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Isherwood John

John Isherwood from United Kingdom learned IVSP (SCI) in the 1960s. He worked for the Volunteer Service Overseas and later for Oxfam.


Isherwood John

I will be 87 in February 2023 and, looking back over my life, I still realise how much SCI has meant to me all these years and influenced my way to trying to understand our troubled world.

George and Kathleen Innes

By 1953, George Innes, a Quaker, and his wife, Kathleen, had both retired to the village of St Mary Bourne, near Andover. George had been a conscientious objector during World War I and had met Kathleen (the daughter of the former village doctor) while both were working with refugees in first Serbia and then Sardinia. They married in 1921 but both continued to be active in the peace movement. Kathleen was a very remarkable woman who merits a long biography found at Kathleen Innes (Wikipedia)

George and Kathleen first became clients of my late father and later good friends of my parents. In 1953, I had left school and was waiting to be called up to begin the then compulsory two years of military service in the UK. By chance I met George in our town, who asked me what I was then doing. I answered ’Nothing much’ to which he replied that I should visit St Mary Bourne the next day and join the SCI / IVS (then still IVSP: International Voluntary Service for Peace) workcamp, whose task was to dig the foundations of the village’s first community hall. George had largely funded it by himself visiting a large number of people (my parents included) to ask them to save all their waste paper and cardboard, which he then called himself weekly to collect and sell on for cash.

John Isherwood 1953

I am the young man on the extreme right of the photo. It was posed for the local Andover newspaper which published articles, which I have scanned for your possible interest in the attached file. My ‘call up’ papers arrived after I had only worked at this camp for a few days and I therefore did not merit a caricature of the members then present, drawn by one of them for the local newspaper.

Work camps with IVSP

After I had finished my military service (18 months of it in Düsseldorf, Germany) I had time to fill before I became a student at Oxford. I made contact with IVSP and was sent to Birmingham to join another international workcamp, decorating the houses of some very poor people living in slum properties. I have never forgotten one man, who showed me his World War I wound which had never healed and he unable to work. Next came an idyllic camp high in the mountains of the Austrian Carpathians. During my time as an Oxford student I also took part in vacation time in the first Komsomol /SCI and other western NGOs workcamp on a Soviet-Russian state collective farm, an hour’s drive from Belgorod, now in the news again as very near its border with Ukraine. Our journey there required a change of trains and stop at Kharkhiv.

That was in 1958 after I had become fascinated by Poland at another camp with SCI participation near Czempin. In 1959 I returned to Poland and made another camp near Rzeszow, again in the news today. I also led the SCI volunteers at a second Soviet Union camp in what is today the Transnistria part of now independent Moldovia in 1962. Other camps in England and France followed and during those years I was invited to become a trustee and committee member of IVS Great Britain and first met Frank Judd who became a lifelong friend until his death last year and also its then chairman, Douglas Childs another Quaker who became a very good friend.

I would like to add Ralph Hegnauer, who became a good friend when IVS sent me to join the North Africa Committee at the end of Algeria’s was of independence and led to my two week visit to that country to visit SCI’s long term volunteers there. In 1956, Ralph went to Hungary to help refugees following the invasion by the USSR. By chance he met an Englishman, Alec Dickson, a newly retired member of the Nigerian colonial service, who had travelled to Hungary also to help refugees cross its border to freedom. Inspired by what Ralph told him about SCI, two years later Alec motivated the UK government to finance Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and became its first Director. In the 1960s it had over 1,300 long term volunteers serving for one and later two years in developing countries all over the globe and another example of SCI’s quiet inspiration for good. In turn, Dickson in 1960 was contacted by the future President John Kennedy’s brother in law, Sargent Shriver, who wanted to learn more about VSO and the British Volunteer Programme. Dickson no doubt also told him about SCI’s much longer history. The result of course was the American Peace Corps.

Voluntary Service Overseas and Oxfam

I qualified as a lawyer in 1964, but to my father’s no doubt disappointment, was offered a job as a staff member in London of Voluntary Service Overseas, much the largest of the then British government’s British Volunteer Programme for long term volunteers, largely in the then developing nations of Africa and Asia of which the other NGO members were IVS, United Nations Volunteers, & the Catholic Aid for Overseas Development. I married in 1967 another IVS member and staff member of VSO who took part in IVS London weekend workcamps. In 1968 my father told me he planned to retire in 1969 and that if I wanted to replace him as an Andover lawyer this was my last chance ! But luck was on my side as, shortly before I left VSO, Oxfam invited me to become one its trustees and a member of its governing Council. I served four six year terms as such and for the last six as chairman of its Executive Council Committee, but also in the gaps on various other sub-committees, finally last retiring from Oxfam in 2000. During that time I again had the great luck, thanks to Oxfam, to be asked to help start a new British NGO, motivated the the UN’s 1981 declaration of a ‘ water decade ‘: WaterAid, for which I again served as a trustee and its chairman from 1995-2001 and which today has become one of the UK’s leading development NGOs. And now has sister organisations in Canada, USA, Australia, Japan, and India.

January 2023


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