BRITAIN’S oldest volunteer Ethel Davey celebrates her 100th birthday next week but she still lives in her own flat, walks everywhere and has absolutely no plans to retire.
From the outside, the St Albans branch of Scope doesn’t appear especially remarkable.
Nestled in an alley opposite an Italian restaurant in the Maltings shopping centre in the middle of the city, its window display shows the usual charity shop fare.
There are summer dresses, toys, paintings, books… all the expected knick knacks, second-hand clothes and potential bargains found in any of the other charity shops in town. Go through the doors, however, and this particular branch hides something very special.
At just one week shy of her 100th birthday she is Britain’s oldest charity shop volunteer – and she has no plans to retire just yet. Make the mistake of asking her why, and she’ll fix you with a withering look.
“Well why not? I’m all right on the arithmetic and I can be trusted on the till. And people know me, you see? Why shouldn’t I work here?”
She may be 99 years old but Ethel is nobody’s fool. Still living in her own first-floor flat, she walks everywhere, does her own shopping, and shows no hint of letting her age slow her down.
Ethel has been volunteering at Scope for 20 years
Ethel is not only the oldest volunteer for the charity, she has also worked in the shop for almost as long as it has been there.
“I was doing my shopping one day,” she says, “and I noticed the shop was new, I think it had been open only a week or so, and there was a lady outside looking for volunteers. So I said, yeah, I’ll come and help you and signed up on the spot. And I’ve been there ever since.”
That was 21 years ago and Ethel was a mere 78 at the time – and she hasn’t missed a shift since.
Ask her what she gets out of it, however, and the answer is absolutely firm. “You meet people, you make friends,” she says. “I work behind the till – I’ll help tidy up too of course – but I get to meet all the customers. That’s what I like. You meet people, you talk to them and a lot turn out to be friends, you know? That’s the thing.
“It’s what life’s all about. Helping people and making friends. It’s what keeps us going.”
During her two decades on the till, Ethel has met hundreds of people – though not all of them have been as helpful to her in return. She chuckles as she recalls tackling shoplifters and thieves – the man she caught coming out of the changing room with three shirts on, one over the other; the lady who carried a large open-topped tote bag which she would hold under the clothes rail “and she’d just run along the rail and let the blouses drop in – I caught her at it red-handed.”
“There was a bloke who had stolen some stuff,” she says. “And the manager and I had to chase him down Chequer Street and when we caught up with him he had slipped over and hurt his back. “We just stood there laughing at him until the police came and I said, ‘Serves you right!’”
With hundreds of second-hand goods passing through her till over the past 21 years, she remains coy on the most unusual or valuable donation she has seen in that time, however. “Ooh, I wouldn’t like to say about that!” she laughs.
“We’ve had a lot of odd donations, put it that way. As for the rest… I’m not telling you. It’s not printable in a family newspaper.”
But it is not just the customers of Scope who have benefited from – or run up against – Ethel’s lively spirit.
Raised in the countryside near Watford, she moved to the city with her husband Kenny when she was 22, and over the years has become an integral part of the community.
Ethel was born in 1917 and is still sharp as a tack
When Kenny joined the army and served overseas during the war, Ethel made herself useful around the city.
“Well, I had to work in the war, all women had to go to work,” she says. “So I used to do a milk round. That’s where I learned to drive – and because of that I’ve never had to pass my driving test.”
She confesses that she gave up her car when she turned 90: “I was getting a little bit slow, between you and me.”
Since then she has remained a fixture around town – not just volunteering at the Scope shop but lending a hand to whoever else might need it. A regular at the market, she’ll often look after the stalls while the traders pack up, as well as helping out wherever else she’s needed.
“There’s a lady who used to own a paper shop and when I would come up to get my newspaper if she wanted to go to the bank or something I’d look after the shop for her,” she says.
Ethel and Kenny got married on the eve of war
“People talk about community spirit being lost but I don’t know about that. You’re either made that way or not. Some people are selfish, and some people like to help other people. There is a lot of community spirit still, I think.”
One thing she is not keen on, however, is the gradual erosion of that spirit by modern technology – and she has little time for the internet.
“I don’t have any of that,” she says. “I did have a mobile phone but I threw it away. I never used it. No, no, I don’t like things online or any of that. Stuff like Facebook – I don’t like it and I don’t want to know about it. As for online shopping – I like to see what I’m going to buy, not just look at a picture of it. And you have to chat to the person you’re buying from. You’ve got to talk to real people, not machines.”
With Ethel’s 100th birthday a week tomorrow – “I’m having three parties,” she says with a wink. “That’s one more than the Queen,” – the only remaining question is: what is her secret to a long and happy life?
“Getting out there and meeting people,” she says firmly. “I have worked hard all my life, always been full of exercise. As a child I walked to school three miles every day and I’m still out and about every day now. I’ve been paragliding – when I was in my 70s – and been up in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon… and I’ve always worked.
“That’s the secret. Keep working, keep meeting people and keep making friends.”
To find out more about volunteering for Scope visit: scope.org.uk/volunteer
(Previously Published at Express)
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