Lawrie (as he likes to be called), in now 92. Five years ago he received a Times-Sternberg Award. He is one of the people I interviewed for my book The New Frontier: Making a difference in later life, which is due out soon. Receiving particular mention amongst Lawrie’s many contributions to society were his years of voluntary service with the Red Cross, his work with homeless refugees and asylum-seekers and his role in developing the Coventry Foodbank. Here is an extract from his chapter in the book:
Lawrie’s involvement with the Red Cross can be traced back to when he became NHS Emergency Planning Officer for the capital in the final stages of the Cold War. In 1990, aged 64, Lawrie, who had by then gone part-time with the National Health Service, was invited to join the London branch of the Red Cross. His remit was to draw up their emergency response plan because he had done much the same thing for the NHS. Both plans required a massive use of volunteers who needed to be trained and exposed to realistic field exercises. A feature of civil defence planning at the height of the Cold War was the prospect of attack by nuclear rockets and mass casualties. Surviving hospitals, it was thought, would not be able to cope with such numbers. A core part of the plan was first-aid on a very large scale, led and trained by the voluntary aid societies (VAS), namely the St. John Ambulance and the Red Cross. Lawrie recognised two things in this grim scenario. First, the need for the VAS to be rehearsed, particularly with regard to a triage system that allowed for hospital transfer only for those with a good chance of survival. Second, although a nuclear attack was seen by the Home Office and the Department of Health as the most likely cause of such a scenario, Lawrie foresaw that terrorist attack could also produce huge casualties and that this needed to be built into the plan. As part of this plan he co-operated with the London Fire Brigade in the making of a video-recording of a realistic exercise showing how St John Ambulance, the Red Cross and other voluntary organisations might be best used in a major emergency. This video, entitled ‘Volunteer’ was shown to great effect at the international conference on ‘Hospitals After War’ in Stockholm a year later in 1987. Lawrie also focussed attention on the need to up-date the response plan for a major disaster at or near Heathrow Airport.
So when Lawrie had completed his work in London in 1994, aged 68, it is not surprising that he was asked to become organiser of a local Red Cross Centre in Hertfordshire, building it up from hard times and low numbers to a fully functioning and thriving operation.
In both London and Hertfordshire the Red Cross role increasingly extended to the relief of foreign asylum-seekers and refugees as unrest in Africa, the Balkans and the Levant swelled the numbers arriving in England. Although the County Council in Hemel Hempstead had responsibility for providing basic accommodation and subsistence, there was a constant shortfall which the local Red Cross, led by Lawrie, did its best to make up. This relief work included the unique Red Cross function of seeking lost relatives.
At the age of 75 Lawrie was appointed Branch Tracing Officer. Aided by the group of interpreters which he set up, he tackled a torrent of desperate cries for help, such as:
‘Please can you find my father in Somalia.’
‘I have lost my passport. If I am sent home I will be shot.’
‘My mother fled Zimbabwe to Johannesburg. You are my only hope of finding her.’
‘The Serbs came and the men fled, but all the women were taken. Please, please find my wife.’
Then there were people such as Martha who had fled from Trinidad. Heavily pregnant, and with no friends or relatives in England, she was living in one of the homeless shelters. Martha had omitted to seek asylum and now her work visa had expired. Lawrie arranged for her to stay in a B&B with a sympathetic Indian couple. However, when social services took over after her baby was born, she was placed in a bedroom up many flights of stairs. There was no key to the door and facilities were shared with a bachelor who occupied the adjacent room. Two of Lawrie’s women volunteers befriended her, visiting her regularly and meeting all shortfalls in food and clothing. They shared the joy of the baby girl’s christening at the local and very welcoming Anglican church. Officialdom eventually rejected Martha’s belated bid for asylum. Martha accepted deportation and she and her baby were flown by the Home Office to another of the West Indian islands where her mother awaited her. Unlike many asylum seekers refused permission to stay, things worked out quite well for Martha. That they did so, in no small measure was due to the work of Lawrie and his co-volunteers who saw her through a very difficult period in her life.