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The Life of Bob Parsons, by Audrey Pitchforth

A photo of Bob Parsons

Bob Parsons, Friend

This Sunday there will be a memorial Meeting for Worship to commemorate and celebrate the lives of Bob Parsons, and his wife, Ann.  All are welcome to join. If you have not attended a Quaker meeting before you may find this useful: How Quakers Worship

This is the story of the life of Dr Bob Parson, a regular member attending our Quaker meeting until shortly before his death aged 88. It’s a personal perspective from our Pastoral Friend, Audrey Pitchforth who knew Bob for many years. We have pleasure in publishing it here in full. We will send a shorter version – a TESTAMENT TO THE GRACE OF GOD IN THE LIFE OF DOCTOR ROBERT PARSONS : MBE : OBE to our Area Meeting and it will be submitted for sharing at Britain Yearly Meeting 2023:

Bob Parsons was a Member of Hemel Hempstead Quaker Meeting from 1965 until his death in March 2022. 

He was a Probation Officer, a Save the Children Officer and latterly the Founder of Hope for Children, an internationally known charity. 

Where did the man described, known always as Bob Parsons, come into being? He was born in south London in 1933 in materially poor circumstances. This was the time of worldwide recession with high unemployment throughout the UK. His mother was Scottish, his father a Londoner, both experiencing difficulty getting regular work. But what Bob lacked materially was made up for by the love showered on him, an only child. His mother was adept at producing food from the cheapest cuts of meat or bones which nourished the sturdy boy. But a world war was rumbling in the 1930s – to begin in 1939 when Bob was six years old. Bob’s father was conscripted immediately and posted to Africa and soon after Bob’s seventh birthday, he was evacuated with his school to Sussex and learned for the first time the anxiety of a child who feels lost without a parent and was looking for a mentor. He waited to be chosen and given a home, which turned out to be in a village shop. But Bob’s mother missed him, so she decided she would up sticks in London and take Bob to live with an old friend in Dunoon – they were travelling to a foreign land – Scotland. 

This awakened a love for Scotland in Bob – the people, the scenery, the sea and kippers and this love never left him. But their stay was short lived as his mother decided to move to Cornwall to be with one of her sisters and her family. Another happy move but his father altered this (intervening from Africa) when Bob was around ten years old and he was put forward for a London grammar school place which was awarded. This resulted in another separation from his mother as the school had been evacuated to Sussex and he would be boarding there. He basically hated the place with its rule-ridden regime, the canings, and the food. 

But the war came to an end, the school relocated to London, and Bob’s father came home. Life became more bearable but Bob left the school happily when he was 16 and with his father’s help and approval, he got a job locally in a print works as a trainee manager. For his parents, new doors were opening for regular employment and the opportunity to advance materially. His parents were delighted that their son was receiving training for what they believed would provide a job for life. Unfortunately, this was Bob’s great fear. He also had to acknowledge that his hope of playing football for Chelsea was receding! A friend told Bob of his work in the Probation Service and the fact that it was not profit driven but done in the hope of making life better for people who needed some help. And there came an offer to allow Bob a day observing the work of a Probation Officer. 

This day opened Bob’s eyes to an awareness not only of the interest of the work but also that there were people who were regarded as a useless underclass, and it was possible to work to help to better other lives. This presented Bob with the challenge he wanted and also a way out from his boring work – which was not well received by his parents. After their experience of unemployment, a safe job for their son “for life” their son was throwing his life away. 

Changes were the order of the day in other departments and Bob married in 1960 and he left his safe job to train as a Probation Officer. Bob was certain that the change of career and his marriage to Ann Baker were splendid moves and he believed all his life he was right. 

1963 saw Bob qualify as a Probation Officer, become a father, move to Hemel Hempstead and get a permanent job at Watford Probation Office, under the guidance of Tom Burk It should be noted That Tom was not only a splendid senior officer, in fact he became Chief Probation Officer for England and Wales. It is also worth remembering Tom was a member of Hemel Hempstead Quaker Meeting. The caseload was heavy and Bob soon realised many of his clients were adolescent boys who had known poverty and deprivation all their lives. Bob and his friend in the service organised camps for these boys, at Dover under canvas which proved a great success, especially as there was no trouble with their behaviour. The camps ran for a number of years and on the first occasion, one boy was missing when the coach came to take them home, and he was found hiding up a tree, refusing to return home. 

By 1965, a daughter was born to Bob and Ann and they started to attend Quaker Meetings in Hemel Hempstead, where they remained as members. In his autobiography, Bob said how much Quaker principles spoke to him and helped him keep in mind the importance of looking for the best in everyone . In 1968, he got a job as a Lecturer in Social Work at North London Polytechnic. Again we see Bob aware of giving people new challenges as his students came from all walks of life and were seekers after something better for themselves and the hope they would be able to make life better for others. The workload continued to be heavy and in early 1980s, Bob was looking for something new and he found it via an advert in “New Society” for someone to work in Sri Lanka as establishing training schemes to aid children in Asia and the employer was the Save the Children Fund. 

With Ann’s encouragement and support, he applied and got the job and in 1982 was on the plane to Sri Lanka. The job was a two year contract to set up Child Care Training in a country with little or no organisation for homeless children. There simply was no infrastructure to help the children or the staff trying to assist them. Bob thought he had seen everything in respect of deprivation in the UK but he realised in Sri Lanka, he had seen nothing. In particular, he missed hearing children and found the children in Sri Lanka had stopped crying or complaining. He called it pitiful, bleak and unclean and the staff overworked and underpaid. 

As Bob commenced his work to organise and train people, he began to realise he had also joined a country with a powder keg beneath it – Sri Lanka was on the way to a Civil War. On the surface, the Tamil and Singhalese population got along with each other. The staff in the office and Bob’s home were a mixture of the two and worked well together. Once settled in, Bob arranged for his daughter, Kathryn, and her friend Claire to visit and do some voluntary work in the country during their summer holidays. Little did they know they were coming into a very violent and dangerous situation as the tensions flared with open fighting between the two factions and there would be thousands killed. 

This escalated for Bob on 23rd Jul 1983 dubbed “Black July” and he witnessed some of the conflict and young armed men were stopping cars to find out Tamil or Singhalese and Tamil houses were set alight. He continued to distribute food and milk powder and try in vain to get flights home for Kathryn and Claire – which happened after a few aborted attempts at the airport, much to Bob and Ann’s relief.

Bob’s next concern was the plight of some of his work force. His Tamil cleaner, Manium, and his family lived a 30 minute drive away from Bob, and his life and that of his family were in danger. Bob decided he would drive there and rescue them – often being stopped on the way but his white skin saved him and the shouting of “I work for Save the Children”. Once at Manium’s home, he advised them all to get into the back of the car, and crouch down beneath a blanket. Bob continued his “passport” phrase, but towards the end of the journey, the crowd realised he had passengers and they were trying to stop the car completely and were throwing stones. Bob’s well known method of driving saved the day – put your foot down, sound your horn and get through. It is a matter of opinion whether this method was already in place or whether it followed Bob back to the UK. But he got Manium and his family back to safety. 

A couple of days later, Bob’s landlady, who was Tamil and lived in the house, found herself the target of the mob. She was afraid they would come into the house for her, or destroy the property. That night, Bob stood at the gate ready to face the mob. He was prudently armed with his passport, two oranges and four bananas should he have to run for his life. He stood his ground against the leader, expecting violence, when the mob espied a car across the road and the whole mob left Bob to get to the car and drive away. The violence continued, with many deaths. Food was in short supply and under Bob’s guidance, the Save The Children Fund responded distributing flour, bread, rice and sugar. The war was of concern to the UK government and eventually, Chris Patten, their Overseas Development Minister, visited, followed by Margaret Thatcher, with a five million pound grant to Save the Children , to be used for improving conditions, particularly for children. A two year contract became an eight year stay in Sri Lanka. 

The Fund introduced 3 00 Supplementary Feeding programmes throughout the country and Bob learned first hand the importance of a charity being there, on the ground and able to assess and meet needs immediately. But eight years away from his family was more than enough for Bob and Ann, and he decided to return home and also to receive his MBE from the Queen – but this award remains framed and hangs on the wall of the Save the Children Fund office in Colombo. Bob continued to work for the Fund, but as a Regional Director for Asia, commuting daily from Hemel Hempstead to London. 

This job did involve some trips to troubled areas of Asia and some personal danger, particularly when Bob tried to implement a programme of help in Burma which failed because settlement of conflict and violence was not what could be accepted. On his return to London, he returned to the Probation Service in London for a short time, but the Save the Children were soon on his track again and asked him to become their Tracing Consultant in Africa – in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Rwanda. 100,000 children had fled Rwanda for neighbouring African countries and Bob’s task was to help to trace their families and homes. The task seemed impossible but many were reunited with their families as photographs and details of refugees were obtained and distributed. 

And it was a middle aged Rwandan woman who impressed and inspired Bob. Her name was Maisie and she had lost her entire family – children, parents and husband. She was about 50 years old, illiterate and penniless. Instead of giving in, she took in two orphaned children. Within a week of this act, several more children were brought to her door and she took all of them in. No-one was turned away. When Bob met her, she had 50 youngsters under her wing. What she lacked was money to house and feed them but no-one could give her money. Bob put his hand in his own pocket, but that was not enough and he tried to get her funding from well-established UK charities, but because she herself was not registered as a charity, no funds were available. So in July 1994, Bob lost faith in the larger charities. He managed to get some minimal help from small charities, but a solution was lacking. He returned to the UK disillusioned and disheartened. 

On his return, Bob spent a lot of time with his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease and by 1991 was failing. Just before he died, he said something profound to Bob : “In your last moments of life, will you be able to say that the world has been a better place because of your presence?” Two things spring to mind upon hearing this. When Bob disappointed his father by leaving a safe job for the Probation Service, Dad’s response was “you must be bloody joking” and Bob always suspected this feeling prevailed in his father’s mind. There was never a feeling of approval of his choice and he always felt these final words to be a challenge. It is possible they were an endorsement of Bob’s life and work. Both men were unaware of the opportunity that was on its way. 

Bob was working for the Probation Service when he came into contact with a man, Jim Ward, who was on licence following his release from prison He had been sentenced for murder. Bob befriended this shy, inarticulate man who had “done his bird” and upon his death, he bequeathed Bob £5,000 – asking that he would use the money to help children. What would Bob do with the money?  Distribute it to the big charities for their use? Maisie and Rwanda were in Bob’s mind and after a lot of thought, he said to Ann, “I am going to start a charity that supports disadvantaged children.” He told Ann what he had in mind, starting with work in Sri Lanka where he already had good contacts. 

The plan was to help smaller projects round the globe which had difficulty finding funding from the larger charities (Maisie again). They would work from home, the work force would be voluntary and costs kept to a minimum. Ann supported his ideas and of course would help, as did a number of friends. His next door neighbour became the treasurer and Ann the secretary. 

At first, it was simply a matter of enough people rattling tins in the streets but a fundraiser was appointed and he made the income grow, as did a local events organiser who also aided the funds. And the charity got a name HOPE FOR CHILDREN – and Hope stood for Handicapped, Orphaned, Poor and Exploited. Bob and Ann’s own home was turned into an office and a small extension built to take some of the strain (although I did hear Ann say occasionally “I would like my front room back”). 

Bob was involved in the first project when he flew back to Sri Lanka at his own expense to look at a project identified by a Sri Lanka friend for a centre for street children which Bob had set up years back and was in danger of closure. Bob was met by Tyrell, his friend, and arrangements were made for funds to be available to keep the centre open. And throughout the years, Bob has witnessed the skills learned and lives saved there. 

Fundraising at home continued and Bob retired early to give more time to using the money wisely. Another project was in Zambia where AIDS had wiped out a generation of people who left their families without support. The children were cared for by their grandparents, who had no income. Bob visited the country and found only 20% of the population had jobs – what hope had these grandmothers? They were desperate to work. HOPE arranged individual, interest free loans of £100 to each grandma. In tum the women would buy sewing machines, goats, chickens and be able to sell goods in the markets. They had an income to buy food and education for their grandchildren. When they could, they repaid their loan and the money was used to lend out again. 

Bob said HOPE did not keep money in the bank but tried hard to use it quickly and effectively. This meant a need to keep money flowing in and Bob and his volunteers had to continue their fundraising efforts. So successful were they, a million pounds per annum was turned over. He worked tirelessly for the charity for 27 years and acknowledged he could not have done so much without friends and helpers – particularly his wife Ann. The writer did a sponsored walk across London one Sunday and was on a train with Bob before 9am, aiming for the starting point at the Albert Memorial. And when we arrived, Ann was there already, with her stall set out, selling things to raise money for HOPE.

The variety of events to raise money is amazing – marathons, quiz nights, concerts, sponsored swims, the HOPE BALL in London (with Bob in his kilt) parachute jumps, meeting Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela were all part of his life brought about by his work for HOPE. Some were big projects – HOPE was in Sri Lanka within hours of the tsunami, others were a washing machine for a woman in South Africa who cared for children orphaned by AIDs and £200 for a local branch of Home Start who were in trouble with money. A tip off by one of their volunteer workers told them HOPE would respond. It did. 

Ill health dogged Bob over his final years and he died in April 2022 aged 89. His charity continues and the memory of a modest man who had a great zest for life is left with HOPE.

Bob wrote: “Being a Quaker has been an important part of my life. I have found that the belief that there is that of God in everyone is important. Also that the relationship between faith and witness are inseparable.  I find the testimonies to peace, equality, integrity and simplicity provide the way I try to conduct my behaviour and actions towards making the world a better place.”

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