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“I’ve got everything to live for”

Meet Bill, one of our sheltered housing residents.

Bill

He’s had a singalong in an air-raid shelter, played a giant gorilla on the big screen and been around the world eight times. Now one of our residents Bill is happily settled in a quiet Hammersmith haven with everything he needs (plus a few new grandchildren to keep him busy).

I used to live in a bedsit just around the corner from here in Rylett Avenue. I’d walk past John Betts House every day and think, “That looks like a nice place to live.” I never dreamed I’d live here myself.

I happened to meet a lady who lived at John Betts in my art class, and she told me there were units available. And that was it. I can’t believe I’m living in such a comfortable place in my old age. This is the centre of London, but it’s so peaceful. You can hardly hear a sound.

Where I began

I can remember when London went through the Blitz. I was living in Scotland at the time. We never saw a single plane, but if an air-raid siren went off in London, a siren would go off in Brechin as well. If the Londoners were hurrying into their shelters, then off we’d go too – quick march. We’d have a good singalong, and even lessons if a teacher was in the shelter. And you’d be in trouble if you were caught without your gas mask. It’s a bit like today. Now, I think: if we all pull together like we did back then, we’ll win this war too.

I got my first taste of cinema in those days. Every Saturday afternoon we went, and it was always packed solid. Two pennies to get in. I loved ‘cowboys and indians’ sorts of films like the Lone Ranger. Since then, acting has been my life. I’ve been in about 100 films. I started at 15, and one of my first roles was playing one of Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist. Eventually I made a bit of a name for myself as an arch-villain, I think because I was tall, had black wavy hair and a deep voice. I played Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster on stage. It was fun; everyone likes to be scared, from a safe distance.

My most famous role was Konga, a 1961 sci-fi horror film directed by Herman Cohen. It was about a giant gorilla which ran riot and I had to wear an ape suit for six hours a day, 10 days straight. I did most of the scenes on my own against a blue screen, chasing people, bending over houses, causing mayhem. Jess Conrad was one of the stars of the film. He was terribly good-looking and all the girls were mad about him. I had to kill him, which didn’t make me very popular.

Film-makers find it pretty hard to get 80-year-old actors, so I was still doing about a day a month on films up until last year. The last one I did was Stan and Ollie. But I’ll be 90 soon and I’ve had enough now. I’m quite happy just watching.

There were a few breaks from acting: I was called up for national service and sent to Egypt around the time of Suez Canal troubles. I worked in the Forces broadcasting service. I quite enjoyed it, but all that sunshine and sand! It was like being on a beach for a year. There wasn’t much to do.

I was also an entertainment officer on P&O cruise liners and I travelled around the world eight times. I organised cabarets and dances – and yes, of course I got involved too! I saw Rio, Sydney, New York… But do you know the place that I found most exciting to sail into? Southampton. Coming back home.

A peaceful haven

I never imagined that I’d finish up in such a lovely place. John Betts House has got everything you could want. When I wake up in the morning, the sun comes streaming in through the big windows. There are huge gardens right outside, and you can smell the flowers in my room.

I always say that when you get past 60, you develop a personality – everyone here is really interesting. People are friendly and happy to chat if you want, but they also mind their own business. There are always things to do, if you want to: social activities, coffee mornings, quizzes. I’ve been on trips to Bath and Winchester, and up the canal on a boat. I’ve also taken up painting in the last 10 years and that has kept my artistic juices flowing.

Things are a bit different at the moment. But this feels like one of the safest places in London. We are in an enclosed community, so there is no need to go out if you don’t want to. Occasionally I get up very early and go for short walk, when nobody’s around.

I’ve got three children but up until a few years ago there were no grandchildren. Now I’ve got two, with another one on the way. It’s like waiting for the number 7 bus. But it’s absolutely thrilling – I’ve got everything to live for.

 


Find out more about our sheltered housing

We provide beautiful and affordable sheltered housing in our almshouses, with award-winning communal gardens.

Call Leslie, our Housing Manager to find out more or to come and visit: 07470 793 565, email leslie.morson@hamunitedcharities.com or go to have a look at our sheltered housing pages.

Opening our doors to older people in need of a home

We're inviting older people on a low income who need an affordable new home to tour our almshouses.

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Woman dressed in beekeeping outfit

Bees and Refugees

Find out how one CIC is helping refugees to rebuild their lives, while protecting a rare British bee.

Ali AlzeinBees and refugees may seem like very different target groups, but for Ali Alzein the pairing makes complete sense: “Bees are very important for our ecosystem, for our survival as humans, but it’s a difficult environment and they’re in real danger. Refugees are also facing a hostile environment. The establishment has not only turned its back on refugees, it’s actively punishing them for seeking safety.”

Ali was introduced to beekeeping in Damascus by his grandfather. He shares, “I had to leave Syria so applied for asylum in the UK in 2014. I’d been working in the luxury fashion industry, so continued with that, but the disparity between people who could spend £1000 on an item of clothing on the one hand, and people living in refugee camps on the other hand, was difficult to cope with. I was struggling with my mental health. My grandpa suggested I start keeping bees. They were delivered on a rainy, foggy day, but they soon filled the garden with life. I found it so calming, so grounding.”

That experience prompted Ali to launch a community interest company (CIC) – Bees and Refugees. He decided to focus on the native British black bee, which until recently was thought to be extinct.

The CIC runs therapeutic beekeeping workshops for refugees, helping them to process the trauma they’ve experienced. Workshops are also available for children, charities and local businesses. Most of the workshops are held in London, but Bees and Refugees also has a farm in Otford, Kent, which the CIC has renovated and turned into a community space. Ali shares, “People spend the day here in a beautiful, safe space. We cook together and teach them all about bees.”

Woman dressed in beekeeping outfitThe CIC also raises awareness about the difficulties that refugees face, and it fundraises to support them. Ali shares, “Many of our community members come from Gaza. Some have lost more than 20 members of their family and have relatives who are stuck in Rafah. So, most of our work right now is focused on supporting this community.”

The CIC is making a real difference, both on bee numbers and on refugees. Ali, says, “It has a real impact on people. One man used to keep bees before he came to the UK. He said that working with bees again was the first time he’s felt at home since the day he left Syria seven years ago.”

The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘Our Home’, so we asked Ali what home means to him.

“The home I came from is still not a safe place for me to return to, but for me, home is about community. I have an amazing community here, which has become a second family. We’re like a colony of bees!”

Bees and Refugees has received grants from Hammersmith United Charities and other organisations but is mainly self-funded. It raises income by managing beehives and insect hotels for local businesses, and by hosting corporate away days. However, it couldn’t survive without the help of volunteers. Ali says, “Bees and Refugees is the result of the collective work of so many people, so many buzzing bees.”

Find out more

  • If you’re interested in supporting Bees and Refugees through volunteering, a corporate partnership or a donation, please visit their website.
  • You can also follow the CIC’s work on Instagram, X and Facebook.

Bee hotel

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People cooking together at West London Welcome

Welcoming refugees to West London

“As an asylum-seeking doctor, trapped in a [hotel] room with so little to do, West London Welcome revitalises my spirit.”

According to the UN, almost 100 million people have been forced out of their homes across the globe. The figure has more than doubled in just 10 years. Those who seek asylum in the UK are unable to work until they have been granted asylum, and receive just £8.86 a week of support, meaning that most have to rely on charities.

One of those charities is West London Welcome, which supported 492 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants last year. People visiting the charity’s community centre are able to get advice and support, learn English, take part in activities such as fitness classes and creative writing, and access essentials such as food and clothing. Perhaps most importantly, they’re welcomed into a supportive community where they can make friends to reduce their isolation.

Refugees cooking together at West London Welcome

Joanne MacInnes is the Founder and Director of West London Welcome. She explains, “We primarily exist to be a place of welcome for new people to the country – a place to get to know local people and to feel supported.”

Zainab is one such person. She says, “As an asylum-seeking doctor, trapped in a [hotel] room with so little to do, West London Welcome revitalises my spirit. It’s a haven where everyone comes together, sharing experiences and hardships, reminding me of the profound impact of compassion and care.”

Refugee Week is 17-23 June. West London Welcome are planning several events, including a big party for their members and a fundraising event.

The theme of this year’s Refugee Week is ‘Our home’. Everyone deserves a place to call home, one where they can feel safe and at peace. For migrants and refugees far from their old communities, that need is more important than ever. However, most asylum seekers are housed in hotels, where they have very little space and cannot cook their own meals or enjoy the downtime that many of us take for granted.

People from West London Welcome celebrating together

Once they’re granted asylum, refugees are given just 28 days to find new accommodation before they’re evicted from their hotel room. That would be difficult for most people, but for refugees the challenge is even greater, as Joanne explains:

“You haven’t got a deposit; you haven’t been allowed to work; you haven’t got a credit history; you’ve been infantilised and kept in destitution, and suddenly you’re thrown onto the open market, or you’re at the mercy of the council.

Finding homes for people has been our biggest challenge recently and is what keeps us awake at night. In the second half of last year, the Home Office tried to clear its backlog of asylum applications, which meant that many more people were granted refugee status in a short amount of time. Before that, we might celebrate five people a year walking in and saying that they’d been granted refugee status. That grew to five to 10 people a week.”

If refugees can’t find new accommodation, they can end up on the streets or sofa surfing. Thankfully, West London Welcome have been able to stop that from happening to the people they work with. Joanne says, “We call on the local community to see whether anyone knows of a flat to rent which is affordable and where the landlord will accept housing benefit rates. We also work closely with a wonderful charity called Refugees at Home, who can often offer temporary housing. However, at times we’ve had to pay for a hotel, or one of our 130 local volunteers will put the person up until more long-term accommodation can be found.

“We don’t view people as clients – we’re a community – so we cannot see people forced out onto the streets.”

Find out more

  • If you can offer a home to rent at the housing benefit rate, would like to volunteer, or need support, please contact West London Welcome.
  • Hammersmith & Fulham Council is holding lots of events for Refugee Week, from a gardening workshop to Saturday Fun Day. Find out what’s planned for Refugee Week here.
  • To show your support for refugees, visit the Refugee Week website to download resources, order a T-shirt and take part in a social media thunderclap.

 

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almshouse residents

Building communities to reduce loneliness

Could almshouses be the solution to loneliness for people over 60?

According to Age UK, more than 70% of people aged 50 and over feel lonely to some extent. Many go days on end without speaking to another person. Feeling lonely can impact so many areas of your life, leaving you feeling depressed, anxious and struggling to cope. It can also affect your physical health. According to Loneliness Awareness Week, it can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and dementia.

One of the main reasons that older people feel lonely is isolation. When you no longer go out to work, and have no family or close friends living nearby, it can be difficult to meet new people.

Almshouses provide affordable housing with a particular emphasis on community, enabling residents to live independently with friendship and support nearby when needed.

Hammersmith United Charities have two almshouses – John Betts House and Sycamore House. Between them, they’re home to around 90 people aged 60 and over. Both almshouses host a wide range of activities, from coffee mornings and quizzes to trips out.

While each resident’s flat has a private living room, the almshouses also have communal social spaces and gardens.

Lorraine, one of our residents
Lorraine with Sycamore House scheme manager Chris

Lorraine moved to Sycamore House a couple of years ago. She says, “There is a wonderful garden at the back – the place absolutely shone in summer time. It’s lovely to go out and sit and enjoy time with others you’re friendly with. I think I can name nearly all of the 50 or so people who live here now.

“There’s lots on socially here at Sycamore House so I involve myself in that as much as I wish – I usually go to the coffee morning and catch up with everyone on a Thursday. I’ve made some very good friends here. We have lots of celebrations and parties, including a yearly fundraiser.”

One of Lorraine’s neighbours, Del, says, “They’re lovely people here. The staff are great. The best thing is you have your privacy, but the company is there if you need it. I am the quiz master here every Thursday. The residents get together after our coffee morning, and we have a good laugh.”

Apply for a home

We currently have flats available in both of our almshouses. If you  or someone you know might be interested in applying, please visit our almshouses pages.

Here’s what our residents have to say about living here:

Tackle loneliness

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“Houses on our street got bombed.”

This week, we’re marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day by sharing some of our residents’ stories of WWII. Today, it’s Betty’s turn.

“I remember the bombs dropping – the ‘doodle bugs’ [German V-1 flying bombs]. They used to come over and then you’d hear the engine stop and they’d crash into somebody’s house.

“We were lucky. We didn’t get bombed, but houses on our street did and people were killed. When the sirens went, we’d go down to Shepherd’s Bush underground station and sleep on the platform. We had an Anderson shelter in the garden as well, but my mum didn’t feel safe there.

“My mother was dead scared. We used to say to her, ‘Why are you frightened?’ When you’re a kid, you don’t realise how bad it is. You know that houses are being bombed and people are being killed and you’re sorry about that, but it doesn’t affect you in the same way as when you’re older.”

Betty and her family were evacuated to Nottingham. “We stayed with quite a well-off family called the Thornycrofts. You’d see Thornycroft buses on the road. They gave us a little flat in this big house and we were well looked after. We stayed for about six months. My mother got quinsy [an abscess near her tonsils]. She wanted to be home, so we came back to London.”

Betty’s step-father and uncle fought in the war. Both survived, but her uncle was badly injured. “My step-father didn’t really talk about the war. I don’t think a lot of them did. I think they saw some terrible things and just wanted to move on.”

Betty remembers the celebrations at the end of the war. “I was five when the war started and coming up to 12 when it finished. The street parties were good! It was five or six years after the war before things felt normal though.”

While Betty doesn’t recall hearing about the Normandy landings at the time, she says, “If it wasn’t for D-Day, we’d have lost the war. I was watching the telly yesterday and they spoke to a man who was in the navy then. He was only 16. A lot of them put their ages up so they could get into the forces. They were just kids.”

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