The NGH Historical Archive team have been looking at fundraising in the 20th century. Our hospital has relied on the generosity of the people of Northampton and charitable donations through the ages have helped to shape the NGH. We thought we should start with the youngsters.
In the early 1900’s there was a column in the Northampton Mercury especially for children called ‘The Uncle Dick Society’. It was abandoned during the war because of the scarcity of newsprint and then ‘Uncle Dick emigrated to Australia. In 1919 a young reporter, Bernice Hay, was approached with a proposal from the editor of the Northampton Mercury to take it over and write a weekly letter aimed at boys and girls to include stories, competitions and setting up a club. Bernice took on the task and her first column appeared on 21st November 1919 entitled ‘The Merry Comrades Circle-Conducted by Auntie Dick’. She urged all young readers to fill in the form and become members, promising in future editions there would be competitions, good stories, riddles and other fun things to do. The two rules were 1, that children must be under sixteen and 2, be kind to birds, animals and help one another.
In 1924 she married a teacher from Northampton Grammar School and became Mrs Bernice Field, giving up full time journalism but carrying on the work with the Merry Comrades from home. She wanted her Merry Comrades Circle to have a real purpose rather than just an entertainment column and her opportunity came in 1932 when the Mercury merged with the Herald becoming the Mercury and Herald, and Auntie Dick proposed, with the help of the Merry Comrades to raise money for the benefit of children in hospitals within the area covered by the newspaper. We should bear in mind that this was years before the NHS.
The first project was to raise £500 to endow a cot at Manfield Hospital. Money was raised in various ways including competitions, bring-and-buy sales, collecting boxes, whist drives, saving silver paper (to sell on), selling scented greeting cards, recycling and selling Christmas cards, concert parties and various charity functions. It took five years to raise this money and the next project was to raise £600 for a cot in NGH‘s Children’s ward, which only took four years.
Any child who raised £1 during each year was invited to a special performance of the Christmas pantomime at the New Theatre in Northampton, and when that closed in 1958, the Royal Theatre. Depending on how much each child raised, they were given a badge to indicate how well they had done. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Auntie Dick would ask members to send her toys, books, games and dolls etc., so that disadvantaged children, those in homes and hospitals could all have a Christmas present.
During the Second World War the Merry Comrades turned their attention to providing comforts for fighting men. Members, and adult helpers, knitted squares to make into blankets and given to the Red Cross to be distributed among British prisoners of war. Money was also raised to send food parcels, cigarettes, books and clothes to men from the Northamptonshire Regiment who were held in Germany.
When war ended, prisoners of war returning to their homes in Northampton were entitled to a cheque for two guineas and by the end of the war over five hundred ex-prisoners of war had received this welcome home present.
Bernice Field died in 1963 but the Merry Comrades, under the leadership of ‘Auntie Doris’, continued to fundraise until it was disbanded in 1988. Over the years it provided radio and headphones for every bed in the hospital and the Margaret Spencer Convalescent Home (upgrading the system ten years later), televisions for ward day rooms, and a hydrotherapy pool for the John Greenwood Shipman Home in Dallington for children with physical handicaps.
At the end it was estimated that the Merry Comrades had raised over £130,500 and residue funds of £9,000 were given to NGH to refurbish a room to be used for training and seminars, which was named the Merry Comrades Suite.
Volunteer at NGH Historic Archive and Museum.