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Billy Dove, Committee Member

April 25, 2013
by the gentle author

In Billy’s garden

Even before I arrived for the interview, Billy Dove had prepared a helpful list of all the celebrities that he had met, on the back of a large white envelope with a City of London gilt insignia upon on it, as the basis for my feature. So I think he was a little disarmed when I revealed that I was not particularly interested in famous people, I was more curious to learn his story. Yet, if he was a little crestfallen at my unexpected declaration, Billy soon rallied his spirits, demonstrating the resilient humour that is his distinctive characteristic.

In the tiny pink flat in Evershed House off Petticoat Lane where Billy has lived for the past forty years with his partner Joseph Akoto-Mehsah, he is surrounded by photographs and other fond mementos of his ceaseless social activities in the charitable sphere. With astonishing mental energy, Billy has pursued his talent in the administration of committees and meetings. Where others might go to any length to avoid reports, minutes and agendas, Billy has embraced collective decision-making with a passion that has consumed his life – by sitting on thirty committees. Billy’s flat is filled with paper and his days are crowded with engagements, and he thrives upon juggling it all.

The crucial step was Billy’s decision to live at Toynbee Hall, the centre of charitable endeavour in the East End, where the Workers’ Educational Association and Community Service Volunteers started. Here he befriended the disgraced ex-Minister of Defence, John Profumo, who came to the East End to redeem himself by cleaning toilets after a sexual scandal that destroyed his career – though,“maybe he only did it for the press photographers on his first day,” Billy disclosed.

“That’s me and the old Duke,” Billy informed me as he held up a photograph of him and Prince Philip with a flourish,”I’ve met the Duke of Edinburgh loads of times, I was there when he opened the tiger house at London Zoo. He had been round the East End, and ended up at Toynbee Hall for drinks the day before and so the next morning he said to me, ‘Not you again?!” As he brought out more and more pictures of his celebrity encounters, I realised that if I was interested in Billy then I could not ignore these photographs which meant so much to him, because they were evidence of how far the boy from Bridlington had come.

“I come from Flamborough Head near Bridlington, and I came down to London to do teacher training in September 1958. I did my teaching practice at John Scurr School, Bethnal Green, and I just fell for the kids, the parents, the neighbourhood, the whole works. So I vowed I’d come back here and I got a job teaching at Sir John Cass School in 1960. I came to live  Toynbee Hall in 1962 as a resident volunteer and in those days you could live in some comfort for £4.50 a week, bed and breakfast and evening meal.

In 1965, I got a most unusual job at the Geffrye Museum, showing schools around and running activities on Saturdays when there was a club for children. All the local kids used to queue up at the front door and we let them have the run of the museum, doing quizzes and all kinds of activities. It was run by Molly Norman who was in the forefront of museum education work, there was a very lively atmosphere and we’d take them on trips to the big museums. Some of those kids had never been on the Central Line before.

I found I had an affinity with special needs children and I did those tours at the museum, and I became involved with the Rochelle School in Arnold Circus. It was a special school then and the kids were bussed in from all over, but I made a point of home visits to learn more about their backgrounds and meet their parents. Many of those kids lived in poverty and not all of them had dads, and some had dads that were in prison. I got so drawn into it that I went and did an extra year’s diploma in working with kids with special needs. Afterwards, I worked with kids in the playground at the Attlee Centre in Spitalfields and then became their fundraiser. After twenty-three years working there, I met Clement Attlee – he was eighty but still alert.

In 1997, when I retired officially, I thought I’d get involved with the Common Council in the City of London and I got elected. At first, I was appointed to two committees and now I’m on thirty! Most committees meet once a month and sub-committees meet at different times throughout the year, so this is how I have spent the last twelve years. In particular, I am Chairman of the City Bridge Trust and we give away about fifteen million pounds a year to charitable activities in London. Eight hundred years ago, the Crown gave us wharfs so the Trust could use the rent to pay for the upkeep of bridges, but the wharfs became derelict and the Trust sold them to buy other more valuable land around Tottenham Court Rd and today the Trust decides how to spend that surplus income.”

Aged six years old. Brighams photo studio, Bridlington, 1945.

At school, nine years old

Portrait of Billy by a member of Toynbee Hall Art Club, 1960s

Billy and his partner Joseph Akoto-Mehsah in a photographic studio in Wentworth St, 1973

With John Profumo, the disgraced Minister of Defence, and actress Valerie Hobson at Toynbee Hall in the late sixties.

Billy launches a hot air balloon to highlight the plight of the homeless at St Paul’s, 2011.

Flirting with Ann Widecombe at Prince Philip’s ninetieth at Buckingham Palace.

Presenting a cheque for £100,000 to Toynbee Hall for their work with the elderly.

As Master of the Worshipful Society of Parish Clerks, 2000

Congratulating Prince Philip on his ninetieth birthday.

“Not you again,” Prince Philip’s comment upon meeting Billy at the opening of the new tiger house at London Zoo.

Billy and Joseph meet the Queen at the Barbican.

Billy and Mo Farah

Billy and Tom Daley

Billy’s roll call of celebrities

Billy Dove at home

First & last portraits copyright © Colin O’Brien

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Teresa Stokes permalink
    April 25, 2013

    I sat next to Billy a charity dinner hosted by the Duke of Kent two years ago at Spencer House. We chatted throughout the meal, he told me all about the City Bridge Trust and his other activities and it was so interesting that I can’t even remember what we ate although I remember it being very splendid. I remember Joseph who outshone everyone in splendid Kente cloth. I had come with a friend who is on the “Rich List” although I myself am a complete nobody, and was feeling a little over-awed among all the philanthropists and big-wigs so it was great luck to be sitting beside such an engaging companion. Lovely to “meet” him again in this article!

  2. Cherub permalink
    April 25, 2013

    What a lovely man, one who is so interested in his community. I particularly like the part about him moving to London to teach – kids in poor areas need inspirational people like this. I have a friend in S London in his 70s, who like Billy is involved in all sorts of community things and committees. I truly believe it keeps him youthful. People like this are a credit to our society as they have so much to offer!

  3. April 26, 2013

    Another thoroughly enjoyable post. An amazing man. Love that hand-written celebrity list.

  4. Gary Burwood permalink
    June 7, 2013

    Billy was my teacher, and now one of my close friends a lovely charismatic person, whom I’m privileged to know.

  5. Alan Racheter permalink
    November 23, 2014

    I spent the first 27 years of my life in Spitalfields. The first 7 were in Blossom Street, then Hanbury Street. I have so many wonderful childhood memories of the area. Billy was my primary school teacher at Sir John Cass and we are still in touch over 50 years later.

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