You won’t believe the story behind this bench

Barnard Webb Bench

This bench is five minutes walk from my home.

Its plaque says all there is to know about committee managed non-profit projects.

Bernie Webb's Bench

What does it say to you? Whenever I walk passed it I feel sad that Bernard is relegated to a footnote.

Who in their right mind wouldn’t have at least put ‘In memory of Bernard Webb’ at the top? Do we find ourselves doing similar things in charities? Do we forget that our donors are more interested in the beneficiary than the organisation?

What were Southwark Council thinking when they asked the engraver to etch, ‘It replaced the original installed in memory of Bernard Webb’. Really? It implies that the bench isn’t even in memory of Bernard Webb any more. What would the engraver have thought of it?

Oh dear. Southwark Council and The Dulwich Society think that they’re the story.

Has your charity got compelling and emotive stories that it isn’t telling?

You might ask, who was Bernard Webb anyway? I had to find out… and you won’t believe the story. Please allow me to introduce you to Bernie (he wasn’t called Bernard). Bernie was born in a home above North Dulwich Station. He grew up during the war and with rationing, he started work young – as a painter and decorator. And he found love you too, marrying his first sweetheart as our grandparents often did. He was known as an honest and reliable tradesman… but not the sharpest of business men.

Times continued to be tough for Bernie and his wife. Over the decades the couple had growing debts. As their autumn years approached, sadly, the walls started to close in. Bernie was under terrible financial pressure, and the bank was threatening to close his business.

One morning, the letter Bernie had been dreading from his bank manager appeared on the door mat. Dry and dispassionate, in black and white. It ended their meagre livelihood.

But hold on, the story doesn’t end tragically here. Bernie had one other letter that morning, which he glumly opened. It was from The National Lottery… a very larger cheque. Bernie was a winner.

He marched straight down to his bank in Herne Hill. Without a word, he slapped the terse letter on the counter alongside the astounding cheque. Still without a word, he turned around and walked home to his beloved. With a spring in his step you’d imagine!

One of the first things Bernie did with his new wealth was to buy his wife the gift of a small valley in Wales, that is carpeted with snowdrops in spring. She liked snowdrops.

Bernie replaced his paint splattered overalls with a fur-collared overcoat. Apparently if you’d walked into the Crown & Greyhound during this time he would very probably have brought you a drink. Bernie never let on exactly how much he had won, but the old decorators van gathered moss outside North Dulwich Station. He started serving the community as a Local Councillor.

The couple stayed in their small home above North Dulwich Station. In the long narrow back garden, running alongside the railway track, Bernie cared for a menagerie of animals and birds. The local RSPCA got to know him well and would drop off sick or injured creatures which he would nurse back to health. Tired business people getting off the train from London Bridge were greeted with the yelping, chattering and cooing of Bernie’s content patients, and by the colourful lanterns he had hung along the station wall. Local schools would visit the make shift animal hospital, and every once in a while Bernie’s pair of excitable peacocks would escape and parade along the train platform rooftops, “Lee-own! Lee-own! Kokkok-kok-kok-kok!”

But, of course, one day Bernie was no more. And then the animals went, and then the lanterns disappeared.

Are Southwark Council and The Dulwich Society the story? Or is Bernie the story? Please, never let ‘the organisation’ get in the way of a good true story.

In memory of Bernie Webb (1934 – 2000).
What a guy!

(And that’s what the plaque should have said)


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