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So Long, Billy Dove OBE

February 23, 2022
by the gentle author

Thank you to everyone who has contributed so far to my crowd-funder to launch a COMMUNITY TOURISM PROJECT in Spitalfields as a BETTER ALTERNATIVE to the serial killer tours that monetise misogyny. We have raised around £9,500 in the first week, so please help by spreading the word.

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CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THIS PROJECT

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Map of The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields designed by Adam Dant

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Today I remember Billy Dove (1939-2021) who died in December and whose funeral took place at St James, Garlickhythe, yesterday

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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 off Petticoat Lane where Billy lived for the past fifty years with his partner Joseph Akoto-Mehsah, he was surrounded by photographs and other fond mementos of his ceaseless social activities in the charitable sphere. With astonishing mental energy, Billy pursued his talent in the administration of committees and meetings. Where others might go to any length to avoid reports, minutes and agendas, Billy embraced collective decision-making with a passion that consumed his life – by sitting on thirty committees. Billy’s flat was filled with paper and his days were crowded with engagements, and he thrived 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, 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. 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 © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Strowman permalink
    February 23, 2022

    The first conclusion I have after reading this is BILLY was a giver.
    My old college mate Nick once said, “Look around the room. There are two types of people here. Those who give. Those who take.”

    Billy was a giver.

  2. Karen Rothstein permalink
    February 23, 2022

    For all the years of pleasure I’ve had reading your stories and seeing the wonderful pictures, I want to thank you for the time you put into this. I live in Atlanta, Ga. USA snd have several friends that life across the pond that I’ve turned on to you email an I know they enjoy it as well.

    Thank you for being you.
    Best Wishes, karen

  3. February 23, 2022

    What an engaging personality. Billy seemed so full of life and energy. A life well lived all

  4. Annie Green permalink
    February 23, 2022

    A good life, well lived. And he seems to have enjoyed every step of the way.

  5. February 23, 2022

    What appears from the story is: he was a good man. May he rest in peace. — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  6. Jim Siegel permalink
    February 23, 2022

    Thank you for his tribute. Clearly a remarkable man.

  7. Cherub permalink
    February 23, 2022

    What a lovely man, constantly busy and helping others. I have a friend who is 80 and exactly the same, witty, entertaining and constantly on the go in various organisations he’s involved with.
    Billy’s portrait is lovely, I wonder who the artist was?

  8. Ros permalink
    February 23, 2022

    I think one of the most remarkable things about this man’s unique story is that he was in a mixed-race same-sex relationship for 50 years or so, during times when same-sex and mixed-race relationships were each the subject of massive discrimination and scorn. I salute both Billy and Joseph for their courage, determination and achievement. I send my condolences to Joseph and loved reading about Billy’s life and times!

  9. Lesley permalink
    February 23, 2022

    Billy was a great character. He definitely left an impression on my as a nine year old in his class in 1965! Everyone should meet a ‘Billy’ on their life’s journey! I for one will miss his updates and Christmas cards!! RIP Billy x

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 23, 2022

    What an amazing gentleman. A life well lived I think.

  11. Arnel Sullano permalink
    February 24, 2022

    I have the great pleasure of meeting Billy in many occasions during my more than 10 years working in St Lawrence Jewry Church. He was really a genuine good person whose jolliness was very infectious. He would light up the room whenever he came in. He was also one of those people who showed genuine concern on me and my family. He will be sorely missed. Rest in peace Billy.

  12. Susan Hare permalink
    February 24, 2022

    Growing up in Bethnal Green in the 1960s I remember going to Jeffery Museum. We had work sheets which were fun & allowed to explore the museum. I also enjoyed the art room. Thank you for a wonderful experience.

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