The History of FiSH

Marylee Berners-Lee, mother of Tim – inventor of the world wide web – has been a FiSH volunteer since the start of the scheme in Sheen.  She explains here how it all began fifty five years ago.

During the 1960’s, in the parish of Mortlake and East Sheen, we used to have very good ecumenical Lent groups.  In 1962 the subject was “Who is my neighbour?’ or something similar.  My husband, Conway and I had a group which meet in our home.  The material was good and after a few sessions Conway and I realised that we should get our friend Donald Richards along to talk to us all.

Donald and Conway were members of a Christian group formed when he they were both students at Cambridge.  The group had continued to meet, support one another and organise retreats for themselves and their spouses.  Donald was a GP in Headington, near Oxford and he was also a church warden in his local parish.  He found that he would visit a sick patient at home, write a prescription, then realise that they had no means of collecting it.

One of the first publicity cards

One of the first publicity cards c.1970

He also knew that in the church at Headington they had recently had a very successful stewardship campaign.  Many in the congregation felt that they were stewards not only of their money but also of their time and talents.  So these two new ideas came together and the first FiSH scheme was born.  It was called FiSH because that is an early Christian symbol.  I am not sure how the help was co-ordinated but I remember they had cards printed and distributed with a picture of a fish.  Anyone needing help could put one of these in their window where it would be spotted.  In those days local children were recruited to help and they were called Sprats!

Back in Sheen our Lent group was enthusiastic.  Fortunately, in the group were Rachel and Michael Kinchin-Smith; they were the sort of people who knew how to get things done!  They talked to Sam Erskine our vicar; Sam knew Doris Bown, who had Multiple Sclerosis.  She and her husband had planned the future.  They moved into a convenient flat in Sheen Court where he would be able to care for her as she was already unable to get out on her own.  Then, quite suddenly, her husband died on his way home from work.  Doris was housebound and needed something to occupy her.  Apart from her immobility she was an able lady, and a caring one, so she was the perfect person to coordinate the project.

That is how FiSH in this area started.  Doris was prepared to answer the phone 24 hours a day, all the days of the week.  The volunteers were mainly church-goers of all denominations at first, but I also remember one enthusiastic humanist.  Doris matched the volunteers to the jobs and FiSH carried on like that for several years until Doris became too old and disabled to continue.

In the years following a rota of volunteers, just a few, five or six, took over the phone one day a week, Monday to Friday, mornings only.  The paper files were transferred physically.  The FiSH phone number continued, but each day a message gave the number to ring that day.  The number of people on this rota was small because confidentiality was so important.

As the FiSH scheme spread, various attempts were made to explain the name.  Rachel tried “Fellowship In Service and Help”.  In those days there was a pool of potential FiSH volunteers, mostly young mums who didn’t go out to work.  Most of the ones I knew have “moved on” in one way or another.  I asked my neighbour of 58 years, Jeane Dunsford, about her memories of FiSH and she remembers being asked to do things like shopping, baby-sitting and transport.

At that time I had an elderly Aunt in Cheltenham for whom I was the next of kin.  She sometimes would fall in her house, or get bronchitis; I was 100 miles away, but her neighbours were very good and I was grateful.  I was pleased to repay indirectly by being a niece to someone else’s aunt, and I tried to give the request for help the same priority I would have done for my own aunt.

Mary Lee Berners-Lee, Founder Member


1963 – FiSH began.

2000 – It was agreed that the two separate charities serving Mortlake & East Sheen and Barnes should be amalgamated.

2001 – Jenny Hughes was appointed as Co-ordinator of Barnes, Mortlake & East Sheen FiSH.  FiSH ‘n’ Chats began.

2002 – Regular shopping trips and outings were begun using minibuses hired from RaKAT. First FiSH tea time concert held at Sheen Lane Centre.

2003 – FiSH celebrated its 40th anniversary and received an ‘Investor in People’ award.  The FiSH Bridge Club was begun.

2004 – The FiSH office moved to Barnes Green Centre strengthening the relationship between FiSH and Age UK Richmond.  The first FiSH bus ‘Angel’ was launched.

2005 – Phyllida Cornfield was appointed as Transport Enterprise Scheme Co-ordinator. The weekly ‘Tuesday Talks’ began.

2009 – ‘Befriending’ work was formally expanded.  Monthly lunchtime concerts were begun.

2010 – For the first time FiSH had access to two accessible minibuses permanently on site with the arrival of ‘Clive’.  The FiSH Choir ‘Singing Scales’ was begun.

2012 – FiSH was commissioned to deliver a Telephone Befriending service by the LiveWell project and Liz Dallas-Ross was appointed as Befriending Manager.

2013 – FiSH celebrated its Jubilee and became a charity and company limited by guarantee.  A new minibus ‘Jubilee’ joined the fleet and Linda Dutton joins the staff as Assistant Transport Coordinator.

2014 – In association with The Alzheimer’s Society, FiSH launches a ‘Retro Cafe’ for people with memory loss.

2015 – Linda Dutton is appointed as Operations Manager, enabling the office to be open Monday-Friday 9-5 for the first time.  The Wednesday Walkers group was also launched.

2016 – FiSH launched an Elders Dance programme in association with Rambert Ballet.

2017 – Phyllida Cornfield retires and Deborah Carter is appointed as the new Transport Manager. ‘Nicola’ joins the minibus fleet, replacing ‘Clive’. The Retro Cafe launches in East Sheen to compliment the cafe already running in Barnes. Anneka Rice becomes Patron of FiSH.

2018 – Jenny Hughes retires after 17 at the helm and Micky Forster is appointed as the new Director of FiSH Neighbourhood Care. FiSH is awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.  Picassos in the Park art workshops are launched.

2019 – Jenny Hughes is awarded the British Empire Medal in the New Years Honours List. Lunch Clubs are launched in Barnes and East Sheen. A partnership with MeetUpMondays and the Hare & Hounds is established as a regular activity.

2020 – A new chair exercise class is begun in East Sheen in partnership with Sheen Lane Health Centre. A third bus, ‘Jenny’ joins the FiSH fleet and ‘Jubilee’ is renamed ‘Andy’ to celebrate all that Jenny and Andy Hughes contributed to FiSH. A new Parkinson’s Group is launched. The Coronavirus pandemic impacts the world and FiSH responds with the busiest period in its history.

2021 – FiSH continued to respond to the challenges presented by COVID. The FiSH Choir is relaunched as the Good Afternoon Choir under the leadership of Carl Speck following the retirement of Jean Oxley.

2022 – Micky Forster retires and Arlene Coutts is appointed Director of FiSH. Singing for the Brain is launched for those living with dementia.

2023 – FiSH celebrates its 60th anniversary.

How times have changed!

It has been fascinating to observe the developments which have taken place since I became a FiSH volunteer almost thirty years ago. At that time, FiSH was comprised of a small group of “helpers” (as we were then known) serving Sheen and Mortlake and organised by Jean Lewis from her home.  Tasks were fairly straightforward, collecting shopping or a pension or giving lifts, mainly to doctors or hospitals. My first job was to take two ladies to Sheen Lane Centre for the Bingo session, a job I carried out on many subsequent occasions. If they were lucky and won the weekly £2 prize I would be handed £1 for FiSH.

Over the years the work has greatly increased. I have met many different people in a variety of situations and taken them to many different places. Some people one meets only once, others many times, getting to know them and hearing regular news of their lives.  One never knows what to expect when calling on someone for the first time.  I recall one lady who I was asked to take to hospital – but found myself somewhat nonplussed when, starting to escort her to the car, she turned and said, “would you carry my leg please.” She appeared to have two legs but her spare prosthetic leg was resting in the corner and was to be taken with her for adjustment!

Through my work on the Helpline I have got to know many more clients and also volunteers with whom it is always a pleasure to talk.  As a volunteer I found that whatever the variety of tasks I was asked to undertake I was rewarded with the satisfaction of having done something useful and worthwhile. As I read the regular Newsletters and see the range of services available to residents of Barnes, Sheen and Mortlake, I find it difficult to equate the FiSH of today with the FiSH I joined thirty years ago. However, the basic principles of FiSH remain the same: “to provide Friendship, independence, Support and Help to assist people to maintain their own independence.”

Dorothy Jones, former FiSH Volunteer