Love that lollipop

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Lollipop ladies - and gentlemen - have been guiding children safely across Britain's roads for the past 50 years. Harvey McGavin meets some of the characters of the crossing patrols

Lollipop men and ladies, those unmistakable heroes of the school community, are celebrating half a century of service. The first person paid to help children across Britain's roads was a Mrs Hunt, employed by Bath council in 1937. After the Second World War, public alarm at the number of children being killed and injured on the roads led police to appeal for "active retired gentlemen" to serve in other areas.

The 1953 School Crossing Patrol Act put them on an official footing, making them the only people, apart from police officers, legally allowed to stop traffic.

Today there are around 28,000 school crossing patrols in the UK (though they are popularly known as lollipop ladies, a third of them are men), still several thousand short of the number needed. Increasing traffic, inconvenient hours and average pay of less than pound;6 an hour have led to vacancy rates in some areas reaching 50 per cent. Colin Pettener, of the Local Authority Road Safety Officers Association, admits: "The service is in something of a crisis, and in most parts of Britain it has become difficult to recruit patrols."

Here we pay tribute to the dedicated men and women - including one headteacher - who brave the elements and wrath of road users every day to ensure children's safety.

Heather Morris, Park Road primary and Wellfield junior, Sale, Trafford

The police called at Heather Morris's house to ask a favour (her dad was in the force, which was how they knew her). They were looking for someone reliable to take over the local school crossing, and as Heather lived just two doors from the school, would she consider it? Heather had small children of her own, and took some persuading, but eventually she said she'd do it until they found someone to do the job permanently.

That was 33 years ago. In the meantime, much has changed. The uniform's improved (although she still has the same waterproof trousers she started with), the lollipop's lighter and Trafford council employs her now instead of the police. "It was a lot busier then too," says Heather, because the motorways that now skirt the south Manchester suburb of Sale had not been built.

A few weeks after she started work, Heather received a cheque in the post.

"It was for pound;9-odd. I took it to the police and said, 'What's this? They said, 'It's your wages'. I didn't know I got paid - I'd thought it was voluntary."

She has seen two generations of children safely across the road and is regularly accosted by strangers who turn out to be grown-up versions of the kids she used to know. "I never recognise them because they have altered so much."

Heather, 63, patrols a crossroads, and is modest about her long service, keeping the medals awarded in recognition of it in a drawer. Her favourite memento of almost half a lifetime on the lollipops is a needlepoint picture of her made by a grateful parent with her ready-to-cross catchphrase, "Right, sweethearts!" It sits on her windowsill, overlooking the spot where she started.

Albert Sawyers, Anson primary, London borough of Brent

With a sideways skip and a friendly wave, Albert Sawyers bounds out and plants his lollipop in the middle of Anson Road in Willesden Green. He acknowledges the waiting traffic with a broad smile, politely greets crossing pedestrians, then waves the traffic through with an almost dismissive throw of his arm. Albert is 69 years old but his exuberant style is perfectly suited to the job. Even if he wasn't wearing a bright yellow uniform, you couldn't help noticing him.

A member of the public nominated him for a special award from Brent council, calling him "an amazing man and a great ambassador". But Albert is modest. "The award came out of the blue, but I don't feel like an ambassador - I'm just doing my job."

Albert came to England from Jamaica in 1961 and worked as a carpenter and ran several small businesses before retiring. His wife spotted the job advert in the local paper. Before Albert started three years ago, Anson, a large primary next to a busy crossroads, had been without a crossing patrol for seven years.

With four children and 10 grandchildren, Albert has considerable experience of childcare. "I guard them like my own children," he says. And his secret? "Always give the first smile. Sometimes people can be having a bad day but you can lift them with a smile."

In London it's difficult to find people willing to do a part-time job that pays less than pound;6 an hour and there are vacancy rates of around 50 per cent in some boroughs. But Albert is a local hero, and if anyone can persuade others to follow in his dancing footsteps, Albert Sawyers is the man.

Jenny Beamish, Newlyn primary, Cornwall

If you were a new pupil at Newlyn, you might be forgiven for thinking it had triplets on the staff. The nice lady who helps you across the road in the mornings is a dead ringer for the one who serves your lunch. Later on you see her lookalike up a ladder. Then the first one reappears to see you home.

But there's a simple explanation. Jenny Beamish is caretaker, dinner lady and school crossing patrol at this 218-pupil primary near Penzance. Jenny's three jobs can add up to a 12-hour day, starting at 7am when she comes in to open up. By 8.30am she has donned her reflective jacket, hat and lollipop and set off for the crossing. After that she goes home until 11.30am, when she returns to get the dinners ready. Two hours later she's home for a short breather before heading back to the crossing. Then she's the last to leave school, sometimes locking up as late as 7.30pm.

A century ago, Newlyn gave its name to a school of artists who settled there. Today it is better known as home to Britain's second largest fishing fleet. For Jenny this means having a constant stream of lorries pass the school on their way to and from the quayside.

"Some people just don't like to stop. They think you are a threat to them.

But if they left five minutes earlier they wouldn't be running late. Some can be very aggressive."

Jenny, a 51-year-old grandmother, took on the job six years ago. "I didn't think I'd still be doing it but you get to know the children and the parents. There's a good community spirit."

Carolyn Bowen, St Nicolas infants, Guildford, Surrey

Local celebrity status has come late for Carolyn Bowen, and in an unexpected way. Seven years after becoming headteacher of St Nicolas, and after 24 years in teaching, she has finally hit the headlines - for the simple act of helping children cross the road.

"My mum says it's terrible that 'after all you've done for teaching, you get fame as a lollipop lady'," she laughs. Carolyn has been St Nicolas stand-in lollipop lady since Easter - the second time she has been pressed into service because of a staff shortage. St Nicolas is a pretty school, with just 102 pupils and four teachers, set in award-winning gardens at the end of cul-de-sac. But children have to cross the busy A3100 Portsmouth Road to get there. In the wealthy Surrey commuter belt, finding someone to patrol in all weathers, twice a day, for around pound;50 a week, is not easy.

Nevertheless, Carolyn fills the role with good grace. "As a small school, funds are limited. In the past I have done the cleaning and painting. But it's for the good of the children. If there was ever an accident because nobody was there I wouldn't forgive myself."

Since she was feted in the local media, a couple of parents have volunteered on a temporary basis and a man of 73 has offered his services subject to a medical. Meanwhile, Carolyn is using her publicity to good effect.

"It's funny, because now a lot of people know I'm the headteacher they have far more respect for me than they had before. Some of the drivers wave and stop whereas before they couldn't care less - I was just a lollipop lady."

Frank Howe, St Mary's primary, Woodbridge, Suffolk Frank Howe knows what it feels like to be hit by a car. One afternoon in January 2001, he was seeing children across Burkitt Road outside St Mary's; the next minute he was picking himself up off it.

"This guy was revving his engine and cursing me. Children were still crossing and I wasn't going to give in. The next thing I knew he had turned his steering wheel and mounted the pavement and his wing mirror hit my thigh. Over I went and he carried on down the road."

Luckily, an off-duty policeman who was driving towards them saw what had happened and blocked his escape. The driver was fined pound;350 and had eight points put on his licence.

Frank, who's 63, had worked as a driver, then spent seven years caring for his wife, until she died of multiple sclerosis in 2000. Then he took on the school caretaker's job. The advert hadn't mentioned crossing patrols.

"Nobody wanted the job, they said it was too dangerous," he says. The school had been 21 months without a crossing patrol. "One lady said, 'I'll get down on my knees and beg you if I have to'."

Just after Frank's accident, the police set up a speed check on Burkitt Road, which runs in a straight line between the town and the A12. In a 30mph zone, vehicles have been recorded at 70mph. But Frank takes the hazards and occasional abuse all in his considerable stride.

"Ninety-nine per cent of people are excellent." His priority is the children. "My life is three-quarters gone; these children have theirs ahead of them. That's my attitude."

Elaine Jaundrill, Neston high and St Mary's primary, Neston, Cheshire "Please drive slowly" says the sign beside the Liverpool Road into Neston.

The way drivers speed down the slope towards this pretty Cheshire town suggests they haven't seen it.

But every time Elaine Jaundrill steps into the road, lollipop in hand, she hopes to prick their consciences. Seven years ago, just a few yards from the spot where she now guides children to and from school, Elaine's seven-year-old son, Ben, was knocked down and killed.

It was during the holidays, and Ben had been out playing with his sister and a friend. "I had told him not to cross on his own," says Elaine. "But you know what little boys are like."

Soon after, Elaine applied for the job. It was her way of doing something positive. "And I get a tremendous sense of power," she laughs.

Elaine started campaigning for the 40mph speed limit to be reduced or a crossing installed on the road that separates the estate where she lives from Neston high and St Mary's primary, Ben's old school. She gathered more than 3,000 signatures on a petition, but nothing has changed. "I'm pissed off," she says.

A cherry tree planted in Ben's memory grows on the grass verge where Elaine patrols, and above her fireplace hangs a portrait and a poem written by a friend celebrating his life. Some friends worried about her doing the job with all these reminders, but it's a public service, she says, and she enjoys it.

Elaine gets tired from working a 34-hour week in the local chip shop on top of her crossing patrol duties, but she's not about to quit. "I can't see me ever stopping," she smiles.

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