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12th April 2021

Queen Mother's visit to St Helena Hospice

St Helena Hospice is celebrating 35 years since Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother visited Colchester on 11th April 1986 to officially open the inpatient unit in north east Essex.

The Hospice had welcomed its first patient, 22 year old Lisa Brenchley, on 20th May 1985, and Lisa’s parents Brian and Shirley Brenchley, were introduced to the royal visitor at the opening ceremony. Brian remembers:

“Almost a year after Lisa died at the Hospice, we were asked to go to the opening ceremony and we were chosen to be presented to the Queen Mother, which was nice. My wife and I had tea with her. She was a charming lady, she was lovely.

“I was chatting away, I couldn’t stop talking, I was so overwhelmed! I always remember I couldn’t praise the Hospice enough because of the treatment we had and I wanted to make sure that she knew what a great job they had done for Lisa.

“As she was leaving, she recognised me from earlier and she came over and I shook her hand again and I remember saying ‘thanks so much for coming, we really appreciate it’, then she said goodbye and walked on.”

The Queen Mother gave a short speech to the gathered crowd which was made up of volunteers, staff and invited guests, before unveiling a plaque to commemorate the day:

“I am so glad to be here today and to be able to visit St Helena Hospice which as I know became created through the dedication and the generosity of countless supporters in this county and from far afield.

“The chairman described the Hospice to me as a centre of excellence and I am sure the excellence can be seen not only in this splendid building […] but even more in the gentleness, care, skill and understanding of those who work here.”

She ended her speech with:

“And I do pray that everyone who comes to St Helena Hospice will find comfort and peace in these lovely surroundings.”

The royal visitor toured the inpatient unit to look at the facilities, and spoke with patients, staff and volunteers. It was an exciting day for the Hospice’s current matron Sue O’Neill, who recalls the day as a young nurse:

“Before she arrived, we had a lesson on etiquette; how to courtesy and address Her Majesty. I was in a room with a patient who was enjoying the horse racing on the television. The Queen Mother entered the room just as his horse was nearing the finish line and she waited for it to finish. His horse was not the winner and he said a few expletives. She said ‘oh so did you have a bet on that one’, or words to that effect, and they started chatting about horse racing!

“He was not at all fussed about royals, a very natural communicator - and to the point! I remember thinking oh no she may have been offended, but they were laughing and chatting as though they knew each other.”

Dr Elizabeth Hall, co-founder and first medical director, joined the royal visitor on a tour of the inpatient unit, and the horse racing interaction has stayed in her memories too:

“I remember going into one of the rooms with her and the patient had the television on and said to her ‘I think we both like watching the races’, and she said ‘you get a better view on the telly!’

“When the Queen Mother visited, everybody was so excited; it was the beginning of the Hospice and that was lovely. The other thing was that requests by patients for extra painkillers went right down during that day. I think it was the joy of everybody meeting her.”

At the time of the visit Joy Higgins was working as PA and secretary to Pat Gosling, the Hospice’s first professional fundraiser and administrator, and has a memory of the day to dine out on! Joy explains:

“The Queen Mother was to take afternoon tea. There was no dining room table suitable for her to take tea so I volunteered my dining room table, which was transported to the Hospice, where the Queen Mother took tea on it with various members of the Hospice staff. For a long time after we told our friends who came to dine with us that they were sitting at the table where the Queen Mother took tea!

“I remember she had the most beautiful skin and was so relaxed. She spoke to so many people.”

The afternoon tea itself was served by Doreen Hill, who worked as an assistant cook when the Hospice first opened. Doreen remembers:

“It was a nice spring day and the army provided a marquee on the lawn where the car park is now. I had a smaller separate little tent at the back where I had to make the tea. We had the table set out and the idea was that a certain number of people would come up at a time to take tea with the Queen Mother. Chris Holmes, who was the chairman then, sat with her all the time, and then I think it was about six people at a time - some were children, some were volunteers, some were relatives – it was a mixture of different people - would come up for about five or ten minutes, that was all.

“The thing I remember most was of course you can’t pour the Queen Mother stewed tea, could you? She came into the main building first and then she was due to come across to the marquee where she would then take tea. Either side of the pathway down to where the marquee was and inside the marquee were people either side just to see her as she went by. Well, we kept saying ‘oh she’s coming, she’s coming’ but she stopped to talk to so many people, so I had to keep making fresh pots of tea because I thought I can’t give her stewed tea!

“When she did eventually come to the table and Chris Holmes introduced me, I’d practiced my little courtesy, and she said ‘oh yes, a very important job’. Then I poured the tea. How I managed it sometimes I reflect and I think I wouldn’t be able to do it now, I would have been shaking!

“I had stood that morning cutting up thinly sliced cucumber to make cucumber sandwiches, because we had been advised the sort of thing she liked. The chef at the time had made a cherry cake, and when she sat down and I poured the tea, Chris Holmes said to her ‘what would you like ma’am?’ and she said ‘oh cherry cake, my favourite!’ and she took a piece of cherry cake and never touched my cucumber sandwiches!”

Stories of people involved with St Helena Hospice at its very beginning are being recorded and preserved, along with historic photographs and film clips, for an exhibition and an online archive project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund thanks to National Lottery players.

To share your story and photos, in the first instance email or call St Helena Hospice’s marketing team on 01206 931 464, for information on how to contribute to the project.

National Lottery Heritage Fund

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