Leigh Meals on Wheels 1940s-1980s


For around thirty or forty years, Leigh had a “Meals on Wheels” service.  It may have started in the 1940s; was certainly active in the 1950s; and only ended in the 1980s.  We know of at least thirty Leigh volunteers but if anyone has more information, please contact Chris Rowley, so that we can add it to the information in the Historical Society archive.

The leading light in the early days in Leigh – “The Queen Bee” as one volunteer called her – was Mrs Bridget Williams who lived at Upper Kennards.  At a later stage, Mrs Bill Collins who lived nearly next to what was Moon’s Garage in Penshurst Road became organizer, passing the baton on to Diana Wood in the 1970s.  Diana recalls that Mrs Collins arrived at the Old Bakery and said that, as Diana lived in the middle of the village, she was the obvious person to take over.

The customers came from a wide geographical area, not just inside the village – Garden Cottages, The Green and other places, from Bough Beech and Chiddingstone Causeway and from Charcott and Moorden and the Powder Mills.  The volunteers all had cars (and many of them children who were often with their mothers during the school holidays).  The volunteers normally collected their tins of food from in front of Leigh School.  The food seems to have been cooked in a wide variety of places – usually school kitchens although, as Alison Cook recalls, the food made in the Glaxo canteen was thought to be the most superior.

Normally, the food would be brought by a WRVS driver in a large metal box which Anna Rowley remembers as having some sort of charcoal burner in it to keep the food warm, if not very hot.  At the same time, the cleaned out box from the previous day would be handed back.  Alison Cook says that cleaning out the box was thought to be the worst part of the job by far.



The Meals on Wheels volunteers were virtually all ladies, even if an occasional husband, Chris Rowley and Paul Vernet, for example, have stories about the men and women they visited.  Most of them were elderly and not very good at looking after themselves but all of them, in their own different ways, were pleased to be visited, wanted to chat and – mostly – were grateful for the food.  Monica Cecil recalls that she was asked to go to make a first visit to an old man.  He lived down a long track and when she got there the grass was two foot high and the old man lived amongst rubbish, cats and hens in complete squalor – but seemingly content.  Monica asked whether he might like the meals and, when he said “yes”, she said she had a spare meal in the car; had he got a plate?  He fished around on the floor and handed over the cat’s bowl.

However, the Leigh volunteers are quite clear that they were helping the many men and women in more ways than just providing the food.  It was the fact that elderly people – many of whom did not seem to have family nearby – needed someone to talk to, to gossip with, to relive the old days or to post a letter.  The visits also meant that the volunteers could keep an eye open to see that there were no dangers – ‘no holes in the carpet for the old lady to trip over or they were looking really frail: things like that,’ says another former volunteer.

Because the Leigh team thought that the work they did was valuable, they were very sad – even annoyed – when, in the mid-1980s, they were told that the whole idea was to be dropped and a professional firm employed.

The KCC which oversaw – and paid – for the scheme saw it differently.  One person with knowledge of why the KCC decision was made, explained it by saying that, in the county-wide context, it was not always easy to find both the volunteers and the cooking facilities.  They also had worries, too, about the hygiene standards, not just of the meals when they were actually delivered to the house but what then happened if the food was kept for eating later.

And although many of the Leigh volunteers still feel the lack of contact with the elderly was very unconstructive, apparently at least some of the professional drivers do apparently interact with what are almost certainly nowadays called their “clients”.

Chris Rowley  (Parish Magazine Articles July and August 2015)