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Charities 'not a factor' in death

Published 18/05/2015

Olive Cooke dedicated 76 years of her life raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies
Olive Cooke dedicated 76 years of her life raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies

The family of one of Britain's oldest and longest-serving poppy sellers has defended charities that persistently contacted her and said they bear no responsibility for her death.

Olive Cooke, 92, was found dead by police in the Avon Gorge near the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol on May 6, two days before the anniversary of VE Day.

Mrs Cooke, from the Fishponds area of the city, dedicated 76 years of her life raising money for the Royal British Legion and is believed to have sold around 30,000 poppies.

She also supported numerous charities and at one point received 267 charity letters in one month, leading to suggestions that the continual hounding for money pushed her to take her own life.

But her family said that while they were intrusive and a nuisance, the charities were not to blame for her death.

Her granddaughter Jessica Dunne said: "Nan would have wanted the work of charities to be promoted. It brought her great comfort to know she could help make a difference in a person's life by donating to charities and by her own charity work.

"She believed that charities are the backbone to our communities, that they can be the scaffolding for us in our times of crisis. She believed that charities give us support, hope and courage when we need it the most.

"I think that the amount of contact from charities was starting to escalate and get slightly out of control, and the phone calls were beginning to get intrusive, but there is no blame or suggestion that this was a reason for her death.

"She might have had up to 27 direct debits at one point and been a bit exhausted by all the letters, but she had decided which charities she wanted to give to.

"She had her favourites and was not bumbling along and letting them grow and grow. She was very on-the-ball with money and gave to charities because she wanted to and could afford to - it was a passion."

Miss Dunne, 37, a nurse from Hastings, said her grandmother left the family "a beautiful note" explaining the reasons for her death, which were connected to depression and issues around being elderly, and made no mention of charities.

The fundraising methods were simply "a small part within a complex situation".

She said: "Nan was not a victim. She did suffer with depression, but on the whole she was a happy soul. She was a brave and courageous woman throughout life, and courageous when deciding to end her life.

"The reasons were mainly to do with health issues and lack of sleep, nothing to do with the charities. There was a headline that upset me, that she was 'killed by kindness' - it was not that at all."

Mrs Cooke, a grandmother of four with two great-grandchildren, began selling poppies in 1938 aged 16, having been inspired by her father who set up a Royal British Legion branch in Bedminster.

She devoted herself fully to the charity after husband Leslie Hussey-Yeo, a sailor in the Royal Navy, was killed in Italy in 1943, leaving her a war widow at the age of 21.

She was a familiar face in Bristol and stood in the doorway of the city's cathedral every year in the lead-up to Remembrance Day.

Miss Dunne said: "She had a very full life after the tragedy of losing her first husband. She went on to be married twice and travelled the world, and she was passionate about visiting elderly people who are unable to get out of their homes and face loneliness.

"Nan had a real sense of community and justice - she once went to a bus stop and took a Brillo pad in her handbag to scrub off the graffiti there. She wasn't afraid to express herself and her views."

Miss Dunne said that while the repeated contact from charities was "not a causative factor" in her grandmother's death, issues around fundraising still needed to be addressed.

Mrs Cooke's MP, Labour's Kerry McCarthy, has promised to speak with the Charities Commission about the barrage of letters and calls she received and the Institute of Fundraising Standards Committee said it will review the case.

Her family hope to set up a fund in her name.

Miss Dunne said: " It would be nice if some good came from this, if people supported the elderly around them and offered them comfort and support.

"The contact from charities does need looking at, and obviously with the methods of fundraising there are issues that need to be addressed and are being addressed now, which has got to be a good thing.

"But their work should still be praised and they do such a great job. The contact from all the charities was a nuisance, but was not a causative factor in my nan's death."

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