A pioneering figure from the early days of a leading children’s hospice travelled back in time after being given a tour of her former workplace. Marjorie Hasler, then Marjorie Bowden, was long-serving ‘Housemother’ when The Children’s Hospice for the Eastern Region – now East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH) – was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales in August 1989.
She started in the February and remained in post for 13 years, before taking her well-earned retirement in 2002. The 80-year-old returned the following June, when Milton’s Education, Training and Research Centre was opened by Princess Anne.
However, she had not been back since – until being shown around during a recent ‘thank you’ tour for supporters and fundraisers.
“It’s amazing to see how it’s grown to become the organisation it is today,” said Marjorie, who is married to Ron and lives in Huntingdon.
“However, it’s not a huge shock because I could see the way things were going. The need was there and things were happening, which was exciting. Not only that, other children’s hospices were popping up elsewhere in the country so it was a growing movement.
“However, to have been there at the beginning was amazing and it was fascinating going back. I found it so interesting and enjoyable and it was lovely to see how things have developed. I wouldn’t necessarily say it was emotional but it brought the memories flooding back.
“As we went around the hospice, I remembered so much about how things used to be. For instance, the sensory room is now in a different place and you used to have to go outside to access the hydro pool.
“The kitchen area is very different, too. It was tiny in my day and I was actually the person asked to commission the changes.”
Marjorie has vivid recollections of her first few weeks and says her first task was to oversee the fitting of a new office carpet. She said: “I also remember unpacking countless large boxes of toys, collected by our ‘Friends’ group during a trolley dash at the London Toy Fair.
“We cleaned, vacuumed and dusted all the rooms, spending several hours scraping dried plaster out of a bath, and hung all the play area and children’s room curtains. I also remember my first trustees’ lunch. The kitchen was yet to be decorated, tiled or connected to hot water or heating so the buffet lunch was prepared in a brand new, pristine and unused sluice – the only area with suitable surfaces.
“I remember working on the Good Friday, heaving furniture around and hauling up and dragging out an old carpet. The changes were gradual and purposeful. We knew the direction to take and although the route we followed had detours, there was clear signposting pointing the way forward.”
Marjorie started in her role after being approached by former colleague Sue Potter – the nurse whose vision it was to establish a children’s hospice at Milton, and one that was supported so well by the local community. The pair had worked together at Bourn Hall Fertility Clinic until Sue left to pursue her hospice mission in 1987.
Nearly a decade on from its official opening, in 1998, The Children’s Hospice for the Eastern Region merged with Quidenham Children’s Hospice, in Norfolk. EACH was born and both realised it would be easier to achieve their objectives as one; coming together meant more collective experience in children’s palliative care.
The charity then opened its Ipswich base the following year – Marjorie was involved in that process, too – although then it was a much smaller site in Walker Close, rather than The Treehouse which opened for care in May 2011. Marjorie, who was one of the first paid members of staff, feels honoured to have been there from the start.
She brought along photos and letters to share with others on her tour.
“The concept of a children’s hospice was very new and in its infancy then,” she said.
“We were only the fourth in the UK after others opened in Oxford, Wetherby and Birmingham. Now I’m told there are 54. People were sharing ideas and very supportive of each other. Everyone pitched in and did a bit of everything.
“The idea was that the hospice was supposed to be a home-from-home environment. That’s why I was given my job title, to emphasise that, and my role was to oversee the domestic and catering teams.
“It blossomed and developed and I remember people asking ‘how can you work in a place like that’. I used to say that although sad things happen there, it’s not a sad place. In fact, it’s actually the happiest environment you could ever imagine.”
Marjorie, who is still in touch with friends and former colleagues from her days at the hospice, has fond memories of Diana, Princess of Wales visiting.
“I arrived at 6am and remember the police and security being there from the crack of dawn, with their sniffer dogs,” said the mum of two, who also met The Duchess of Gloucester when she visited Milton in the 1990s.
“They had the drains up, doing all sorts of checks. Only trustees, families and members of the nursing team were inside the building so I didn’t get to meet The Princess. However, I heard all about it from everyone else. It was still fantastic to be there.”
Marjorie remains a loyal supporter of EACH, including buying and donating items at her local shop in Huntingdon. I love it and continue to support the charity,” she said.
“So much has changed since my time but all for the better and it’s lovely having that Royal connection and continuity, with The Princess of Wales being Patron. Children’s hospice care is very close to my heart and it’s something I’m passionate about.
“I was fortunate to meet so many lovely people and being part of the team was like being part of a family. Together, we grew from something very small and being part of that makes me feel privileged. I’m proud to have been there at the beginning and it gave me so much fulfilment, satisfaction and enjoyment.”