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Poppy-seller’s death leads to inquiry by Fundraising Board

22 May 2015

bristol cathedral

Longest-serving poppy-seller: the late Olive Cooke, who had sold poppies since 1938. The head verger at Bristol Cathedral, where she sold poppies, said: 'She never budged all day, and refused any fuss. . . She was a force of nature"

Longest-serving poppy-seller: the late Olive Cooke, who had sold poppies since 1938. The head verger at Bristol Cathedral, where she sold poppies, s...

FUND-RAISING watchdogs have launched two inquiries into claims of excessive pressure by charities on an elderly supporter found dead earlier this month.

The body of Olive Cooke, aged 92, the longest-serving poppy-seller in Britain, was discovered close to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in her home city of Bristol. Friends and relatives said that she had been hounded by charities because she was "a soft touch".

Now both the Fundraising Standards Board and the Institute of Fundraising are to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of the widow, who had sold poppies outside Bristol Cathedral for decades.

Among those calling for an investigation was the Prime Minister, who met Mrs Cooke last November when he presented her with the award Points of Light, which recognises the contributions of volunteers to their communities.

This week he said: "Olive Cooke was an incredible woman who worked tirelessly for the charities she supported. I know there is a code that is meant to protect people from feeling pressured by charities, and I hope the Fundraising Standards Board will look at whether any more could have been done to prevent this."

In a statement, the board's chief executive, Alistair McLean, said: "We are deeply saddened by reports that Mrs Cooke felt overwhelmed by charity fund-raising requests. We acknowledge that fund-raising is thought to have been one of a number of factors that is said to have caused her some distress in recent months. The Fundraising Standards Board will investigate these allegations, and has already made contact with Mrs Cooke's representatives."

The Institute of Fundraising, which represents 5500 individual fund-raisers and 420 charities, has also promised a review. In a statement, the chief executive, Peter Lewis, said that the Insitute would ensure that "lessons are learnt and shared with fund-raising charities, and that standards . . . are reviewed".

Last October, Mrs Cooke complained about the number of approaches she received. She told the Bristol Evening Post that up to 260 letters arrived each month: "I read every single one, but my problem is I've always been one that reads about the cause, then can't say 'No'." Until last year, she had monthly direct debits to 27 charitable organisations.

Her grandson Kevin King, said that she was "exhausted" by the requests. "I heard they were passing her number around, saying: 'This person is really generous, give this number a try.'"

Her daughter Kathryn, however, has said that although constant letters and phone calls from charities were causing her mother some distress, she does not believe that to have been the reason for her death.

Mrs Cooke is believed to have sold more than 30,000 poppies since she began in 1938. She said that her work was inspired by her father's stories of Gallipoli, and by the memory of her first husband, Leslie Hussey-Yeo, who was killed in action in 1943.

A number of charities said that they had approached Mrs Cooke, but all of them work within the Institute's guidelines.

The head verger at Bristol Cathedral, where Mrs Cooke sold poppies at the north-west porch, Glynn Usher, said: "Hers wasn't a remembrance of regret. . . Instead, she spoke of herself as a living example of someone who had lived a good life because of the sacrifice that had been made."

An inquest at Flax Bourton Coroner's Court into Mrs Cooke's death was opened and adjourned, on Wednesday morning.

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