Two good friends were both recipients of the prestigious town medal last night at the Town Hall. They were former Henley Mayor, founder of Gardening Buddies and Henley Choir Festival plus a member of many local charities, Liz Hodgkin, and Mike Willoughby, founder of the WW1 Henley Lest We Forget project.
Whilst Mayor in 2012, Liz Hodgkin attended the first Henley Lest We Forget project exhibition at Trinity Church that Mike and his wife Lesley curated and was moved by the vision and inspiration of what she saw. In her Remembrance Service speech that year, Liz not only brought the exhibition to people’s attention but also highlighted the fact there were names missing from the memorials in the town. A note from Liz, is also included on the back of Mike’s Bringing Them Home book published in 2014 which lists 298 Henley serviceman who died in WW1. Liz has continued to support Mike over the following years which has seen the project install four new memorials including the Great War Memorial at Townlands Memorial Hospital that was unveiled in November last year to mark the 100th WW1 armistice anniversary along with many other initiatives and exhibitions.
Liz was the first to be presented with her town medal. Henley Mayor, Councillor Glen Lambert said, “Since becoming a Town Councillor, and particularly as Mayor, I have come into contact with a huge number of community groups, charities and individuals and learned a great deal about our town and the people behind the scenes who work so hard to keep it special. One name has come up more often than any other and that’s Liz Hodgkin.”
“Some people do not believe that former Councillors should receive the Town Medal. I disagree. There are councillors who are elected and serve their terms attending meetings most Tuesdays. There are other Councillors who go above and beyond by throwing themselves into the role and taking on considerable additional responsibilities by leading projects and working with as many local groups as they can make the time for. The example you set in public service is inspirational.”
Councillor Kellie Hinton spoke about Liz. She said, “Well where do we begin with Liz! I’m proud to be here to talk about some of the reasons why Liz is being awarded the town medal, however as many of you can imagine, summarising Liz’s gargantuan efforts and achievements into a short speech has taken some doing! A lot of people know Liz because of her time as a Town Councillor, serving for 12 years, chairing many committees and was elected Mayor in 2009 and again in 2012. But actually it’s not Liz’s time as a councillor that makes Liz such a worthy recipient of this award. She has given more time to this town and our community than almost anyone I know. She has been a huge part of a number of community groups such as Henley Educational Trust, Citizens Advice Bureau, Over 60s Club, Henley Youth Centre, Henley Municipal Charities, Thamesfield Youth Association and many more, for a long time.
Perhaps one of her more visible roles, Liz was the founder of the Gardening Buddies, who volunteer all year around to help keep the town beautiful and attractive. She was also the founder of the our annual town litter pick. People may think plastic reduction and recycling are new initiatives or issues or perhaps more relevant now. In that case, Liz was about 15 years ahead of her time, because she has promoting awareness for decades!
It’s been a tough year for Liz health wise. Liz deserves a town medal because not only does she more than fulfil the criteria, she is in the hearts of the people in this community, so well loved, respected and admired. Even more fitting that she should receive her award alongside Mike this evening.”
After being presented with the town medal Liz said, “What so lovely looking around is that actually Mike’s friends are my friends. It’s lovely to be here with Mike who is an old friend of mine. It’s a real honour to receive the town medal and I know a great deal of thought and debate goes into it. I’ve had a lot of fun. I have also not been alone when working with the charities and organisations. I’ve been part of team. For almost 50 years we’ve worked together – of course I’m talking about Richard my husband.” Richard replied, “Is it that long!” Liz continued, “He has made it possible for me to get involved with so many organisations.”
“One of the first organisations I got involved with was the Eyot Centre. I was looking to for something to keep me occupied after the children were all at school. They needed a secretary for the canoe section. At that time, we met in an cold damp, smelly building. They had been fundraising for a new state of the art building for over 10 years. When they started to fundraise the cost was £90,000. By the time we built it was £600,000. So my first job was to try and find new sources of funding. We had raised a significant sum over the years but the target was elusive. Then three things came together – the District Council gave us a rather large grant, Sport England gave a significant sum and the final £125,000 was a loan from Henley Town Council. The loan has just been paid off and the centre is now looking forward towards a future with confidence.”
“I seemed to have been involved with a number of charities to do with young people. It was sad to see the Youth Centre go. From that sale though the Thamesfield Youth Association has been able to help many, many young people from our investments. There will be lasting legacy for the future generation to come.”
Liz then talked about her work at the Over 60’s Club, starting the Henley Choir Festival 10 years ago and the Gardening Buddies. Commenting about the Gardening Buddies, she said, “It has been wonderful that Jan and Joan and Susie and others have carried on. I do not know when I will be able to garden again. I know I can at any time and be part of it. Even if it just means sitting and chatting which is something which I’m quite good at!”
“The trouble with all of this is, it is very enjoyable doing all these things and yes at times it is very tiring and can be frustrating but it is so fulfilling. The past year has been difficult for me health wise. The thing that stands out most is the love and warmth that has been sent my way. Richard and I have been so are lucky to have so many friends who have written, phoned and visited. These are the people we have met and made friends with through the charitable work that we do. Thank you again I’m very touched. It means a lot.”
Before Henley Mayor presented the town medal to Mike Willoughby, he said, “Three months ago, well over a thousand people gathered on Remembrance Sunday, in front of Henley Town Hall, to mark 100 years since the Armistice that brought World War 1 to an end. 312 soldiers from Henley and the surrounding villages had lost their lives in World War 1 and we know who they were, where they were from, what they did, where they were buried and we have photographs of many of them. The people of Henley today are able to remember and connect with those who lost their lives more than a century ago on such a personal level because of one man, Mike Willoughby.
It is thanks to Mike’s dedication that we were able to unveil a Memorial Plaque listing all 312 fallen soldiers next to Townlands Memorial Hospital. Mike spent many years researching those who gave their lives in World War 1 and His book, “Bringing them Home”, includes background information on each of the fallen and serves as perhaps the finest memorial we have. Thank you again on behalf of our town for your tremendous contribution.”
Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak and Reverend Duncan Carter spoke about Mike and his work. Reverend Carter said, “Mike’s interest in the First World War was inspired in 2005 when he was researching his own family history and discovered that his Granddad had a younger brother, John Arthur (Jack) King who had died on the Somme. In the course of his research he found that no one knew the stories behind those on the war memorial on which his Great Uncle was recorded. This personal interest quickly developed into concern for other men listed on other local memorials. I first met Mike when I found him in the church graveyard looking for a grave. From this a great friendship began and the first exhibition at Holy Trinity Church in 2012 saw the interest from many who visited and particularly the iconic and poignant map of where the local fallen had lived. Mike’s research and commitment to the memory of those who fell is quite exceptional and he has given substance to our acts of remembrance in the local community.”
After receiving the medal Mike said, “If it hadn’t been for Liz in 2012 when she saw the research and said ‘something needs to done about this’. I had no influence or clout, no standing but I was backed by Liz, Duncan and Stefan. I’d also like to thank all the people here today who have all contributed towards the project – it wouldn’t have been the same without you. What Duncan failed to mention in his speech was, that after that first meeting, I ended up tidying up the churchyard, mowing the grass and straightening the gravestones! I’m now busy researching WW2, because when I thought it was coming to the end there was large hole in my life. I couldn’t stop and I don’t want to stop. Regardless of anything else, it has been an absolute privilege. Thank you, I still can’t believe it.”