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Unhappiest place to live? Rotherham residents don’t think so

26 May 2023

Volunteers are seeking to improve their town’s image. Francis Martin reports

Francis Martin/Church Times

Lee Oldfield, the Revd Alison Middleton, and Malcolm Davies in front of Rotherham Minster

Lee Oldfield, the Revd Alison Middleton, and Malcolm Davies in front of Rotherham Minster

A RECENT survey described Rotherham as the “unhappiest place to live” in the UK.

“Rubbish!” exclaimed Pip. She conceded that there were some problems with the town, but laid the blame at the feet of the local council. “The people here . . .”, she said, pausing dramatically, “are awesome!” (although she was less effusive when it came to the council).

We were standing by the door of Rotherham Minster, while other volunteers wiped down the white plastic tables that had been in use that day as a pop-up café for members of the “Social Supermarket”.

The scheme runs a little like a foodbank, but, instead of being open to anyone, it runs a membership scheme, whereby users pay a weekly fee of £3 for the duration of their membership, which usually lasts for three or four months, and it ends with a graduation event.

Besides access to a stock of food, laid out in a couple of rooms in a building across the road from the magnificent minster church, the project facilitates access to various support services, which help members to budget, save money, or find employment.

Lee has been a member for a few weeks, he thinks, but is not quite sure of the dates: his memory, he tells me, is “not as good as it used to be” after an alcohol-induced stroke last June.

He was referred to the Social Supermarket by local addiction-support services, and is determined to use this opportunity as he tries to rebuild his life, recover from the stroke, and support his 12-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy.

“We don’t get a lot of help these days from the Government. I think they help where they can, but it could be better,” he said. “I don’t feel there’s a lot of support for people like myself who are trying to get back into employment.

“Nowadays, you’ve got to have deep pockets to get to an interview, to keep the electric on; it’s a daily battle, and this helps with that.”

With the pressure of buying groceries taken off, members are able to focus on other aspects of their lives: Lee, for example, is making use of a Rotherham-based credit union, which works in collaboration with the Social Supermarket, to help him to save some money for Christmas.


DARREN and Emma have been members for just over a month, and were full of praise for the scheme and the sense of fellowship that it fostered. “To sit in a place like this,” Darren said, gesturing to the Gothic interior of the Minster, “and there’s people to talk to, you know. Today, we’ve been sitting here, chatting with people, for half an hour: it’s not a case of just queuing up and getting your stuff, like at some foodbanks. I think this is what they need to do more.”

“Our strapline is ‘So much more than food’,” Christine Blatchford, one of the project managers of the Social Supermarket, told me. She explained how the project developed out of a scheme that delivered food parcels during the pandemic. It received feedback about how much people valued the community aspect, and the dignity afforded by being a paid-up member rather than simply a recipient.

Francis Martin/Church TimesVolunteers at the Social Supermarket in Rotherham, after their team debrief

I had asked Lee whether there was a “churchy” side to the support that he received. “No, there’s none of that,” he replied. “They don’t ram it down your throat, or anything.”

Although he does not call himself a Christian, he reflected that Rotherham Minster had been a place that he would come, even when he was at rock bottom. “Just being in a quiet place, lighting a candle for my dad or my daughter, having a pray now and again. I think [God’s] helped me out in some shape or form.”

“People experience the love of God when they come here, whether they recognise it or not,” Ms Blatchford said.

Despite there being no “hard sell”, the project has fostered a new congregation, which gather once a month at the Minster, and a Bible-study group, which meets every Thursday.


THE Revd Alison Middleton is Associate Vicar of Rotherham Minster, and a graduate of Church Mission Society (CMS) pioneer training. She helps to plan the Saturday gathering, although she emphasises that it is a team effort, with contributions from members of the Social Supermarket.

At the most recent gathering, at the end of April, there were more than 35 adults and about 20 children, Ms Middleton said. “We had two baptisms of people who have come to faith through the gathering. And people who come are starting to invite their friends.”

CMS recently profiled Steve, a member of the Social Supermarket, who credits the community and faith that he has found through the programme, and, in particular, the Thursday gathering, for transforming his life.

There is no sharp line between volunteers and members at the Social Supermarket. At a briefing for volunteers after they had finished for the day, I met Malcolm Davies and Lee Oldfield. Both are graduates of the Social Supermarket programme, and are now developing an allotment that will, later in the year, provide fresh produce for the shop.

Members and volunteers are encouraged to develop projects of their own, from which a men’s group and a toddler group has emerged, besides the allotment. All these ventures provide an opportunity for members of the community to support each other.


THE porous distinction between being a member and a volunteer allows for some flexibility when volunteers fall on hard times, as they are allowed occasional access to the groceries and other necessities stocked in the shop, or can shift from volunteering to membership for a period.

“It’s not a dichotomy of haves and have-nots, but a family that helps one another out,” Ms Blatchford told me. The point was illustrated a moment later, when a woman arrived clutching banknotes: a gift, of £100, from a member who had been struggling financially, but for whom some money had just come in.

After they had finished packing up the café in the south transept, I went to have a look around the shop itself: a two-up, two-down terraced building, which faces the minster. The storerooms upstairs were piled high with supplies, while the downstairs was laid out like a shop, with handwritten labels on the displays of produce.

The volunteers’ debrief was full of laughter, and, afterwards, as I stood chatting to some of them, I had a punnet of blueberries thrust upon me to eat on the train back to London — a small token of this generous project in the heart of Rotherham.

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