Marylee Berners-Lee remembers

Marylee Berners-Lee, mother of Tim – inventor of the world wide web – was a FiSH volunteer since the start of the scheme in Sheen. In this article written before her death in 2018 she explains here how it all began in 1963.

During the 1960s, 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.

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.