A unanimous vote by the trustees to close our care home was a gut-wrenching moment, given my 17-year association with the admirable work of the Journalists’ Charity in housing and assisting retired and needy journalists.
For generations of reporters and sub-editors, in newsrooms up and down the country, there was always the re-assurance that if they fell off their perch and hit hard times in old age, there would be a place for them at the Newspaper Press Fund’s residential home in Dorking.
Sadly, that particular safety net is no more. Pickering House, opened by the Countess of Wessex in September 2007 – as a replacement for the charity’s original care home, Sandy Cross – closed its doors in June when the last of the residents moved out to alternative homes. The buildings and spacious gardens are up for sale.
Just a short walk away is the charity’s estate of 23 bungalows and flats at Ribblesdale, which is unaffected by closure, and continues to offer retirement homes, but the days when veterans of the trade lived together as a community in a care home, sat around yarning, having the odd drink, are just a memory.
My father Clem Jones, former editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star, spent his final days at Dorking, and they were in many ways a celebration of a lifetime in journalism. His hope when he died was that the charity would continue to provide convivial end-of-life care.
My favourite story from father’s early visits to Dorking for respite care was the day he sat down with an ex-Daily Mirror journalist, who was also on respite care from his son’s home in Brighton. The two men had never met before, but at the end of a week’s reminiscing about their separate careers in local journalism and the national press, they totted up the names of 32 mutual acquaintances.
Apparently, they had talked animatedly about life on newspapers up and down the country, of reporters who had come and gone, and whom they had both known, and of the big news stories in which they had played a part.
What better way for two ex-journalists, who felt their care had become a burden to their families, to spend their time, and how fitting I thought it was that my father should have lived long enough to have become one of the charity’s beneficiaries.
After all, he had been raising money for the NPF since he joined the Express and Star as a district reporter in the early 1940s when he organised his first press ball at the town hall in Bilston, near Wolverhampton, in aid of charities for journalists and printers.
Father’s five years at Dorking were in many ways a fitting end. He was at peace when he died in 2002 at the age of 87, and his death had left me under no illusion that my responsibility as a trustee was to ensure that we continued to care for the next generation of retired journalists, as it had for him.
Sandy Cross, opened by the Queen Mother in 1969, was effectively under notice of closure due to its failure to meet the standards of the Care Quality Commission.
I readily agreed – not least out of a sense of family obligation – to put my name forward to chair the fund, and once elected for a two-year term I knew I could not ignore the many pleadings of father and his fellow residents.
They feared that the charity would conclude there was no alternative but to demolish a 1960s care home that had been condemned as inadequate, not least because lavatories and bathrooms were situated across and along corridors, and there was no practical way to provide such amenities inside bedrooms.
Father, and another Sandy Cross stalwart, the late Gwen Thomson, had rarely missed an opportunity to bend my ear: they were convinced Dorking’s close community of ex-journalists would be shattered if the charity lost its care home.
I was in the chair in May 2005 when the trustees decided, with one vote against and one abstention, to close Sandy Cross, and to launch an appeal to build a 20-bed, state-of-the-art replacement home, hence my dismay when ten years after its opening we faced no alternative but to close Pickering House, named in honour of Fleet Street veteran and ex-Daily Express editor, Sir Edward Pickering.
We had started out with high hopes for the future: we would continue to offer an unbeatable level of care with rooms providing the latest en-suite facilities, plus the same friendly surroundings where former journalists, ex-colleagues, friends and family could fraternise and reminisce.
Unfortunately, by the time of its opening, we were already being overtaken by events. Increasingly the impetus was to keep and maintain the elderly in their own accommodation for as long as possible, rather than place them in residential homes, and we found that with an ageing population, and rapidly rising levels of dementia, the expense of maintaining a more specialised care home was becoming a steady drain on the charity’s finances.
Perhaps our lack of foresight was a failure to realise that economies of scale would so rapidly become a decisive factor in the financing of care homes, and that the running costs for our 20-bed home would soon outstrip our resources.
Such has been the escalating scale of expenditure necessary for the dedicated staffing required for residents with Alzheimer’s and other mental illnesses, we discovered that other similar charities were sadly reaching the same conclusion.
The tipping point for the Journalists’ Charity came in 2014 when we concluded that the level of subsidy required to sustain Pickering House had become prohibitive.
We realised that the cost of caring for the home’s 20 residents was threatening our very existence, and potentially the eventual withdrawal of the lifeline that the charity has extended for over 150 years to countless thousands of journalists and their dependents who have fallen on hard times and are in desperate need of financial help.
To reach the scale of efficiencies required for residents’ fees to get anywhere near meeting our costs we would need twice, or even three times as many beds, an investment that was way beyond the charity’s resources.
Our financial adviser, Jason Winslow of Charles Stanley, could not have been clearer: the 2014 deficit had risen to £597,000, and if the charity continued drawing down from its investment portfolio at the rate of £500,000 a year, we would run out of money within a decade, unable to make grants or pay staff.
The stakes could not have been higher for a charity that every year is helping around 200 needy journalists and dependents with one-off payments, sometimes of well over £1,000 or more, and also running grants ranging from £30 to £50 a week – at a total annual spend of not far short of £400,000.
Our desperate financial outlook forced a desperate rethink. The 2008 financial crash had made savage inroads into the value of our share portfolio and dividend income. Our original confidence in giving the go-ahead for a rebuild was boosted by the knowledge that our portfolio of investments had been paying handsome dividends. In 2006, the NPF’s balance sheet showed our highest-ever combined asset value of £15.6 million, a level of reserves that had prompted a reminder from the Charity Commission that rather than accumulate cash, charities should not stint on spending when meeting their charitable objectives.
My efforts to kick start fund raising were far exceeded by my successor in the chair, the late Bob Warren, former news editor of the News of the World, whose extensive contacts and great respect within the industry, produced a magnificent response.
We raised at total of £1.1 million. The two largest donations were from News International and Associated Newspapers, but there was also backing from the great and the good in press, broadcasting and public relations.
Kelvin MacKenzie’s Wireless Group chipped in £10,000, and Sir Ray Tindle stepped forward immediately with a £25,000 donation, simply asking in return for the residents’ bar to bear his name.
Once the appeal fund had been launched and architects appointed, we set about closing Sandy Cross, ready for its demolition. Our three-acre site in Ridgeway Road, Dorking, was within the green belt and in an area of outstanding natural beauty. The sloping lawns and the many trees around the perimeter of the gardens provided an ideal setting for an imaginative design, and the architects more than matched our brief. Pickering House won the Dorking and District Preservation Society’s best development award in 2009.
Internally the home broke new ground in its layout and construction; corridors with a slight curve that added to the sense of space and privacy; and an airy and well-lit central circular lobby and dining area. From the Ray Tindle bar, to the well-stocked library, quiet reading areas and a small, tucked-away chapel, no effort had been spared in our attempt to improve still further the friendly community atmosphere that had been so attractive to my father and countless other Sandy Cross residents.
Our appeal attracted numerous individual contributions, many of which I am sure were inspired by family stories like mine, and by the knowledge in newsrooms across the land that when a journalist finally ran out of road there was always the option of a retirement bungalow at Dorking, or a place at a residential home where they could be cared for.
My donation of £5,000 was from my share of savings my father had left for his three sons. I was sure that if he had lived for another three years to see the day the charity gave the go ahead for the rebuild, then he would have been one of the first to contribute to a cause that meant so much to him and his fellow residents.
We had a beautiful, warm sunny day for the opening of Pickering House, Welcoming the Countess of Wessex was a proud and special moment for Bob Warren, who was known as a true friend by generations of journalists.
He believed, as I did, that we had made the soundest possible investment. We looked forward to our future visits to Pickering House, to meeting up with former colleagues, over a cup of tea, or a drink in Tindle’s bar, doing what journalists enjoy most of all, chatting about the stories we have covered, and the characters we have known.
The first inkling that Bob and I had that our shared vision for Pickering House was not working out quite as we had hoped was when the trustees were faced by an alarming, unexpected and persistent surge in staffing costs.
In our prospectus for the appeal we had emphasised how the many facilities at the new home would encourage residents to “maintain their independence”, but for more and more of the day an increasing number were confined to their rooms, needing additional nursing care, and the charity faced spiralling charges for highly-qualified agency nurses.
Changes in the residents’ physical and mental health were necessitating a level of dedicated care that was far costlier than in father’s day when his minimal needs could be largely met by a young care assistant.
There were other fresh challenges: additional security was required to provide secure areas to safeguard dementia patients. Far less frequent for me were the long chats with residents in the sitting room, or out in the garden, that I remembered so well from my many trips to Sandy Cross.
A recent visit to see my first news editor, newly arrived at Pickering House, highlighted the changing circumstances. Fifty years had elapsed since we had last met, but although I had been informed he could no longer be cared for at home, I had convinced myself that he would appreciate me calling in.
I have crystal-clear memories of my first news room, and I began our chat by closing my eyes and taking him on a guided tour of where we worked. I recalled the position of every desk, mentioning each name in turn; here sat the editor, next the chief sub-editor, features editor, news editor, chief reporter and so on, down to a new boy like myself.
Unfortunately, after a few minutes, I could see my presence was too distressing. He did not want to talk, and I had to leave. I sensed the time had passed for reminiscing. I had lost the opportunity to thank him and his colleagues for all their help in furthering my career.
On leaving his room, I passed Ray Tindle’s bar, closed and looking somewhat forlorn. Later I was to learn that in the previous three to four years takings at the bar had been almost negligible, a reflection of the increased age and deteriorating health of the residents.
Dementia had robbed all too many of the chance to enjoy their final years at Dorking, as had so clearly been my father’s good fortune. For example, his sons were forbidden to tell the staff that he had usually managed to secrete a case of Scotch whisky under his bed, ready for a nightcap with his lady friends, or perhaps to round off one of their escapades.
Even in his eighties my father had lost none of a journalist’s guile. He would happily write off signing himself “Clem Jones, CBE”, and regularly blag his way to a couple of front seats for performances at Dorking Halls.
One day we were summonsed to Sandy Cross to clear out his belongings because of a rodent infestation in his room. He often left his balcony door open, and kept so much bird seed under his bed – ready for his morning chat with the local robin and blue tits – that a family of field mice had taken up residence.
These memories would come flooding back at our regular round of trustee meetings as the charity gradually came to terms with some harsh realities. Here we were, just a few years after its opening, in the unfortunate position of having to authorise the sale of yet more of our dwindling stock of shares and investments to balance the books.
After seeking the advice of the Printing Charity, which had faced similar challenges before regretfully closing its care home, we asked Colliers International, advisers on charity healthcare provision, to carry out an external review.
Even after all the cost cutting that was being implemented, the home was deemed unviable. Not only could we not fill all the beds we had available, but a 20-bed home was simply too small. Our occupancy rate had fallen to such an extent that we were effectively spending more subsidizing the cost of caring for the remaining 14 residents than on the rest of the charity’s beneficiaries put together.
I felt apprehensive as the closure approached. Each time we met our advisers I asked why other comparable charitable care home providers, such those in the expanding hospice movement, were not interested in taking over Pickering House, but the answer was the same.
The home was simply too small and in the wrong place. If it had been in a town centre, close to bus routes and a station, access would have been easier, staffing costs might have been lower, offering a wider range of options to private sector care home providers.
The vote to authorise the sale was unanimous, and it seemed appropriate that our special meeting had been held in the St Bride’s Institute, just off Fleet Street, a fitting venue to turn another page in the history of the Journalists’ Charity.
No longer could we fight shy of financial reality. Our responsibility was to safeguard our resources. Income from investing the sale proceeds would finance future grants and go towards subsidising the fees of needy former journalists and dependents requiring nursing or residential care.
My 17 years as a trustee have seen a dramatic fall in the age of our grant recipients. The growing fragmentation of the industry, the switch from print to online media, short term contracts and the lack of pension provision all point to a growing demand for the charity’s help.
Charles Dickens, one of the earliest supporters of the Newspaper Press Fund, was a former parliamentary reporter. He knew only too well the financial hardship of the casualisation of his day, when jobbing journalists queued up outside the Houses of Parliament in the hope of being signed up for the forthcoming session.
If he was alive my father would be appalled at the current woeful state of the newspaper industry, the wipe-out of so much of the local press, and declining fortunes of the nationals. Ensuring a financial lifeline in this harsh climate for our colleagues and dependents who have hit hard times tops all other priorities for the Journalists’ Charity. (Nicholas Jones 26.6.2018)
You can help journalists and their dependants in need at www.journalistscharity.org.uk