Citizens Advice Wokingham Visited By First Chair and Original Volunteer Ahead Of Citizens Advice’s 80th Anniversary
On Thursday 14th February, Citizens Advice Wokingham was visited by former Chair of the Management Committee Dennis Eyriey, and original volunteer Jackie Jones. The visit is one of the first in Citizens Advice Wokingham’s long-term initiative to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the opening of the first Citizens Advice offices in the country.
The first Citizens Advice offices did indeed open in 1939, but Citizens Advice Wokingham are seeking to unearth their own roots from their later establishment on the 27th June, 1977 by the then-Town Clerk, Richard Rees Jones. Jackie Jones, who was a member of the first set of volunteers to work at what was then titled the ‘Wokingham Citizens Advice Bureau’, spoke about her motivations and the experience of joining the new workforce.
‘I was informed by a friend on the Town Council about Citizens Advice, because she knew I’d be interested, owing to my background in benefits. I’d been involved with the Volunteer Bureau before.’ Jones said. ‘A meeting was organised, and an advert presumably run in the Wokingham Times, and 10 or 12 new volunteers had training.’
‘Nobody at all was paid. The only paid ones were in Bracknell. The only intervention from the Town Council was funding; we were autonomous.’
The Wokingham & District Citizens Advice Bureau (which it would be later renamed to) records show that ten founding volunteers became advisers, with 1,815 people contacting the Bureau for advice throughout 1978/79. By 1981/82, those numbers had shot up to 4,068, with ten advisers still left to handle them all. The service moved to Langborough Road while refurbishments were made to the Town Hall, before moving back again. Jones was in the position of Deputy Organiser at the time.
‘I was essentially there to support the advisers by managing them, holding meetings and so forth.’ Jones noted. ‘There were very few appointments. Most people came off the street to make enquiries. Their numbers built up quickly, and we were pressed for time because the service was proving so popular. Also, remember that we had to update the records by hand.’
‘Our day books were much the same as they are now in terms of the issues raised. Benefits, housing and debt were the most common, and a fluid community left many vulnerable residents to fill out paperwork on their own. The advice we gave was good, but not delivered as quickly as it can be now.’
Of Jones’s views on the value of the job, there can be no doubt. ‘Volunteers are the salt of the earth!’ she proclaims proudly. ‘Most of us were outsiders, as well. You either looked for routes in the Church, or you did voluntary work.’
The service was certainly accessible to the public in these years, but this sometimes led to public questioning of a more peculiar variety. One enquiry in 1979/80 came from Australia, and an original Bureau volunteer named Betty Gifford noted that one person had contacted the service to ask ‘how to exorcise an unquiet spirit’.
“Volunteers are the salt of the earth!”
‘A lot of the time, members of the public would come in with local enquiries about where the nearest loo or chemist was. There was little restriction on whom advice could be given to either.’ Jones said.
Jones was given an opportunity to publicise the service to a wider audience, however: ‘I went on air for the Hospital Radio Broadcast from Reading. They just wanted something, and somebody said to phone the CAB. They wanted anecdotes — but we couldn’t give any because it was all confidential! I remember they asked me for a tune in the middle.’
Dennis Eyriey was also involved in the infancy of the Bureau’s establishment: ‘Once we had our new premises set up, we said “Let’s get a Management Committee set up, and see where it goes.” so I was the first Chairman.’
‘We started at the Town Hall in some grotty accommodation, and we didn’t even have a loo. That survived for a little bit until we got moved to Langborough Road for the refurbishment and back again.’
“We had no computers to start with, just a few record cards. There’s only so much you can write on a record card”
Bigger plans for the Bureau began to unfold. A Woodley extension was opened in 1985, Wokingham District Council entered a partnership with them in 1986, and a full-time manager with plans for expansion of the premises was appointed in 1988.
‘I was on the panel choosing the first ever full-time manager, Sue Jackson, in 1988.’ remembered Eyriey. ‘Our first part-time manager was Brenda Alder, and John Watson replaced Sue some years later.’
Jackson succeeded in her quest for expansion: ‘[The service] went down to the old Town Council offices at Elms Road [in 1990] after we moved back into the Town Hall again. Then it went up to WH Smith, in the building above that for several years.’
Eyriey remembers meeting Sir John Redwood, MP, shortly after he had taken his seat to represent Wokingham (which he still holds). ‘I remember going along and saying to Mr Redwood: “I think it would be a good idea if Citizens Advice as a national entity were funded nationally.”, and I’ve still got the bruises! He did not agree by one jot back then!’
It was not only in terms of location that the volunteers were experiencing shifts, for technological advancements began to re-shape the nature of the service.
‘‘We had to beg and borrow money for computer systems, which were being introduced at the time. You’ve got to keep records much more now than used to be the case. We had no computers to start with, just a few record cards. There’s only so much you can write on a record card, and everyone then became very frightened about record keeping.’
‘I remember that towards the end, we had some volunteers who said “I’m not going to touch a computer! I’m not trained and I’m not going to at my age of life!”, and that sort of attitude, and one or two of them left.’
Eyriey stepped down as a Trustee in 2007, although the spell was not an unbroken one.
As the 80th anniversary of Citizens Advice approaches, more recollections and information will be sought for. It is clear that an intriguing history of constant change and development has shaped the current organisation.