The heartwarming story of a Norfolk friendship that’s made big money for the Big C

Theresa Cossey, left, and Gaye Youngman, right, founding members of Lilac, Ladies in League Against

Theresa Cossey, left, and Gaye Youngman, right, founding members of Lilac, Ladies in League Against Cancer. PHOTO: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

From elephants to gnomes and fashion to food, friends Theresa Cossey and Gaye Youngman have been raising money for Norfolk charities for more than 50 years.

Theresa Cossey and Gaye Youngman have been friends for more than 50 years. Separately they raised families and set up businesses; together they raised huge sums for charity.

'I have always liked helping people,' said Theresa, who is now 80.

'I want to make a difference,' said 72-year old Gaye.

They met in Norwich in the 1960s. Theresa was in her 20s and running a model agency and 18-year-old Gaye was her hairdresser – and then a model for the agency.

And alongside jobs and families, both women fizzed with fundraising ideas.

Theresa's money-making feats for various charities over the years have included enlisting elephants and garden gnomes to her cause, and an impromptu strip show which involved her cutting a man out of his clothes on stage.

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She has been raising money for Norfolk-based cancer charity Big C since joining as a volunteer fundraiser just after its launch almost 40 years ago – encouraging people who rafted across the Channel, rode tandems in pantomime costume and raced hospital trolleys. The fun funded equipment, practical and emotional support for cancer patients and their families, and teams of scientists researching treatments and cures.

It was Theresa and Gaye who launched the Big C charity shops and sometime next year the group the pair set up when Theresa 'retired' from fundraising for the Big C will have made another £400,000 for the charity.

Ladies in League against Cancer, or Lilac, began 13 years ago with a fundraising lunch for a group of friends. 'We decided to do it because we are always going out for lunch!' said Gaye.

There are now around 400 members, who this year alone have raised £20,000 for Big C.

Most of the money has gone to the Big C Cancer Support and Information Centre at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (another of Theresa's ideas.) This latest donation will fund a new relaxation room – decorated in lilac, of course.

As well as lunches, the ladies of Lilac raise money through fashion shows, trips out, garden tours, talks and afternoon teas. And Theresa and Gaye have been delighted to discover that not only have they raised hundreds of thousands of pounds, but also helped women forge lasting friendships.

Their own friendship began with Gaye cutting Theresa's hair, and then Theresa recruiting Gaye as a model. 'We used to do television work for Anglia Television,' said Theresa. 'We were extras in dramas, and we also did lots of promotions.' Ironically, given the amount of money they have raised for cancer research, they used to work for tobacco companies, with models handing out free cigarettes. 'Everyone smoked in those days,' said Gaye. 'We didn't realise.'

The Big C was founded by David Moar and Clive Bamford who bonded during arduous journeys to London for cancer treatment, then unavailable in Norfolk. Determined to create facilities closer to home, Clive, who knew Theresa's husband Ray, persuaded the couple to help. Much later, Ray was diagnosed with cancer – and, like many thousands of local people, benefited from projects funded by Big C.

'Just about every family has been affected by cancer,' said Theresa, of Little Plumstead, near Norwich.

It means that just about every Norfolk family has been helped by money Theresa and Gaye have raised.

Even before that Theresa, who ran a toy shop and model agency, was fundraising with the Ladies Circle (the female branch of the Round Table.) She arranged for a pair of elephants to make a guest appearance for a guess-the-weight-of-the-elephant competition and raised trunks full of cash for Priscilla Bacon Lodge. Next she invented the 'Society for the Preservation of the Garden Gnome' captivating gnome-lovers across the country. Gnome passports, reunions and competitions helped the tiny garden figures bring in big fundraising figures.

Working for the Big C she got permission from the Queen to use the ballroom at Sandringham (and admits to liberating a housekeeping notice, signed by a Mrs French, from the toilets. 'I like to say that I stole a French letter from the Queen's toilets!' laughed Theresa. More than 30 years later she and Gaye are still laughing.

They laugh about the time a bingo hall manager was presenting a big cheque, and customers were keen to give more if Theresa cut his clothes off. Wielding the scissors to music she obliged. 'The shirt came off, the trousers came off, then he said I could cut the boxers off because he was wearing Y fronts underneath, then he said I could cut the Y fronts off because he was wearing a G string underneath. I was really worried what I was going to snip by then!'

Gaye, who lives in Blofield, near Norwich, also worked for Mencap and raised money for a charity helping educate children in Africa.

Between them the two women have nine grandchildren and Theresa is also a great grandmother. In 2000, Theresa was made an MBE for her charity work.

And she and Gaye are still bubbling with ideas and fun, more than 50 years later.

Next year they hope Lilac will raise £10,000 for a specialised camera which can track cancer cells, as well as its commitments to fund a cancer nurse and other projects at the Big C Cancer Support and Information Centre.

Anyone interested in joining Lilac should email Carolyn Claussen at