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Isle Of Dogs: Why the Massey Shaw fireboat is seeking new volunteers

Historic vessel lying in West India South Dock looks to ensure its stories continue to be told

Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock
Massey Shaw is currently moored at West India South Dock

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This is not the story of the fireboat Massey Shaw. How could it be?

Just to stand on the deck of this remarkable craft at her berth in West India South Dock is to feel her planks and steel plates quietly pulse with the decades of history they’ve absorbed.

It would be possible to fill this space many times over without coming close to bottoming out the sheer depth of material associated with this remarkable boat.

It might be the part she played saving goods worth many millions of pounds just a year after coming into service by blasting down the walls of a warehouse with the power of her main jet to stop a fire in its tracks at Colonial Wharf in Wapping. 

It could be the more than 500 lives she saved as part of the flotilla of little ships launched to help rescue British servicemen from the beaches at Dunkirk in 1940 – ferrying soldiers from the land to larger craft and herself taking about 100 back across the channel, making three trips despite the danger of the sea and enemy fire.

Or it may be the part she played in the desperate firefighting effort during the Blitz.

Massey in full flow

But these stories – and many more – are best told by those who know, the volunteers who are working to keep her shipshape and who hope eventually to open her to the public as a museum ship.

Built in 1935 by J Samuel Whites at Cowes on the Isle Of Wight for £18,000 (more than £2million in today’s money) she served the London Fire Brigade from launch until 1971.

After a decade in the wilderness, in 1982, the Massey Shaw And Marine Vessels Preservation Society embarked on a project to restore her and to sail her once again to Dunkirk for the first time since the 1960s.

Today, after much passion, a sinking, restoration work, vandalism, repair and renovation, she lies by the entrance to West India Docks, sharing space with the 1920s steam tug Portwey and the Dockland Scout Project. 

From there, the Massey Shaw Education Trust, as the society has become, intends to use its 40th anniversary year to raise awareness of its work, the vessel herself and the opportunities available for those who might like to get involved with the ongoing  project.

Rescuing troops from Dunkirk

Trust CEO David Rogers – himself a former firefighter, albeit a land-based one – said: “We’re a completely voluntary organisation and we’d really like to engage with a wider audience including people who are in Docklands.

“Perhaps they’ve seen this black and red boat that looks a bit strange – we often get questions about what she is and what she does.

“So one of the things we want to do is to get more volunteers of all ages who can come along and support us in our plans for the boat.

“We’ve had her for 40 years, but we see ourselves as custodians and we now need people to take her forward for the next 40.

“This boat has a unique history and we want to help people understand it and to help shape it whether they’re involved in the fire service or not.

“We want people to come and be trained so they can run the engines, operate the boat and man her pumps so she can appear at events. 

“But we also have a big archive that we’ve built up over the years, so we need people with IT skills to help organise and digitise that.”

Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers
Massey Shaw Educational Trust CEO David Rogers – image Matt Grayson

Currently the team are working towards getting Massey Shaw ready to once more cross the channel in 2025.

“We’re part of Dunkirk Little Ships, which celebrates the journey made by those boats in 1940 to save troops from the beaches,” said David.

“The crews who went over during the war were all volunteer firemen and fortunately they all came back safely, but some of the soldiers they rescued had been badly injured.

“We’d especially like young people to take part in our next trip, to learn the skills that were taught back in the 1930s, which are needed to operate the boat so future generations can continue to enjoy and learn about her.

“Volunteering is a great deal of fun – over the 40 years I’ve been involved, I’ve met some fantastic people and I’ve always enjoyed it.

“It’s great when visitors come onto the boat, especially if they have stories to share about individuals who perhaps served on Massey Shaw or were associated with her. 

Massey's 'monitor' which shoots its main jet
Massey’s ‘monitor’ which shoots its main jet – image Matt Grayson

“Also, the opportunity to go out on the boat, to show people what she can do and what it was like in its early days gives you a real buzz. We’re here to prove she can still do the job she was built for.”

Descend into Massey Shaw’s engine and pump room and you can see exactly what he’s talking about.

The beating heart of the vessel is her two main engines that require constant maintenance to both propel the boat and to power its firefighting equipment, capable of pumping enormous amounts of water to where it’s needed.

David says the main brass cannon on deck – called ‘the monitor’ – is capable of pumping 13,000 litres of water every single minute with enough force to propel the whole boat along when in full flow. 

“Last year we had an open day and the pump was running and the harbour master ran up the dock and said it was just fantastic – that he’d never seen anything like it,” said David.

“That’s the reaction we want – people clap and cheer because it’s such a great thing to see. We’re hoping to hold another open day to raise greater awareness of what we’re doing on August 14 and we’re very keen to attract new visitors.

“Beyond that we’re working to get Massey Shaw ready for Dunkirk in 2025 and we have an Arts Council application in to become an independent museum.

“Then we want to find somewhere we can have a link to the shore so we can display our archive.

“We’re also looking to partner with other local organisations and companies so we can expand and move forward from here.”

The Massey Shaw Education Trust is actively seeking new volunteers, partnerships and funding for its activities.

One of Massey's two main engines
One of Massey’s two main engines – image Matt Grayson

Read more: How Terrible Thames takes Horrible Histories onto the river

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Deptford: Why Art In Perpetuity Trust is seeking up to five new trustees

Charity aims to build resilient organisation for the future to operate studios and gallery space

APT in Deptford is looking for new trustees
APT in Deptford is looking for new trustees

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We are practising ‘artist-led’ as a reality, not just terminology – we are living and breathing creative independence and that’s something we strive for in perpetuity, just as our name says.”

In a nutshell, that’s APT, as described by its administrative director, Sarah Walsh.  

The Art In Perpetuity Trust operates from, and indeed owns outright, a former textile warehouse on the banks of Deptford Creek, a complex that houses 42 artists’ studios, a thriving gallery, a performance space and a working sculpture garden off Creekside. 

But it’s much more than just a landlord, it’s a potent, creative community and, following a period of evaluation and reflection during the pandemic, the charity that runs it is reaching out to recruit new trustees to help it continue to deliver its mission, namely to support creative thought and artistic vision both in the studio and the wider world.

APT administrative director Sarah Walsh
APT administrative director Sarah Walsh

“APT was set up 20 years ago by a group of artists who were looking to find new studios after they were forced to move from their previous home,” said Sarah. 

“They made an arrangement with the guy who was selling the building to slowly purchase the freehold over a period of time and then transformed the legal structure of the organisation into a charity.

“It’s not just a studio complex, it’s a space for interaction, for the exchange of ideas – it’s a community and it’s been created that way purposefully to provide support for those who have left education and want a space that isn’t isolated but alongside their peers.”

Now APT is seeking up to five new trustees to bolster the charity’s board who will work alongside the committees of artists resident on-site that drive its activities and direction.

Sarah said: “We are looking for people who can provide a range of skills and experience in five areas to ensure we remain a resilient organisation for the future.

“We’d like an artist or curator with an excellent industry profile, a legal expert with understanding of charity, property and employment law, someone with public sector experience and knowledge of local communities in south London, a trustee with a background in fundraising and income generation and a financial professional with a knowledge of the charitable sector.

APT owns its own building outright in Deptford
APT owns its own building outright in Deptford

“Trustees bring different voices, skillsets and experiences to the table that we can use to help build partnerships, communicate what we’re doing and maintain our resilience as they govern the charity.

“We have a unique structure here – the committees of artists don’t work independently, we all work in unison to run APT together.”

Trustees meet six times a year in addition to attending the charity’s AGM. Attendance at various private views and events will also be expected.

Sarah said: “As an organisation we’re always thinking about diversity, equality and inclusion and that includes the way in which we recruit trustees. 

“It’s important to us to be accessible and transparent and to reach out as widely as possible to attract a range of people who can represent APT successfully. 

“We’re a little nugget in Deptford with the most wonderful community – anyone coming in as a trustee will experience that.”

  • The deadline for applications to become a trustee is May 30, 2022

WHAT THE TRUSTEES SAY

  • “Being a trustee means you can see the direct impact and valuing of your skills and experience to make a positive difference to the lives of others in the local community. It opens up a whole new world of networks and creative possibilities on your doorstep.”

Jenny White, co-chair, APT Trustee

  • “Being a Trustee allows you to contribute your skills and knowledge to the development of an organic and creative organisation. You gain valuable experience being part of the  contemporary art scene and wider Deptford community. Besides, it’s fascinating to be engaging with artists and their diverse practices.”

Ann Gilmore, co-chair, APT Trustee

APT's gallery space on Creekside in Deptford
APT’s gallery space on Creekside in Deptford

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Deptford: How Kath’s Place in Friendly Street is much more than a charity shop

Discover the work of the Kath Duncan Equality And Civil Rights Network in Lewisham and beyond

From left, volunteers Chloe Allen and Stewart Lendor with co-founders Barbara Raymond and Ray Barron-Woolford

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It may look like just another charity shop but Kath’s Place in Deptford is bigger on the inside.

Step through the Tardis-like entrance and you will find a growing mechanism for social change. 

Opened in October 2020 during the pandemic, the shop in Friendly Street houses the We Care food bank, a food pantry, a book swap library, a baby bank and a vintage clothes shop as well as serving tea and coffee and hot meals to take away for those in need.

Money from the sale of second-hand goods is used to feed the 3,000 people who use its services and the hub provides support for anyone who needs it, including the homeless, single parents, refugees and low-income families.

Word of its work has spread as far as Japan and Chile and inspired others to open similar operations.

Co-founder Ray Barron-Woolford believes its method of support will spread worldwide, as food demand and energy costs increase.

“What we do isn’t about creating dependency, it is about supporting people,” he said. 

“We do debt counselling, help if their fridge breaks down, if they need school uniforms. If they are homeless and have been given a flat, we get volunteers to help decorate.”

Kath’s Place charity shop on Friendly Street

All the projects are run by a team of 200 volunteers, headed up by Ray, as co-founder of We Care Community Hub and CEO of the Kath Duncan Equality And Civil Rights Network.

He draws no salary and puts all profit back into the organisation.

“My work isn’t about me, it’s about the people we help,” said the Deptford resident.

“It’s about empowering people to help themselves when councils and governments fail. 

“It is about generating income through our work that self-funds all our different projects, so we don’t have to spend all our time fundraising and so people don’t feel they are getting something for nothing or accepting charity.”

We Care Community Hub achieved charity status last year, but doesn’t receive any funding and has to buy almost everything it distributes.

It receives about five tonnes of food a year through the Fair Share scheme from supermarkets, but Ray said that was only 10% of what it needed. 

He visits up to 15 different supermarkets daily to buy the rest at the cheapest prices.

A mural of Barbara Raymond and Kath Duncan unveiled for International Women’s Day

“When you are buying in volume, saving a few pence on each item, it adds up to a whole other item you can buy for someone,” he said.

The We Care food bank is by referral only, as it already helps people from eight boroughs and cannot cope with more.

The We Care food pantry has 1,374 member households, including 784 children and 78 pets.

Members pay £1 a year and then £5 every time they access it and can have packages tailored to their requirements, such as vegan or Halal.

“It’s tragic we have to exist,” said Ray. ”We are all uncomfortable with it. But if we didn’t exist people would be dead.”

Ray understands because he has lived it. “I was a gay, homeless man who went through the care system and got lucky in property and that made me rich,” he said. 

“But I have never forgotten all those people who helped me out from when I was poor and living on the streets of London. So I’m paying back for all those people who had faith in me.”

Ray lived on the streets of London for 18 months before making his fortune running estate agency Housemartins in Surrey Quays, specialising in housing gay men. But he walked away after one eye-opening exchange in 2014.

“I was coming out of my office and saw two men in suits going through the bins on the council estate opposite,” he said. “I asked why and they said: ‘We have jobs so we can’t get any benefit, but it’s five weeks until we get paid and we can’t get a loan’. 

“I thought it was madness so that’s when I linked up with Barbara Raymond and decided we had to do something about it.

“We set up We Care at that moment and that led me to selling my company and becoming totally committed to tackling poverty as a full-time activist.”

Barbara, 86, had arrived in London as part of the Windrush generation and, in 1976, opened what Ray described as the “first food bank” from her home in New Cross, which still runs today.

She and Ray became instant friends and today she chairs We Care Community Hub.

The initial food bank ran from 2014-16 at a base in Deptford until the rent went from £7,500 to £32,500 and it had to shut.

This disused phone box on Deptford High Street in now the world’s first 24/7 community hub with info for those fleeing domestic violence, who are lonely or have mental health issues, are homeless and want help or ar in need of emergency food or legal aid

“We couldn’t get charity status at the time because you needed cash to have a charity registration,” said Ray.

“So we went underground and were running the business from people’s homes in the holidays and at Christmas.

“Then Covid hit and everyone was panicking. MPs vanished, the council went into lockdown and we had elderly people in their homes that couldn’t leave and people couldn’t get to them to feed them.

“We set up the buddy system that we learned through Aids in the 1970s, and that allowed us to feed 5,000 people. 

“Then someone who we had helped died and left us the £5,000 we needed to get the charity registration.

“It was sad we lost that person, but they ensured our work could continue.”

Kath’s Place opened in October 2020 after a coffee shop went bust and Ray put up the money to rent the space.

He named it after former Deptford resident Kath Duncan who he discovered he had a startling affinity with.

“She is the most important civil rights activist of the past 100 years, lived in Deptford and was gay like me,” said Ray.

“We wanted to carry on her work. It’s important to us everyone knows about her.”

A mural was unveiled on the side of the charity shop for International Women’s Day depicting Kath and Barbara, who Ray said were “extraordinary women”.

“The mural is about instilling pride in our community and hopefully inspiring other women and showing that all of them deserve recognition,” he added.

It has not been touched by graffiti and neither has the shop or a disused telephone box that volunteers recently transformed into a 24/7 community hub.

Situated under the rainbow bridge in Deptford High Street, it is for anyone who needs it and contains information on local support, a book swap library and access to a scheme providing free tea and coffee.

“When you are in crisis you don’t know where to start,” said Ray. “Most people go online and what they find is national or closed.

“Having a space which is only local organisations, with their opening times, where they’re based and how you access them, is quite unique.

“When we opened the phone box everyone said it would be trashed. We knew it wouldn’t be. 

“We are already the only place in Lewisham with black shutters because all the others have been covered in graffiti.

The charity shop is the base for all the work carried out by the We Care Community Hub

“Ours isn’t, because our work is so cutting edge and inclusive that everyone knows someone who uses our projects and wouldn’t do anything to undermine our work.”

It’s not an idle boast. Ray’s mission to change our society has travelled not just through the borough but across the world.

A Kath’s Place hub has opened in Marbella with plans for more in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Venezuela and Chile and he has been interviewed by Japanese television about the phone box.

“Instead of a McDonalds on every high street, there should be a Kath’s Place,” said Ray. “We are in talks to open in Redhill, Brighton, Liverpool and Kirkcaldy.

“Demand for this support is only going to increase because, even if you are working and have a good income, energy prices are going through the roof.

“Climate change will undermine the food supply, so access to food and water is going to be a huge issue.

“The need for projects like ours to come up with sustainable models that aren’t dependent on handouts is the way forward.

“I think the Kath Duncan Network will be as famous in 10 years as Oxfam because what we do is unique and we haven’t forgotten what we are about.

“Our charity shop is cheap, which is how they are meant to be.”

We Care Community Hub chair Barbara Raymond

Ray has written about the work he does in the books Food Bank Britain and Last Queen Of Scotland, a biography of Kath Duncan and play Liberty, which has been optioned by Netflix.

He also found volunteers to make short film, Feeding Lewisham, during lockdown, which he said won 15 international awards and helped inspire people across the globe to copy the charity’s work.

But Ray said there would always be opposition. “A woman came in recently and said: ‘I’ve just paid £1.2million for a house nearby and don’t expect to have a foodbank as a my neighbour. When can you move?’. 

“I told her I had been here long before her and we’re not going anywhere. We still get that kind of bigotry and ignorance.

“You have to be realistic and accept that there are people who are horrible. 

“But there are also extraordinary people who do extraordinary things – Lewisham is a really empowering place to come from.”

Read more: How JP Morgan is boosting social mobility with The Sutton Trust

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East London: East End Community Foundation’s unveils Life Chances drive

Charity seeks to raise £5million to tackle issues in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Newham and the City

East End Community Foundation chair Bronek Masojada – image Matt Grayson

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“When I was approached about joining the East End Community Foundation, I thought it answered a problem that I’d had as a CEO,” said Bronek Masojada, who has spent the last 28 years at the helm of insurance firm Hiscox.

“There is a lot of desire among staff at companies to get involved in charitable activities close to where they work and that’s great, but the question then is what, precisely?

“The answer to that question is a navigation service for organisations that identifies what those needs are, which are the most effective charities to support and how to make sure any donation is put to good use.

“I’m not going to pretend to understand what the needs of individuals are in deprived areas – nor do my colleagues.

“That navigation service also needs to show how staff can be involved to a limited extent because, from my experience people’s desire to play a part is much greater than the reality when dates are in the diary and free time and weekends have to be given up to do that. 

“The EECF provides a service that addresses all those issues, for anybody who would like to try to make a difference – a clear solution to a clear problem.

“The fact it also gives away a substantial amount of its own money every year means the team has every incentive to make sure it is done so effectively.”

Bronek joins EECF as chair, having taken over from Canary Wharf Group’s Howard Dawber towards the end of last year, his arrival coinciding with the launch of the charity’s Life Chances Campaign to raise and distribute £5million to help deprived communities in east London recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The money will be distributed to organisations in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney and the City with the three aims of improving the wellbeing and employment prospects of young people, tackling digital exclusion and reducing poverty and isolation among older people. Pledges of £750,000 have already been made.

Bronek said: “About £2.5million will go on the first of these, about £1million on the last and the balance on digital connectivity.

These areas all slightly overlap – what drives elderly isolation is lack of digital connectivity in today’s age, not just access to things like iPads, but the competency to use them.

“It’s not just about giving people a bit of kit, but also providing support.

“My mother and my mother-in-law in South Africa are both big silver surfers, because they are driven to enjoy connectivity with their children and grandchildren, and that’s fantastic.

“My mother has been self-isolating, but probably speaks to my children more often than me, through digital means.

“It will be the same for people in east London – if you can’t get out because of Covid, you should still be able to connect with people.

“Zoom and other platforms are free, if you know how to use them. There is some reticence.

“I can remember when I put my grandmother in front of a Space Invaders game,  she just froze, but nowadays you don’t have that choice.

“Life Chances is trying to address real needs. The average salary in Tower Hamlets is £80,000 a year but the average household income is £25,000. That’s understandable, but pretty extraordinary when you think about it.

“What we’re trying to do is to appeal to the people and the firms that employ them in the area to help those who are resident locally.

“I recently read youth unemployment in London is four times the national average and Life Chances is about helping people into work.

“Not everyone’s going to be an investment banker – I get that – but firms like Hiscox and employers in Canary Wharf need a huge range of skills and capabilities.

“Clearly good educational achievements make things easier, but even for those who don’t have them we can make a real difference by helping them get entry-level jobs.

“I have friends in the insurance industry who grew up within earshot of Bow Bells, but who have done unbelievably well.

“These companies do offer people who are smart, even partly educated, the ability to rise through the ranks and that’s what they want.

“It was a surprise to learn about the disparity between income versus household income. It’s pretty apparent if you travel through the four boroughs and listen to what’s going on. 

“I was also surprised when the EECF’s CEO, Tracey Walsh, told me there were 5,000 charities and community groups active in those areas – that gives you a sense of the size of the challenge and the need for navigation.

“If there’s a corporate wanting to get involved, how do you find and pick an organisation to support? Which are effective and which make a difference?

“Often that choice is made because of individual connections, partners or friends, but to my mind that’s not the best way to choose a charity.

“The EECF applies rigour – groups have to apply for grants. They have to explain what their outcomes are going to be and then assess whether their aims were achieved or not. That’s a powerful process.

“The other thing about the EECF is that some of the grants are quite small in monetary terms – £2,000 or £5,000, for example – but they can make a real difference to a particular community group or charity.

“It’s hard for big companies, who might want to give say £50,000 – which is the top level we ask organisations to commit to – and to then break that down into grants themselves. Hiscox, for example, wouldn’t be able to do that.

“EECF is a well respected organisation. It’s seen as independent, fair and transparent and those are great things to build on. It has its own money to give away and full credit to Howard and Tracey for building that up. 

“My ambition is to continue the work they and the other trustees have been doing for many years and make the Life Chances Campaign a success.

“We don’t need a revolution – there’s a very clear plan of how we can make a difference and improve people’s lives.

“It’s a good programme and, if we can just deliver on that, then that’s a job well done.

“The more successful we are with Life Chances, the more we may have to increase staff numbers and so on, but that’s an outcome rather than a goal.

“I think that the other thing we’d like to move to with the campaign is to say to those getting grants that we’ll give them a certain amount each year for the next three years, so they can plan rather than having to put their energies into constant fundraising.

“An ambition has also got to be to augment the million or so we give away every year.

“If we can get to the £2million mark every year for the next five, that would be pretty awesome.”

For Bronek, the decision to become chair of EECF follows on from a long line of extramural activities undertaken while working at Hiscox, including the position of deputy chairman of Lloyds Of London for seven years.

“I’ve always thought that a business and a person succeeds if they are involved in more than one thing,” he said. 

“The beach is really very nice to relax on, but you have to have something to relax from – when you’re there all the time, it’s no longer relaxing.

“I feel the idea of stopping work and allowing the skills and knowledge that I’ve managed to accumulate to dissipate would be a waste. My hope is I can use them instead to make a beneficial and positive impact on the wider community.

“In terms of the difference I can make, clearly there’s the day-to-day governance of the organisation and I’ve had a fair experience of that.

“Hiscox was a lot smaller when I started there in 1992 and I’m used to us going into new countries, opening offices with no staff and then, slowly, over a decade building a physical presence and a good business.

“The fact that EECF has a dozen staff is really great, because it’s small, it’s informal – you don’t manage an organisation like that the way you manage a UK business like Hiscox, which employs well over 1,000 people.

“I also have a reasonable address book and I’m not scared to go and ask people for things, so I can help the team with the opening doors part of fundraising.

“They then have to close the deal, but I know that the hardest thing when you’re raising money is knowing who to talk to and then actually getting to speak to them.

“Even if they say no, that’s better than not talking to them, because you’re building awareness.

“Of course, there’s no certainty that we will succeed with the campaign, but it’s my view that it’s always better to try and to fail rather than not to try at all.”

Organisations that would like to support the Life Chances Campaign or charities and community groups interested in applying for EECF grants can find out more at the foundation’s website.

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Poplar: How Felix’s Kitchen is cooking thousands of meals for those in need

Food charity is looking for more volunteers and donations so it can help feed more people

Staff and volunteers portion up meals at Felix's Kitchen
Staff and volunteers portion up meals at Felix’s Kitchen – image Matt Grayson

Felix’s Kitchen does an incredible thing. Recently opened on an unassuming industrial estate in Poplar the 4,400sq ft facility is ramping up production with the aim of eventually producing 6,000 meals a day using surplus ingredients from supermarkets, wholesalers and restaurants – most of which would be thrown out as they near their sell-by date.

Those meals are then distributed to people who need it for free, via a network of organisations and charities across London. 

People are hungry in the capital and cannot afford to buy food. The hard work of staff and volunteers at the kitchen goes some way to addressing that, but The Felix Project – the largest food redistribution charity in London, which operates the kitchen – expects a spike in demand in the autumn as furlough comes to an end and potential benefit cuts bite.  

It’s 2021. The UK was the fifth largest economy in the world in January.

That such organisations exist at all is a damning indictment of those managing our society.

That more and more people are expected to need their services is a shameful failure of that governance.

But there are mouths to feed right now and those doing the hard practical work to achieve that end deserve our support and admiration for spending their time on this planet compassionately helping others. 

Head of Felix's Kitchen Leon Aarts
Head of Felix’s Kitchen Leon Aarts – image Matt Grayson

Take Leon Aarts, for example. Having “rolled into hospitality by accident” at age 19, the Dutchman became a chef, rising through the fine dining world to win Michelin stars before moving to London to start a high-end food wholesale business for top restaurants in the capital. 

A change of direction followed in 2008 when he decided to close that business and create a charity with an initiative that saw diners pay 15p extra in a restaurant to feed a child in a developing country. 

He went on to cook for thousands of migrants in the camps at Calais. 

Just before lockdown, he set up Compassion London to cook for those without food in the capital as the pandemic hit, eventually using Wembley Stadium to produce around 5,000 meals a day.

The team create meals out of donated food
The team create meals out of donated food – image Matt Grayson

Having joined up with The Felix Project, right now he’s in Poplar, cooking with 12 staff and a group of volunteers as head of Felix’s Kitchen – located next door to parent charity’s latest warehouse and distribution centre.

“It’s terrible that people live in food insecurity, but we can’t let anyone go hungry while those who have the resources are figuring it out – whether that’s the Government or companies,” said Leon. 

“I think we can solve this problem if we work together and it’s a disgrace that so much perfectly good food goes to waste.

“The Felix Project gets surplus food from more than 500 businesses, whether that’s small shops or Amazon, Hello Fresh and Ocado. 

“It’s really good produce, often close to its ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date, which means you can’t sell it any more. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. It’s then distributed to almost 1,000 charities all around London who give it to people who live in food insecurity.

“For example, many workers just before Covid were made redundant – people who were living from pay cheque to pay cheque. 

“You can see, as you drive round east London, that so many people fall outside the system, and we allow it to happen – with ridiculous wages, not giving people any sense of security. 

“Many people in the capital get paid really, really, well, but a lot of people don’t – it’s almost impossible to live in London on a wage of £7 or £8 an hour.

“A few weeks ago I had a charity kitchen doing what we do here and, in talking with The Felix Project, we found funding to create this purpose-built kitchen in Poplar – we’re building up to do 6,000 meals a day, but it takes time.

“I have very experienced chefs, so they look at what comes in and they make meals out of it. We always try to do a variety – it’s crucial we do both nutritious and delicious meals.

“That’s very important to me because when people are not in a very good state, they tend not to eat so well – if you have mental health challenges, eating is not at the top of your list of priorities and they don’t even realise it, so we will be working with nutritionists to help us improve what we produce. We always make sure that there’s protein, whether meat, vegetarian or vegan.

The meals are then distributed to charities
The meals are then distributed to charities – image Matt Grayson

“We’re also guided by the surplus we have – one of our remits is that no food should go to waste, which is a very interesting challenge.

“Right now we are actively looking for volunteers, especially local people, because we serve the local community.

“Also, if local companies have surplus food, then they should get in touch with us because we don’t want any food to go to waste

“We can put it to good use, re-purpose it and give it to the people who need it. We have the resources for that – warehouses, where we can collect the food, sort it and turn it into meals.

“We get black crates from Amazon, for example, that have all different things, and we separate it out. If you’re a small business, then give it to us rather than put it to waste.

“Bigger companies that produce food for supermarkets often have a lot of waste – often it’s not their own fault. For example, if it’s going to be good weather, a firm might make a lot of barbecue packs and then it rains and suddenly they don’t sell anything. But if they don’t put it in the bins and bring it to us we can do something with it. 

“We talk to our suppliers, of course, to ask if they have any of a particular ingredient but we’re especially short of staples – rice, pasta, tins of tomatoes – that sort of thing.”

The Felix Project was created in 2016 by husband and wife Justin and Jane Byam Shaw, inspired by the compassion of their late son Felix, who died suddenly from meningitis in 2014. 

You can find out more about the charity and volunteering in east London online at thefelixproject.org.

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