS because the Tories were running it down badly…’
This was the time of the docks and related industry dying, which gave eager activists like Coral a real purpose: ‘As an elected councillor I had a wonderful time; the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up to bring work back to the borough and we wanted their money,’ Coral says excitedly. ‘An awful lot of money was needed from them to make improvements – I got us about £20m.’
With Councillor Newell doing incredible work it was no surprise that her skills were desired: ‘I came to the Beormund Centre 41 years ago as a trustee and later became the Chair,’ she says, ‘but when only about 400 people were coming through every year the building came close to closing and we began looking for someone to come in and manage it properly. Everyone said I should do it although I’d retired by then: “You can get us going again,” they said, and talked me into it. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.’
Coral gave me a rundown of what goes on at the centre: ‘You’ve got the leisure side, plus the schooling, the training programmes: basic skills right up to accountancy. We hire rooms out for meetings and conferences, and local residents use it more… We have won many community awards and now have almost 30,000 people a year use Beormund.’
After 20 years in her role I asked about the highlights: ‘One of the best things we did was working with the European Social Fund (ESF). The ESF hierarchy came to Beormund to see how we were spending their money and they were very pleased with what we do.’
And the future: ‘I hope that Beormund continues after I’ve left,’ she says. ‘When I came there was no money – and I actually put some of my own in – but now we have a quarter of a million pounds coming in every month.
As well as her day job, Coral arranged the annual Christmas dinner for the area’s lonely pensioners. ‘I started it with my husband 41 years ago, and my daughter, who was only a little girl then, has also done 41 years, bless her heart… It was a lovely thing because those people that we brought in had rarely been outside their houses, but we gave them a throughly enjoyable day from morning ’til night.’ The guests were entertained, royally fed and local dignitaries would pop in to say hello. At the end they would all be taken home a goody bag and some money. Coral has handed over the reins now as ill health as restricted what she can do, but the special day lives on.
When Coral Newell began her work in the community all those years ago she was aiming to improve the lives of local people in regards to healthcare and education, but there seems to be more problems for the poor now, more work for the Beormund Centre to do. We need more people like Coral to come and take the Beormund Centre in to the future.