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An oral history interview with Mary Newman, a longtime volunteer, board member, and chair of VCS Cymru. Mary discusses the early days of VCS Cymru, reminisces about the adventure playgrounds around Cardiff, and speaks about her role within the organisation.

VCS Cymru was established in 1964 and was the first volunteering bureau in Britain. VCS Cymru works to help people and their communities thrive through heritage, media and supported volunteering. VCS celebrated 50 years in 2014, and continues to grow and to innovate.


The Chronicle Project is a community heritage project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and run by VCS Cymru with the aims to document the history of volunteering in Cardiff, from 1914 to 2014.

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KW: We will now begin recording the interview with Mary Newman.
The recording takes place on the 2nd of March 2017 at Radio Cardiff. The volunteers present are Kayleigh Williams and Lara Taffer.
And this recording is collected as an oral history and will be part of the Chronicle
Project, a project led by VCS Cymru and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
KW = Kayleigh Williams, LT= Lara Taffer, MN = Mary Newman
KW: So, Mary, would you introduce yourself for me, please?

[0:28 to 3:19 - about Mary and her involvement with the VCS adventure playground scheme]

MN: Yes, I’m Mary Newman, I'm 51 years of age, I was born in Cardiff and have lived in Cardiff all my life. I am married for almost 59 years, I have 7 children, 10 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. I'm doing this interview mainly to encourage people to volunteer, and by doing that I will go into my history with VCS. I first became aware of VCS in 1975. Llanedeyrn, where I still live, was a new estate, and VCS have leafleted the area to ask if people were interested in a summer adventure play scheme. I think about 5 people turned up to that meeting, but we ended up having the summer play schemes for two years. In the interim we found out that there was a site allocated for an adventure playground on the master plan for Llanedeyrn.

We got in touch with the city council, they said we could have the land and we had that land – the adventure playground took place in the woods, initially, then some parents got together and formed an association. And we then needed from VCS advice on how to set up a constitution. That was done. There was an issue at the time, that went on for years, over whether a parent could be on a committee to interview a member of staff. The people who got involved in those days, because most women stayed at home to look after the children, meet up within the community. Women with their families got involved with whatever was going on, and there was so much to develop - and through the community mainly, in that particular area. From the adventure playgrounds developed a Cardiff Playground Association that used to meet at VCS in town. [We were] mostly women, that was our social life. From that again developed other volunteering opportunities. The director of VCS at the time thought that I should go to college before I was too old to go to college.

[3:20 to 4:52 - Mary’s time as a community development worker and college student; about the VCS ‘revolution’]

But in the interim there was a vacancy for a job as a community development worker in Grangetown, and because they needed somebody fast, who knew Grangetown, to go into there, that was offered to me and I took it and I did that for two years. I was still pushed to go to college. I would have liked to do a course on youth and community but that would have meant either going to Swansea or North Wales, which was an impossibility with the family. So I studied as a social worker and gained a Social Work qualification – all that while I was still involved in some way or another with VCS. An interesting period there was when there was a move VCS from a directorship to management. We had what we called ‘the revolution’, which was really interesting. Everybody was knocked off the committee except Robert Davies, who would establish VCS in the city. I think it was about 9 months later when I had a call to say ‘Will you come back on the committee?‘ and I was on the committee for a while then. What VCS did for me – completely changed my life because of one piece of paper really, that went through the letter box.

[4:53 to 5:55 - Mary’s time as a councillor and being appointed VCS chairman]

I also became involved, because of volunteering and campaigning in my area, in politics. Then I became councillor for 11 years. So there was my job, college, getting on the council. And there was a gap with my involvement with VCS, and I'm not sure, when I look back, on why. Then I think maybe 15-16 years ago, I received a call asking me if I would get involved again. And within a year, unfortunately, the chair of VCS had passed away and then I became chairman of the VCS. I’ve been so since, how much longer they will keep me, I don’t know.

[5:56 to 8:45 - volunteering means getting involved in the local community and achieving change]

But I would always say to people – if you’re looking for something to do – volunteer! Volunteering really isn’t about you doing something for somebody else. I'm sure there are many more stories like mine about how people’s lives have changed and how much more you get back from volunteering as well. And sadly, in today’s environment, VCS is struggling. But we’ll stay there. We’ll survive, somehow or other. Because funding is difficult today not just for VCS. The voluntary sector is really suffering. Don’t worry in your own communities – if there are things you need – still try and fight! Originally, in Llanedeyrn, we’d meet in somebody’s front room: ‘it’s your house, you can be the chair’ and ‘Mary’s scribbling, she can be the secretary’ and how things move on from that, and you can do things for yourself.

But there’s been a change, in a way. Sadly, my generation, the women stayed at home, mostly to bring up the children so people had time and wanted to get involved in things, particularly on the estates, when there’s nothing else there. And you can achieve it! I was involved with the committee, I think it was 3 million at the time – to convert a broken down, smashed to bits old boiler house that was converted into a powerhouse that became a flagship for using buildings in the community when they’re being left to rot, taking them on and sorting them out. It was an excellent project, it really was. Sadly in some ways, the local authorities have taken it on and it’s been converted into a Hub. Because the community don’t seem to be going in there at the moment, it’s like a hiatus within the community, but we need to see what happens. The building is being extended. When it opened to the public then hopefully it will survive, the way the powerhouse did for over 20 years.

[8:46 to 12:46 - funding difficulties in the volunteering and youth sectors and doing something for your community]

There are so many [not clear - opportunities] to volunteer, to get things out of it, to encourage people. I don’t know if people realise we can bring the country to a standstill. If people stop volunteering then the local authorities, government, nobody could fund them, when you look at the organisations of volunteering!

For example scouting - people don’t seem to think being involved with scouting as volunteering. It is! It’s been my husband’s lifelong, [activity] the thing that he was really involved in. Even now he helped to maintain buildings. Today, every Thursday he goes to Miskin, the main scout camping area, they maintain the buildings and the land around. Yes, go for it! If you ask retired people ‘How are you filling up your time?’; ‘Don’t you miss going to work?’ I would reckon that most of them would say ‘you’re busier when you leave work when you’re involved in things.’ Don’t be afraid of retirement. It doesn’t have to kill you. Even more so today. People are going to have to get up again and do things for themselves. Because sadly I think there’s a belief sometimes amongst politicians that the community can’t do it for itself and it can! And it can achieve things! Hard luck if 20 years on, they suddenly disappear.

But it won’t be long before people will come together and strive to bring things back. The saddest thing now is the money being taken out of youth. I can only reflect on my own area where all the beautiful fields around a primary and secondary modern school were available for the public. Sadly, again, reflecting today’s society, all those fields are fenced off. There’s hardly anywhere now for people to play. Funding has been taken out from the youth sector and hopefully outreach work can be done with the youth so they’re not hanging about with nothing to do. Yes, it’s about taking it in your own hands and doing something about it and god knows how much longer I’ve got in this world, but I’ll hopefully keep going and encourage other people to do the same – get out there and do it! And get people around you to join in, get involved, and I think, even in my own area, I think the fact that I went to college, other people thought that ‘if she can do it, I can do it!’ You can make an amazing difference to people and what goes down in the community. And it’s not just down to one individual. I’m the one being interviewed, but it’s not just about me, it’s about everybody else in my own community that got together to do things for it and be successful at doing it and to say ‘you can do it in your community as well!’

KW: So, you’ve touched upon this already, slightly, but when you got involved, back in the 1970s, how did that adventure playground scheme impact your community?

[13:04 to 15:42 – the community built the adventure playground building and the children were allowed to play adventurously before health and safety regulations]

MN: It put somewhere for children to go and initially we did not have a building. So when we managed to employ somebody to be responsible for the playground, everything took place in the woods around, we had an aerial runway. For our sins, we had tunnels! And kids played in the woods and they built things and in some ways the death of adventure – that was the word – adventure play – was killed by the introduction of health and safety, when they used building regulations and you couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that and the more surprising thing they had [your runway pass master - unclear]. The children were free to play in a way they don’t seem to play anymore, they were able at the beginning to use hammers and nails to build these grotty looking structures.

Step on rusty nails, go to the infirmary, get a tetanus injection and then the kids, they’d be back on the playground. It developed really well, and what was interesting – there was a point that where Cardiff city council said they had the building but they couldn’t put the foundations in, so that was quite a laugh! But we got the men together to put the shuttering in for the base and somebody turned out with a lorry load of concrete so the base was put in, so that was purely the community! That building is still standing, which is nice to know. And it has been taken over now, because the funding for Adventure Play is finished and it’s been taken over by a local scout group that was having to travel for its meetings and they will be offering the building for some community activities in the day and scouting activities take place at night. Yes, that started it all!

KW: And nowthat you’re chair of VCS, how has your role with the organisation changed since you were volunteering? Are you involved with the coordination of volunteers?

LT: So what’s your role now as chair?

[16:03 to 20:24 – roles within the VCS committees and the volunteering bureau; VCS trainings for volunteers]

MN: Well, originally I was a member of the committee and as time moved on you get used to the different roles within a committee. And there were other committees I was involved in, leading from being involved with VCS. On a number of occasions I’ve received phone calls that said ‘Mary, we haven’t got a chair.’ I think it was a time-resource centre, they didn’t have a chair. ‘Will you come back? It won’t be for long.’ And that turned into a couple of year!. Looking at VCS what is amazing is the amount of things that they innovated in this city. I mean the first adventure playground was run by VCS – it identified the other sites, but they couldn’t run them all themselves. That’s why they ended up in the hands of the local authority and survived for a lot longer than I thought, thanks to them. There were subcommittees to VCS that I was on.

I was on Interval when it was set up. Then from Interval I was in VAC (Voluntary Action Cardiff). I was involved with that. And that lead me on to something else. We learn to take on the roles within the community activities, the roles of chair and secretary and treasurer. You didn’t need to be told to go on a training course to know how to do these things because back then they weren’t doing training courses. That is one of the things VCS did introduce! VCS were doing training sessions for a lot more things that training for the roles. But their training was informal.

A lot of people, including me, didn’t like getting involved in training that meant I was going to be criticised and checked on an ordinary basis. That is an image of school days. I don’t know how to put that in a better way. It goes back to that. We’re all capable of doing things, we don’t always need long training courses. Some of these things come instinctively because of need or wherever you are, or the need to get involved instantly. And what VCS has offered in the past was the front desk, where somebody could go in, speak to whoever was on the front desk, decide that they might rather work with children than talk through all the activities and all the places that VCS were involved in. Find that they're 40 and are into something completely different. That’s the sadness now, we lost the volunteer bureau. There were so many things we did: there was the flat shop, there was the job shop, single women housing group. An awful lot of things in this city come from individual volunteering, individual wanting to get on and do things, reaping benefits themselves.

LT: I know that funding was taken away from VCS, but why was the funding taken away and why doesn't the volunteer bureau still reside within VCS? What happened politically there?

[20:41 to 23:40 – funding cuts hit the community first, VCS continues thanks to Cardiff Radio]

MN: The cutbacks in funding to numerous things these days. Obviously the country has to look up what money it has or doesn’t have. It depends on the way they deal with that. I think the unfortunate thing about funding cuts is it hits the community first. Nothing to do with us. My heart bleeds for the Rhondda, the deprivation there. They are losing a lot more than we do. At the moment we lost the library in Llanedeyrn, but in the old powerhouse there is a huge hall and the library is now there, and I haven’t gone to see what’s happening, how that’s working there. The police station – it will be moving to the hub when it’s finished as well.

I believe there is a community cafe at the moment and that will be run by a charity. And again, it’s the charities that function because of the number of people who volunteer.
VCS lost its core funding which meant that we would possibly have to close. We had these reserves and the committee, in its wisdom, decided to use those reserves to keep us going for another year. Now, because we’ve become involved with Cardiff Radio, hopefully that will raise funding, that VCS continues and then get back to where it was. It survived a lot of cutbacks in funding, having to cutback on what they were doing. And if we get the funding again we can go back to doing the things that we did years ago. I can remember a gardening project in a grotty old farm, volunteers would go out and do people’s gardens. Particularly on the big estates, people got old and they couldn’t do their gardens, so we’d go along doing their front gardens. Sometimes I think they’d have decorating projects. I think I could go on forever, if I really researched what were the things that VCS had actually innovated.

LT: Did you have a favourite project that you worked on?

[23:47 to 25:58 – disco in an underpass, bonfire nights and being treasurer]

MN: I think for me it was the playground originally. And that was influenced I suppose, by the children around. Interestingly enough, it was those with the bigger families who got really involved. One of my fondest memories of the playground was doing a disco in an underpass, because we didn’t have the building at the time. We had an electric cable running to the nearest house to plug it in. I think I had a baby in the pram, stuck under the underpass, listening to music, the kids dancing. On there we had some great times. We ran a few bonfire nights that were extremely successful. Because what the council did was take down the bonfires from the open land everywhere else. And we ran bonfire nights, had pips and did potatoes and all the rest of it. And the first one we did – I think there were at least 1000 people there. We did a collection, we only collected 32 pounds, and even back in those days, the display fireworks were quite expensive. But we managed that on our little committee. I was chair of that for a while, I was treasurer for years, for the association and that’s how you help again then. The association could be used to raise funds, whereas an employee of the city council couldn’t raise funds themselves. I probably still have all the treasurer books as well! I always felt that that’s where my volunteering started.

[25:59 to 28:40 – from committee secretary to councillor]

But my sister, after my mum died, found some papers in the house where I'd been the secretary of a committee in the youth club. Oh, I was treasurer, and being critical then! There were gaps definitely [in my volunteering]. Obviously in 1959 I went to Cyprus for two years, had two of the children there. I came back and to me my life was going to be about bringing up the children, and influenced by being on a new estate, because there was absolutely nothing there. People were moving into houses, but they didn’t even have pavements to get to them, mud was still around the place. It really was an interesting time. It was like my getting involved with politics. I was secretary of a committee to set up to have temporary classrooms to the local school. Another school got temporary classrooms, no fuss no bother.

Not Llanedeyrn. We were going to have to fight! And we set up a committee and I was secretary of that and I can remember one day, because the school took part in the Cyncoed [area] and some of the Cyncoed parents were there and they asked one night where were the people from the council estate. […] And one night we had councillors there and when I look back – I called them ‘faceless wonders!’ There was an action coming up, 'it will happen now, because there is an election coming up soon!’ and from then I got involved politically and then was asked to stand for council and it’s been an interesting life and really, nobody knows what would’ve happened if those leaflets haven’t come through the door – but from then on – that influenced my life!

[28:41 to 30:09 – working with homeless people and the Cyrenians]

I'm trying to think how did I first come to work with homeless people. I did a placement at Cardiff Cyrenians that was on Tresilian Terrace [now Huggard Charity helping with Cardiff Homelessness]. I did the placement at Cyrenians prior to that because VCS was involved with the setting up of Cyrenians in Cardiff in the first place. And now and again homeless people would come into VCS and come up the stairs so I’ve known about homelessness anyway. And that, again, really, was through VCS. Being interviewed, that was interesting: the size of the interview panel. Things going round, I’m not sure if John Drysdale was on that interview panel, but John Drysdale was here for that radio interview on Tuesday and I haven’t seen him for a long time.

LT: Has there been, over the years, people you volunteer with, do they become part of your social life as well?

[30:19 to 31:16 – volunteering was Mary's social life]

MN: Well, when I look back, the Cardiff adventure play association, it was mostly Llanedeyrn, Ely. Not sure, did anyone used to come from Grangetown? Splott, there were one or two that didn’t bother much. But to me, going out of an evening, to go to VCS for a meeting was like social life – that was the only time, back then, that I went out at night. That’s a reflection really. I was surprised the other day, particularly the two ladies from Ely, remembering them and their names (because you get to my age and the names start to disappear).

KW: Are you still in contact with any of the people that were on the adventure playground boards or anybody else that had been involved?

[31:28 to 32:00 – receiving gratitude for her work as a councillor]

MN: No, not really. Well, somebody might speak to me on the bus. Somebody recently asked me if I was Mary Newman, I said ‘I think so!’ I shouldn’t have really because the lady said to me ‘I'm so grateful, when you were a councillor you were able to help!’ and I said that was my job at the time. Great that your problem was resolved.

LT: How do you feel when you get recognised for you voluntary work and your work as a councillor?

[32:07 to 32:30 – being recognised for her work in the community]

MN: I wouldn’t so much now, it was nice recently, when somebody stopped me on the estate and I didn’t even recognise the lady and she said ‘Thank you for all the things you did for Llanedeyrn!’ I was quite taken aback at that because I don’t like being public.

LT: So if it’s not for the recognition, what motivates you to volunteer? And what motivated you to be involved with VCS?

[32:41 to 37:24 – Release project helping ex-servicemen to deal with life after service]

MN: Well, the value of it, and if somebody needed help to get themselves going, if at the time, when I've got the time, then I’ll do that. As I say, try and encourage people to volunteer. And this is why VCS, to me, has to survive. How many projects at the moment pave the way? Lara’s job – she’s working with offenders and I’m really interested in working with ex-servicemen. A lot of that for me is growing up during the war. And I think it’s sad today on Facebook when you look at how many ex-servicemen are homeless. And the lack of understanding of how and why they become homeless. If you think about the structured life they've led. Especially the ones who do their 25 years and the discipline and they just don’t cope with coming out.

So much they have to think about – I honestly don’t think they’re prepared for it. Through Lara’s Release project – if that project only helped one person to be kept away from the streets! But I think the military […] there hasn’t been enough done to prepare people to leave, to cope with the fact they might get a pension, there’s not going to be a salary every month. Maybe not thinking earlier about what’s going to happen when they go out, so hopefully Release project will continue and pave the way. People might find it easier to be informed through the voluntary organisations, rather than going through local authority channels to try and resolve the problems. You can only advise and help as much as you can. You will change people’s lives if they’re willing and able to do it. But there are so many life changes.

Talking about school, getting into arguments about grammar schools. In a city like Cardiff, they couldn’t be elitist, most of Cardiff was poor! When I went to school most of us were from Grangetown, Splott, Ely, Butetown whatever. And I don’t think it’s elitist. But on the other hand, going back in my day, we would be able to get jobs, but all my mates from school, from primary school, there was work for everybody. And if one job finished, they could find a job somewhere else. And they went from school to work. You didn’t have these poor young things and they’re 25. They need work!

KW: So you’ve touched upon this already, but if you wanted to inspire somebody to volunteer in 2 to 3 sentences, what would you tell them?

[37:37 to 38:40 – 'Go for it!']

MN: Do it! Go for it! And just go see what happens! See what it gives you, see what you can get from it! I must admit, I think I was lucky that VCS distributed those leaflets at a time when the director at the time, that’s what ‘the revolution’ was about, they didn’t want a director. He must have seen something in me that I didn’t see for myself. You know, if I'm writing something, it might virtually be in short hand, and he'd say 'You’ve done more than that, now pad it out!' I take shortcut sentences!

LT: Can you finish this sentence for me: volunteering is .....?

[38:45 to 39:17 – 'volunteering can be a life-changing experience!']

MN: Does it have to be is? Volunteering can be a life-changing experience! If you have the opportunity to volunteer, if you’re enjoying where you are as a volunteer and make the most of it and take that experience back into your own community, encourage people to get out and do things!

KW: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us today!

MN: It’s almost incredible to think a piece of paper changes your life!

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