Obituary: The ‘little Norfolk girl’ awarded City of London’s highest honour
- Credit: Archant
Salvation Army's Ellen Christian has died at 67. She helped the vulnerable in London and 'could always see the best in people'
The huge and very unpleasant pimp was no stranger to Ellen. She'd seen him before, ready to prey on the vulnerable who washed up in the capital like jetsam. Tonight, she noticed him clock a pretty and alone 10- or 11-year-old blonde who'd appeared on the concourse of Euston station. Both Ellen and the pimp moved towards the girl.
He wasn't going to let a would-be protector whisk away his quarry. He kicked and punched Ellen so hard that she fell. Then he jumped on her hand, breaking a finger.
Fortunately, there were people around, including police. The thug was arrested. And it turned out the girl was no runaway but an 11-year-old meeting her aunt.
Although her hand was throbbing, and starting to swell, Salvation Army member Ellen insisted on finishing what was known as the "midnight patrol" - a walk designed to spot at-risk folk and help them.
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"Want to go home?" anxious husband Keith asked. "No, let's carry on," she said. "I'll be OK."
By chance, with her that night were the headmistress and a couple of teachers from Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls, getting a taste of life on the midnight patrol.
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The London school was a big supporter of efforts to help the needy (donating food and clothing, for instance) but this violent episode left the teachers crying and unable to believe what they'd witnessed.
It wasn't the only time Ellen came under attack. In 1994, for instance, she and another Salvation Army lady were assaulted by some lads. Ellen was knocked down and kicked by one of them. Four ribs were broken and she had a bloody nose.
Not a way of life for the faint-hearted. But Ellen was buoyed by faith.
Apart for six weeks
Ellen Lankester was born in Station Road, Sheringham, in June, 1952.
It was the start of a tough time for mum Rene, who had to go into hospital with pleurisy and pneumonia. The family rallied round and looked after the baby.
Rene didn't see her daughter for six weeks - returning, much better, for Ellen's dedication. But she still had to spend another month in hospital.
Husband Wilfred was at the end of that summer offered the job of manager of Sydney Sexton's butcher's shop in North Walsham, which had a flat above. Later, in 1954, the family moved to a little house with a garden in Mundesley Road.
It seems from Ellen's autobiography that Wilfred didn't really know how to relate to a young child, and little Ellen didn't much like her father - was scared of him, really. In 1956 she went to live nearby with Auntie Audrey and beloved Grandpa Jack (Grandy). Rene saw her every day.
Rene was a committed Salvationist, and Salvation Army activities dominated the youngster's life by the time she was eight or nine: church, all Sunday; choir and tambourine practices in the evenings during the week, along with Bible study and singing lessons. After school, on Wednesdays, Ellen was allowed half an hour with non-Army friends.
Sometimes, Grandy argued enough was enough and did something different with her on Sundays - taking the train to Great Yarmouth, for instance, or staying in to read or play dominoes.
At 14 she was made a senior soldier of the Salvation Army.
There was tragedy in 1966 when Grandy died in West Norwich Hospital of pneumonia. Ellen tried hard to come to terms with losing the one person who'd loved her unconditionally.
She left school the following year, spent three years training as a children's nanny, and got a job with a family in North Walsham.
In 1974 Ellen began volunteering with the Air Training Corps at Manor Road school, helping run the tuck shop a couple of evenings a week.
Her life changed forever in 1975, when handsome RAF policeman Keith Christian came to the ATC as an instructor. The following week he offered to dry the dishes, and at the end kissed Ellen goodnight.
When she got home, she told Aunt Audrey she'd met the man she was going to marry.
Keith was back the following week, asking to take her for a meal. When the time came, he said he needed to get a battery for his watch. They went to Mears, the jewellers… where he got down on one knee and proposed. She said yes. Everyone in the shop cheered. Keith was 31, his wife-to-be 23.
The big day was set for May 1, 1976. Before then, Keith was posted to Cyprus. Their relationship developed through letters.
After marrying they had a week's honeymoon in Great Yarmouth and, later, time on the Isle of Wight with his relatives.
The groom returned to Cyprus. His bride followed a month or so later - her first time on a plane. Home was a lovely flat, set in a horseshoe of pine trees.
Joy and tragedy
Daughter Victoria, born in August 1977, died of cot death about six months later. Time passed in a blur, and the couple's love pulled them through. Ellen wrote that it seemed to grow stronger.
She was told that having another baby would kill her. Ellen and Keith were sad, but accepted it. They later left Cyprus with heavy hearts… and arrived in England to find it snowing heavily.
Keith was posted to RAF Wittering, near Peterborough, where married quarters were very different than living in a Cypriot village. Ellen began to dislike it; her husband was at work all day, and then exercises could take him away for days.
Keith soon had enough. He tendered his resignation, ready to leave in 1980. It was hard to find a job on Civvy Street - recession was biting - but he landed one he really liked: managing a block of flats in Camden, London, that came with a one-bedroom flat for them.
They got a puppy, William, from Battersea Dogs' Home, too.
One evening in 1984, out of the blue, Keith asked Ellen if she'd like to go to the Salvation Army the next day. She hadn't been for years. But, yes.
They enjoyed it, and often went later. Ellen reflected: "It's totally different going to the Army because you want to, rather than being made to go."
One Sunday, an officer talked about a five-storey Victorian building in King's Cross called Faith House. It cared for the homeless, runaway children, sex workers, mothers struggling on their own, and others. The couple decided to volunteer there.
Late in 1986 Keith became manager of a larger block of apartments. By now, he and Ellen were in full Salvation Army uniform and loving their time at Faith House.
The following spring, the officer running it revealed she was moving on. Would they consider taking over?
You could have knocked them down with a feather. Excited, nervous and a bit confused, they had a week to decide. But: yes. They went for an interview and got the job.
Ellen and Keith would be at Faith House during the day. They might help Camden social services: sometimes there would be children to take in until a foster placement or children's home was available. They helped put together food parcels and toys for families living in B&Bs.
A regular activity involved giving sandwiches and cake to, and filling the flasks of, two ex-naval pals living under the library steps opposite. They'd been on the streets for 15 years.
At about 10.30pm Ellen and Keith would invariably go on the "midnight patrol", armed with tickets to give out that would get the needy a sleeping bag or a place in a hostel.
They'd walk up Euston Road, looking for the vulnerable in doorways and alleys. There was a soup and clothing "kitchen" at Euston station. On to St Pancras and King's Cross.
There were moments of humour, such as finding a precocious six-year-old who had slipped away from home and travelled 147 miles from Crewe. She had wanted a pink bicycle for her birthday and got a baby brother instead…
There would be poignant times: such as returning to find a newborn baby on the doorstep, wrapped in a jumper and left in a box.
In exulted company
In 1989 they were nominated for the Freedom of the City of London (which brought permission to herd sheep over London Bridge and graze cattle in Epping Forest, should one so desire).
Ellen's mum and Aunt Audrey were thrilled to think a former little girl from north Norfolk could receive the highest honour the City of London could bestow.
When they signed the register, their names were on the same page as Cliff Richard's signature. On the previous page was Margaret Thatcher's.
In early 1990 the couple were invited to join the Guild of Freemen of the City of London.
It wasn't all glitz and glamour. One night, a young man at Euston asked Keith for some money. Keith said no to money but offered to buy food. The man, not impressed, punched him in the face, breaking Keith's nose and his brand-new spectacles. There was blood everywhere.
The long hours took their toll. Even so, it was a shock when they learned the work and midnight patrols were ending. In the summer of 1995 they were out of a job, and home. They'd made contact with 56,000 people during their time at Faith House, and helped 42,000.
Keith and Ellen decided to take a year out and rented a cottage in North Walsham.
In 1997 he was headhunted to manage an apartment block in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. The Christians would have a rent-free flat with bills covered. It was opposite the American embassy and almost every morning the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, went past with their gun carriages.
At the turn of the millennium the couple stood on the roof to watch the fireworks over the Thames.
The spring of 2000 saw Ellen quite poorly. She had a three-and-a-half-stone fibroid removed, and a hysterectomy, but bounced back.
In 2009 she was ill again. Eventually a mass was identified. Rapid surgery was required and the couple had to pay £18,000 to go private. An internal "stone" had torn a hole in her bowel. Eighteen inches was removed. An infected kidney was also taken out, along with her spleen.
Ellen nearly died twice, in the night, after the operation. She was left with a 22-inch scar, and had 80 staples and 50 stitches.
On a much happier note, the couple attended the Lord Mayor's Banquet and were presented to the Princess Royal - something they never forgot.
Keith retired in 2011 and they again returned to Norfolk - Keith, wanting something to do, getting a job on Sainsbury's checkouts in North Walsham.
They celebrated their ruby wedding in 2016 and looked set to enjoy their later years, but Ellen died last month - her life story written but not yet published.
'Smile was an endearing quality'
"Ellen could always see the best in people, no matter who they were," Keith tells me.
"Once asked by John Edwards, of the Daily Mail, 'How can you see the little good in the worst of people?', she replied: 'It's a bit like when you lose a gold ring down the loo or a drain. You have to be prepared to put your hand down into it, up to the armpit, if you have to. You might just find what you're looking for, if you're prepared to put the effort in.'
"Her smile was an endearing quality, and you could count on the fingers of both hands the sad times when that smile disappeared.
"Ellen was loyal to me. I could go off to work on long night-shifts knowing she was at home on her own, safe and sound; and she was never unfaithful in all of our 43 years of marriage.
"She was never judgmental, and always gave people a fair chance to explain themselves. Above all else, she listened."
Ellen's autobiography Norfolk into Danger - And Back is published by AH Stockwell Ltd on October 25. It costs £11.95.