Since 1980, Robert Flood has spent Christmas Day cooking dinner for elderly people in Battersea – and watching a small annual event grow into a meal for hundreds. Here’s how it started…
‘In the December of 1980 I was 26 and had just had a back operation, so things were very quiet for me. A friend of mine mentioned they were cooking for elderly people on Christmas Day in Battersea, for an annual event the Rotary Club had set up in the late 1970s, so I decided to go and help out. The second year I went along again and by the third year I had decided that this was Christmas for me.
Before 1980, Christmases were pretty nondescript, just spent with friends and family. It was enjoyable to be able to do something for people who were clearly lonely at Christmas – like the woman who turned up in the early 1980s at 9am while we were still setting up, because she had nothing else to do that day. That kind of story gives meaning to it all.
We started in Caius House, a youth club from the nineteenth century. My friend had to fix all the blown fuses because the building was so antiquated – it had never seen so much usage! As I had previously been the chef in a family-run restaurant, I was always busy in the tiny kitchen. I would take my own knives with me. They always came in handy, particularly one Christmas when somebody turned up with a huge turkey.
The local fire brigade would come and park their engine outside whilst on call. We would give them a cup of tea and a bite to eat and chat away. As they were on duty, one guy always had to stay in the cab and they each took turns coming in. They’d always turn up because we were the one of the only places open.
‘One man made five gallons of custard in a cauldron, and I brought a dustbin full of spuds’
In the beginning there only used to be about 50 guests and 15 people helping out. People would muck in as best they could. I remember one man who made five gallons of custard in a cauldron. Local shops would supply things or buy things in: the nearby fish-and-chip shop would peel the potatoes for us. One year I had to drive my car there and bring back a dustbin full of spuds.
Around 1988 the Rotary Club negotiated for us to move the dinner to Battersea Town Hall. The kitchens were so far away from the main hall that someone had to run through the whole building to pass on the message to stop serving. Every year the day got more organised and more integrated with local services. Eventually we were given the use of the facilities at Battersea Park – by then we were cooking for hundreds.
You meet the same volunteers every year. One guy has been doing the washing up for 20 years. Over the years my brother and my mother have come down – my mother came until she was sitting down as a guest rather than serving. The youngest ever ‘helper’ was my eldest, who was born on December 12 1989. She was very popular with the guests: a lot of them didn’t often come across two-week-old babies!
Last Christmas, to my surprise, the Mayor of Wandsworth presented me with an award for helping out for 36 years. But I don’t do this for the recognition – I do it because it’s the Christmas spirit. There’s always someone worse off than you, and I want to spread a bit of peace and goodwill. In all these years I’ve only missed one Christmas, and I hope I’ll still be able to help on my fiftieth anniversary.’
Interview by Rebecca Flood.
Find out more about Rotary Christmas Day.