Leamington Spa Rotary Club and Warwick District CAB celebrate milestones

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Ninety years of good works by the Rotary Club and 75 years of providing free advice to the people of Leamington, Warwick and Kenilworth, were celebrated last week with fond memories and an appeal for continued funding.

It was in the old Bobby’s department store cafe in Leamington that what was then the Leamington and Warwick Rotary Club was founded on October 17, 1925.

The idea of a networking club for well-meaning businessmen - and at that time it was all men - had come from America and was to spread throughout the world.

And among the early good works of Rotarians in wartime, pre-Welfare State Britain, was finding premises for a Citizens’ Advice service in Regent Street, Leamington.

Club members borrowed furniture from fellow businessmen and negotiated with the council which governed Leamington. The club even coughed up for a £5 fine after the first CAB secretary kept the office lights on after blackout.

Back in 1940 the confidential advice offered by the bureau volunteers at 23a Regent Street, Leamington, was likely to be given by someone sitting at a collapsible card table.

With the war on there were already 1,000 other Citizens’ Advice Bureaux operating in other parts of the UK where similar volunteers were helping with problems like homelessness, lost ration cards, missing husbands and debt.

The Leamington and Warwick Rotary Club grew so big that in 1965 members divided into two clubs (today four), all meeting at different times. Women have only been allowed to join since the 1980s.

At the Angel Hotel in Leamington recently, Graham Snape, president of what is now the Royal Leamington Spa Rotary, said: “I think it’s highly appropriate that one of the world’s largest business networking organisations should have such strong links with one of the country’s largest charitable advice networks.”

Mr Snape welcomed not only Jackie Crampton, the current president of Warwick Rotary, who was herself a former CAB voluntary advisor, but also the Mayor and Mayoress of Leamington, Cllr John and Mrs Jane Knight, Whitnash deputy mayor Cllr Judy Falp, and a host of other VIPS.

Among these was Aiden Knox, the manager of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, now in Hamilton Terrace, along with his two predecessors, Hilary Holland and Mary Milton.

Mr Knox pointed out that his was only one of the equivalent of nine full-time paid posts with CAB. This meant the service would simply not exist without its stream of dedicated volunteers.

Mr Knox said: “It’s been calculated that if we were to actually pay our volunteers, the cost of their time providing advice, advocacy support, financial capability training, administrative and reception help, along with trustee board work, it would amount to £239,449 a year. In fact, that is a significant under-estimate of the true cost of the time and effort given to the bureau and does not take into account the learning and development necessary to undertake what are demanding - albeit highly rewarding roles.”

Thanking the Rotary for its foresight in establishing the charity, Mr Knox admitted funding was an urgent, ongoing need. Council contributions have inevitably been cut and many still believed that CAB was Government funded.

During the past year his office had handled a total of 5,441 new enquiries and addressed 17,521 advice issues. Of those 5,865 concerned debt, 4,817 were about benefits and 1,898 were employment matters.

There are also CAB outreach services in Kenilworth and Warwick, and the charity is in the process of applying for an extension to continue its work with Macmillan nurses at Warwick Hospital, where people with life-threatening diseases can access expert advice on insurance policies and potential benefits.

Former CAB manager Mary Milton, who recalled sitting at a card table offering advice in 1974. said: “At that time we were all volunteers. By 1982 we had two interview rooms but were overcrowded with problems that ranged from marriage, consumer issues, elderly relatives and the ever-mounting problems of debt. We went on to introduce separate sessions for legal and tax advice.

“Throughout it all, confidentiality was paramount.”

Hilary Holland, who took over the service in 1989, said: “It has been said that Whitehall is the source of most of the problems our CAB clients face. But we are a unique organisation the Government cannot do without - they are keen to have a dialogue with us to find out what people are suffering. If we can change some of that injustice for everyone than perhaps we can reduce the queue at our door.”