Little exists in the Hospice archive to show former nurse Erica Hughes’ contribution to the Hospice in the early years aside from her photo in one or two newspaper cuttings and her name and telephone number, written beside Pam Macpherson’s in a letter Pam wrote to the Rector of St Peter’s in 1979 asking for help recruiting volunteers to galvanise the early fundraising effort.
But according to Erica’s niece Mary Shayler, 65, that’s just the way Erica would have wanted it. “She was never one for the limelight. She did what she did behind the scenes and just got on with it and got things done because as a nurse that’s just what you do.”
Erica was a temporary matron at Berkhamsted Girls’ School working with fellow Hospice ‘original’ Angela Russell-Smith when while taking the girls to church, she met Pam Macpherson who ‘suggested we should start a hospice.’
At the age of 53 and with 31-years’ experience of nursing at home and abroad (including as a sister at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the ‘50’s and as a district nurse in Tring) Erica needed little persuading to join the steering committee.
“I said ‘That would be an excellent idea,’ she writes in her self-published family memoir ‘My Inspirational Mother’ in 2006. “I had been interested ever since I met Cicely Saunders at the Staff College for Matrons in 1962.”
“I don’t think she’d ever forgotten meeting Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern Hospice movement,” recalls Mary. “In her memoir, Erica recounts how she met Dame Cicely twice during a prestigious course she did in the early ‘60’s at The Staff College for Matrons run by the King’s Fund.
“Dame Cicely was just starting up the first ever hospice at St Christopher’s in Sydenham, and asked Erica to join her team. Erica was very flattered but she’d already applied for a post of Assistant Matron at the brand new Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Welwyn Garden City and had heard that morning that she’d got the job! As a woman of great integrity, she had to decline.
“So when Pam Macpherson approached her, I think she saw it as an opportunity in Berkhamsted to do some work in Cicely Saunders’ name in a way she hadn’t been able to before.
“It was a lovely opportunity to be able to do something and share her skills and experience in a way perhaps other people couldn’t.
“She’d experienced a lot of significant loss in her own life. She helped her mother care for her father before he died when she was just 15. She was 16 and already training to become a nurse when her pilot brother Eric was killed over Holland in the war at the age of 20.
“Erica was a very caring and empathetic person, who always relished a challenge. She’d set up hospitals in the Middle East for BP, she was well organised and pedantic about things being done to a high standard. She also hated waste! She was charming, could be very persuasive and influential and if she set her mind to something, she’d see it through.”
In her memoir, Erica writes: “In November 1978, we formed a steering committee and spoke to the Rector of St Peter’s Church to help us with recruitment. We had a Vigil of Prayer in 1979 and set about raising funds to purchase suitable premises.
I had wonderful support from the ladies at Ashridge Golf Club. Dorothy Stabb was a fantastic help, involving the whole village of Chipperfield. Angela (Russell-Smith) got lots of help from the church, and through her links she knew that the nuns were going to sell what is now St Francis Hospice.
With their support for our cause and the supreme effort of all the people we had around us, giving coffee mornings, sales of works, sponsored walks and anything anybody cared to do, we collected £70,000 to buy the house and get the hospice up and running.
Anne Frew and I cooked lunch every Tuesday for two years while we collected the money to get all the alterations done. We had eight patients who came at 10am and left at 4pm. We had one hospice nurse who did home care and encouraged those well enough to come and enjoy a day at the hospice.
We always had somebody interesting to give a talk or do things with the patients and they all enjoyed the break. I am pretty sure Barbara Burles was our first hospice nurse.
It’s been a joy that the hospice has been such a great success and a place of peace with an excellent atmosphere. It has been all that we early pioneers had hoped for.
The goodwill it has generated over the years is because of the dedicated staff and their efforts to keep the standards high. When Angela retired from teaching she made the hospice her top priority and was chairman.”
Erica remained involved with the Hospice until 2010, volunteering from 2003-2010 in its Berkhamsted shop, which opened in 2002. “It was one of the last things she gave up as she became older and less well herself,” says Mary.
Sarah Coles, our current Head of Trading remembers: “I worked with Erica when I was Assistant Manager of our Berkhamsted shop from 2005-2006. She was quite a character - straight-talking, fiercely independent and with a great sense of humour. She was one of my favourite volunteers!”
Sonya Phillips, 74, who was Sarah’s predecessor at the Berkhamsted shop when it opened in 2002 and worked with Erica for seven years, said: “She was 78 when she started volunteering very soon after the shop opened. She was always really, really helpful and would do anything you asked her to whether it was washing up glassware to put on the shelves, helping with displays or putting stuff out.
“She had a wonderful way of doing things and making them look lovely - somehow she managed to turn something that was difficult into something enjoyable. She could talk to anyone too, speaking her mind but in a nice way and bridging the gap between your cor blimey customer and your posh lady.”
In 2011, she was sadly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and moved to Ashlyn’s Care Home in 2014, three years before she died in August 2017 just a few weeks after her 92nd birthday.
Several members of staff from the Hospice attended her Memorial Service at St Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted, on 14th September 2017 to celebrate her life and share their precious memories of “an extraordinary and inspiring woman.”
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