Friday 21 October 2016

Veteran fundraiser (92) 'exhausted' by charity pleas which put her in debt

Olive Cook got 267 begging letters a month and had set up 27 direct debits

Published 15/05/2015 | 13:18

Poppy seller Olive Cooke, 92, who was found dead by police at the Avon Gorge by Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol last week, two days before the anniversary of VE day.
Poppy seller Olive Cooke, 92, who was found dead by police at the Avon Gorge by Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol last week, two days before the anniversary of VE day.

One of Britain's oldest and longest-serving poppy sellers was "exhausted" by pleas from charities for donations before her death, it has been claimed.

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Olive Cooke, 92, was found dead by police at the Avon Gorge by Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol last week, two days before the anniversary of VE day.

Last October, Mrs Cooke told her local paper how she had received 267 charity letters in just one month and spent a day each week recycling them.

The generous mother-of-three signed up for 27 direct debits, which left her in arrears and incurring bank charges, friend Michael Earley said.

Mr Earley and Mrs Cooke's family described the charity pleas as a contributory factor in her death but said she had been suffering ill health.

"She was under pressure but they mustn't blame all the pestering of the charities," Mr Earley told BBC Radio Bristol.

"It was a combination of things. She also had ill health.

"It was the phone calls that may have broke the camel's back because the trouble is anybody that rang her to find out - in the end she wouldn't answer the phone.

"That caused a little bit of anxiety and of course the next thing we knew Olive passed away."

Mrs Cooke had dedicated 76 years of her life raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies.

Mr Earley, who visited Mrs Cooke regularly, said she received an average of 180 letters a month before Christmas last year.

"When I used to be in the flat all the time with her the phone would keep continuously ringing and sometimes she would put the phone down and it would ring again," he added.

"Sometimes I had been there an hour or so and you would get the same charities ringing back.

"I don't know who the charities were because she would always speak to them and I never interfered.

"She was exhausted with the situation in the end. She had done so much for other people all of the time."

Mr Earley said Mrs Cooke collected money for the Royal British Legion but never "pestered" passers-by.

"She was never chugging around the streets, never asked any questions," Mr Earley said.

"That's the difference between the charities of past and the charities of today."

Mrs Cooke read every letter sent to her and previously said she took a day each week to recycle them.

"For her to do what she did and for her to leave this world as she has it has left a terrible mark on Bristol and society in general," Mr Earley added.

"I just can't really get over it. It frightens me to death to think of what she has done."

Mrs Cooke is also said to have been upset after £250 in cash went missing in the post.

The kind-hearted grandmother began selling poppies in 1938 aged 16, having been inspired by her father who set up a Royal British Legion branch in Bedminster.

She devoted herself fully to the charity after husband Leslie Hussey-Yeo, a sailor in the Royal Navy, was killed in Italy in 1943, leaving her a war widow at the age of 21.

She was a familiar face in Bristol and stood in the doorway of the city's cathedral every year in the lead-up to remembrance day.

Lord mayor of Bristol Alastair Watson said: "We were all deeply saddened to hear about the death of Olive Cooke. She was a wonderful lady who dedicated her life to selling poppies and helping other people.

"Our paths crossed at many events, and I was delighted to be able to award her the lord mayor's medal last year at a special afternoon tea at the Mansion House.

"Her death is a big loss to the city of Bristol, and our thoughts are with all of her family and friends at this sad time."

Mrs Cooke, of Fishponds, was given the Points of Light award by the Prime Minister last year in recognition of her "outstanding" work changing her community and inspiring others.

David Lowe, the Royal British Legion's area manager for South West Midlands, said the organisation was "very sad" to hear of Mrs Cooke's death, describing her as someone respected and admired for her service to the Legion.

"Olive's remarkable efforts over the years should be highly commended. She will be greatly missed, but not forgotten. Our thoughts and condolences are with Olive's friends and family at this time."

A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Police said: "We recovered the body of an elderly woman from the Avon Gorge on Wednesday May 6."

An inquest into Mrs Cooke's death is expected to be opened at Avon Coroner's Court next week.

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