Obituary: Stella and Bill Jackaman − the Suffolk champions of charity Headway who died days apart
PUBLISHED: 12:47 02 February 2019 | UPDATED: 12:36 03 February 2019
They were married for more than 72 years and died less than three weeks apart, in their 90s. 'They really were an exceptional couple'
Thirty-odd years can seem like yesterday. But some things have changed greatly. If, heaven forbid, we suffered a life-changing head injury in the early 1980s that affected our brain – the way we spoke, the way we thought, the way we moved – we might have found our post-survival options more limited than today.
Stella and Bill Jackaman decided head injury sufferers deserved better. And they did something about it.
Back in 1985 they were both about 60, give or take, and could have been forgiven for winding down. Not a bit of it. They were instrumental in the new charity West Suffolk Headway, which offered help, companionship, community and a sense of purpose.
Former social worker Stella managed it, while her husband – still with some years to go before retirement – combined his job with spare-time “volunteering” for the charity and pitched in with whatever needed doing.
“They worked tirelessly,” remembers former trustee Pam Nicholson. “They’d be working during the day and at weekends were often at fundraising events. They really were an exceptional couple.”
There were suggestions the death of Stella’s father in a road accident propelled her to start West Suffolk Headway, but that’s not the case, apparently. Its genesis is a bit more “random” than that.
The story begins with a Bristol mum called Rita Rees, whose daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury. Rita was determined to make sure other families got more help in dealing with the dramatic circumstances in which they suddenly found themselves. In 1977 she became a founding member of Headway Bristol.
Rita, it seems, also sought to spread the message.
Sheila Sturgeon was the nursing sister on the orthopaedic ward of the hospital in Bury St Edmunds. One day the matron asked her if she’d represent the hospital at a meeting at Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge.
Rita, it appeared, had written to hospitals that treated head injuries, encouraging them to form support groups for patients and their families, and press for improvements.
Sheila’s ward cared for male head injury sufferers, so she was the ideal candidate. One evening a month – over eight or nine months and in her own time – she travelled to Addenbrooke’s.
A social worker would sometimes go with her to the meetings. (Social workers sought to arrange rehabilitation, and other help, when patients left hospital.) Sheila’s travelling companion often changed. “Along the way came Stella… We both took quite an interest (in the ideas discussed).”
At one meeting an imposing senior doctor asked them why they didn’t have a support organisation at Bury St Edmunds. “So we had a go at setting up a group, Stella and I. I think Bill was involved, too.
“We didn’t get much response. It was thought ‘Oh no… we’ll never make a go of this,’ but Stella stood up and said ‘We will have one more meeting.’ Who can we get to help get this off the ground? We could see there was a great need for it. We started asking relatives of head injury people. We got it off the ground and West Suffolk Headway was formed.”
They met in various places, but nothing was particularly satisfactory. “We wanted to have people in for physio and that sort of thing. Stella and I kept looking, and then we found the old laundry house off Hardwick Lane.”
Sheila’s husband Jim, a decorator, helped get things shipshape. Bill pitched in – “he was excellent” – as did others.
Money was needed (of course). Sheila and Stella were out at least once a month, fundraising. Headway House took off. People recovering from head injuries and/or striving to adapt to a new way of living could have physiotherapy, the social workers could visit, there were many other activities, and later on the charity could supply meals there.
“Bill and Stella were the mainstays, once we got on our feet,” says Sheila, who was still doing her “day job”, so effectively had to limit her involvement to fundraising and meetings.
“We worked jolly hard. We also had a lot of fun. We (Sheila and Stella) hit it off very well, and when it came to head injuries we both had an interest in it, and got stuck into it.”
The couple “were good people to work with. Very friendly. Bill could make lovely Christmas cakes. For many years we’d go on the charity stall at the Bury market at Christmas. Bill would make four-inch-square cakes and they sold quickly.”
They also raised money at fairs in places such as Felsham and Woolpit, and at fetes in and around Bury St Edmunds.
Sheila retired from her job in 1994 and wanted to take a year out from Headway in the middle of that decade, “and somehow I never got back again”. She still kept in touch, though, and had life membership.
Daughter Marion says her father was born in Bury St Edmunds in 1925 to a local family with a claim to fame. His grandfather, master builder Lot Jackaman, built the town’s Corn Exchange in the 1800s. Apparently, it cost £7,000.
Young Bill went to the Silver Jubilee School for Boys. Around the time of the end of the war he became a motorcycle rider for the Auxiliary Fire Service. “They used to send the lads to rouse the firemen.”
Bill later joined the Royal Navy. He was posted to Malta, then Palestine. He went into the nursing service of the navy, and got a state-enrolled nurse qualification.
His final posting was to HMS Ganges at Shotley. He and Stella had got married by then and were living in Ipswich. Marion and brother Grahame were born in Ann Street, off Norwich Road.
Marion suspects her parents had known each other since their teenage years – part of the mix in Bury St Edmunds of families who knew each other and young people united by mutual friends, school and youth clubs. It seems they wrote to each other when Bill was in the navy.
When he left, he worked in the building merchant trade. There was tragedy in 1953 when both his father and Stella’s died in accidents. The couple moved back to their Bury roots and Bill worked in a builder’s office at Woolpit.
They later headed back east and he joined Ipswich council’s environmental health department, where he stayed until retirement.
Marion remembers that when money was tight her dad would work shifts at Tattingstone hospital, at Ipswich, at the old West Suffolk hospital, and even at what became Chilton Meadows, near Stowmarket – the care home where he’d eventually spend his final months.
Marion and Grahame’s first memory of their mother working is when she was a ward clerk at the old West Suffolk hospital. Then she joined the probation service (possibly in Ipswich).
The Jackamans moved to Onehouse, on the edge of Stowmarket – midway between Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds. Marion thinks her parents were there about 40 years.
Stella then worked in social services – focused on the new West Suffolk Hospital. It was where she learned much about the ongoing needs of many head injury patients after they were discharged. Part of her job was to get them the rehabilitation and other help they deserved.
Marion thinks her mum probably retired at 60, though it seemed as if Stella moved seamlessly into the role of manager of the new West Suffolk Headway.
David Crane is today communications and marketing officer with Headway Suffolk, but his roots go back to the era of Stella and Bill.
In the mid-2000s he’d been out of work for a while and hooked up with Labour’s New Deal programme: “Thirty hours (work) a week for your dole money, basically.” Stella and Bill took him on for admin/office duties. He enjoyed it, and then volunteered for a while. Eighteen years ago this month, they gave him a job.
Stella had long been the manager. Bill was chairman of trustees, but “was always in, doing pretty much full-time hours and sorting out bits and pieces”.
By then, West Suffolk Headway was based in Laundry Lane, Bury St Edmunds – on the Hardwick Industrial Estate. “A really big house, with big grounds. It was quite a family feel. They had their dog, Suzie, who sometimes used to sleep at my feet.”
(Marion says Suzie was a rescue dog of mixed breed: some lurcher, some collie. “Somebody said, when they had her, ‘she’s got very dark eyes…’ So: black-eyed Suzie.”)
The charity rented the property. “Old-fashioned curtains… very dated. But it was all part of the charm,” says David. “Big dining room, couple of other rooms. Out the back were two big portable buildings, where they had arts and crafts, a woodwork room, and a kiln and pottery area at one time.”
It felt homely. “I think that’s what endeared it to me. I enjoyed it and stayed there. Never had the same day twice, really.”
Stella and Bill weren’t in the first flush of youth. Not that it showed.
“A lot of us were struggling to get in for eight or nine o’clock, and Stella had been up since six and had already baked a cake, and was running up and down stairs, full of energy!”
She was very sociable, he says. “She liked being involved in things and was interested in finding out about people.
“Bill was probably a bit more reserved. It was said at the funeral that he could be a bit politically incorrect at times – partly because of the age he’d been brought up in. One of my favourite anecdotes is when he told a journalist he wanted to speak to the organ grinder and not the monkey!
“Bill was hands-on. If anything went wrong, he’d get his hammer out, and tools, and repair it. Even though he was chairman, he was effectively working full-time.”
Money is always high in a charity’s thoughts. West Suffolk Headway managed to get some lottery grants to help fund tutors providing fitness sessions, arts and crafts, drama and so on, but a string of traditional fund-raising events was always a cornerstone of the operation.
David remembers fun-days, barbecues for the families of clients and Christmas bazaars. “The dog-a-thon was their baby: a dog walk, basically, around Nowton Park. It seemed to capture people’s imaginations.”
He also recalls Bill’s popular Pick a Peg game, in a kind of suitcase. “It was wheeled out at every event and always raised money.”
Laundry Lane wasn’t the first home of West Suffolk Headway.
Pam Nicholson is sure she first met the Jackamans in 1990, after she came to work in Bury St Edmunds. Her new job was part of a national drive to improve health and social care for 16- to 65-year-olds with physical and sensory disabilities.
“In the midst of all that, I met Stella and Bill quite early on. They just had a Headway group at that stage; they had not yet opened a Headway House.”
Pam thinks the first “house”, open to clients twice a week, was probably the St John Ambulance Hall in Hospital Road, Bury. Then it was on to Laundry Lane for a long spell. “That was brilliant accommodation because there was a garden. Lots happening.”
Pam became a trustee of West Suffolk Headway, serving for about a decade until 2014, she thinks.
The charity said goodbye to Laundry Lane when the site was sold (moving out in 2007, David Crane thinks). Pam believes it switched to The Homeguard Club in Abbot Road, which was logistically tricky as equipment and crafts (such as pottery) had to be packed away at the end of each day.
After a spell at Northgate Business Park it moved to its current home in Olding Road.
Pam says Headway has proved a lifeline for people with head injuries, and that the “kindly couple” who were its driving force for about three decades did a huge amount for others.
Stella was very dynamic, she says, while her husband worked extremely hard for the cause. She thinks they were proud of what they achieved, though they never spoke about it.
End of an era
The Jackamans began taking a step back in the middle of the 2000s, Pam thinks, with Dave Taylor succeeding Stella as manager. “Bill stayed as chairman and on the board of trustees, and we regularly still saw Stella at fund-raising events.”
In 2014 the couple’s devotion to the cause was recognised. That autumn, they retired at West Suffolk Headway’s last-ever annual general meeting, before it merged with Headway Ipswich and East Suffolk. Everything would now be under one “umbrella”, as Headway Suffolk.
At Christmas that year, they received a national honour when a grateful Headway UK gave them the Stephen McAleese Outstanding Contribution to Headway Award at a ceremony in London’s Dorchester Hotel.
They’d sit holding hands
Stella was 92 when she died suddenly last Boxing Day; Bill 93 when he passed away on January 14. They had a joint funeral at West Suffolk Crematorium.
Bill had developed dementia and last May went to live at nearby Chilton Meadows Care Home. Stella, right until the end, lived at home.
In years gone by, both had been involved with their adopted village of Onehouse, says Marion. She thinks her dad might have been a parish councillor at one stage. Her mother was certainly on the village hall committee, and chaired The OHS Women’s Guild (for the villages of Onehouse, Harleston and Shelland).
Stella was also a trustee (since 2013) at Stowmarket “wellbeing hub” Red Gables. The charity called her “an amazing woman” and a great supporter.
In 2017, Stella planted a rose there to mark both her birthday and 70 years of marriage.
As well as their two children, the Jackamans had three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
They used to enjoy caravanning – they had one they took around the country and to France – and later had a static model at Cromer where they spent much time.
“They were a very devoted couple,” says Marion. Before Bill moved to the care home, “they’d sit on the settee, holding hands”.