For more than 90 years the Rotary Club in Sheffield has been running camps for disadvantaged children, and this year – its 93rd – the club has been officially recognised by South Yorkshire’s High Sheriff, The Star’s Rachael Clegg reports.
THE end of the Great War was a happy time for Britain.
The four-year toll of casualties and fatalities had finally come to an end.
But for the children whose fathers had been killed in warfare, times weren’t quite so happy.
But there was a silver lining, as Rotary Club member Jeremy Holmes explains. He has a box-full of old photographs, letters and pamphlets that tell a wonderfully compassionate story of how a handful of businessmen gave a little comfort to some of the 5,000 widows and orphans after World War One.
“The Rotary Club started an annual holiday camp for boys who had lost their fathers during the war,” said Jeremy. “It took them for a week’s holiday in Derbyshire.”
Among Jeremy’s archive material is a letter from a Robert Coombes, whose father was killed in battle when the boy was just five years old. In later years little Robert was invited on one of the Rotary Club’s holidays.
Robert’s letter, written in 1984, reminisces about how special his camping trip was.
Life was tough for single parent families in those days, there were no benefits, no counselling services and no option for mothers other than to roll up their sleeves and get on with it.
Robert’s family didn’t have money to buy sweets, chocolate, or even apples. Which is why he never forgot his Derbyshire holiday with the Rotary Club.
For one week a year, boys like Robert Coombes and a team of helpers would pack up their bags and decamp to a purpose-built site in Shatton, Derbyshire.
It was a place where boys could be boys, removed from the worry of financial hardship and treated to the things we take so much for granted today.
But the club didn’t just take the boys on holiday. It also hosted parties for the thousands of widows and orphans across the city.
The Sheffield Independent reported that ‘Christmas will be all the more enjoyable to many in Sheffield for knowing that the war widows and orphans of the city have not been neglected’.
But that was more than 90 years ago. Since then the world has seen a second World War, the atomic bomb, the invention of the television, the telephone, the internet, and yet, throughout all these changes, one thing has remained the same – the Rotary Club has continued to take disadvantaged girls and boys on holidays.
“The children get a lot from the holidays,” said Jeremy today. “We play lots of team-building games and have really seen some of the young people grow with confidence.”
Teenagers on the trips do all kinds of activities, from climbing to ‘weaselling’ – crawling through gaps between rocks like a weasel.
“We had one girl with very little self-esteem but we encouraged her to have a go and she did.
“And from that point on she joined in with other girls and by the end of the week she was having a go at everything,” saidJeremy.
The Rotary Club holidays for disadvantaged children take place at a site in Castleton, on land the club purchased in the early 1930s for the modest sum of £500.
It was a good buy – the land overlooks the Peak District and Sheffield and has ample room for three buildings including bunk rooms, and ample ground for sports and games.
And it’s a particularly special site for Jeremy. It was here he met his wife, Melanie, the daughter of a Rotary Club camp leader. Melanie – now a school headteacher – is instrumental in running the holidays.
And it’s worth the hard work, the unpaid hours and the precious holiday time, said Jeremy.
And this month, the Rotary Club of Sheffield was officially recognised by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire for its work in taking children and teenagers on holiday.
The High Sheriff’s citation, presented to the club, commended the fact the club has been providing free holidays for more than 90 years.
The High Sherrif, Andrew Coombe, said: “The holidays for disadvantaged children are something the Rotary Club of Sheffield has been doing under the radar since 1919.”
But it’s not just the holidays that the Rotary Club of Sheffield provides for the city.
The club also runs the popular Music in the Gardens event at the Botanical Gardens every year.
And while accolades like the one from the High Sheriff are an achievement for the Rotary Club, it’s the personal thank-you notes and the development of the young people who go on the holiday camps that really give the organisation’s leaders a sense of worth.
Robert Coombes, in his letter to the club in 1984, wrote: “I can still remember with respect names like Eric Winks, Edgar Carlisle and I think Mr Snowden – he brought us all an apple and an orange, the first time that we had a whole apple and orange to ourselves other than when we got one with a new penny in our stocking at Christmas!”
He also wrote of the sweets he was treated to at the camp.
“Sweets and treats were notable only for their absence which is why I shall always remember with rose-tinted glasses the camp at Shatton, the straw-filled palliasses in a bell tent, the good food served in a wooden mess hall where we were also entertained and the bags of sweets and other treats that came from the deep pockets of our patrons,” he said.
And it’s these memories that led Robert Coombes, in the same letter, to make a heartwarming offer.
“My main asset, which you are welcome to, is the use of a reasonable 7cwt van, seating four with room for light luggage, covered for insurance for any competent driver.
“It’s not much but I require it only for odd local journeys and it might help your camp staff to transport between camp and Sheffield and save a bit of expense.”
The kindness and gratefulness Robert Coombes felt for the Rotary is not just a thing of the past.
“Today, teenagers across Sheffield will be remembering the fond times they had at the camp throughout the last 90 years and up to the present day.
Do you have any memories of your camping holidays? Share them with readers in our Retro supplement. Send them to Retro, The Star, York Street, Sheffield S1 1PU or email firstname.lastname@example.org