Story 64

Down to earth

My connection to Leonard Cheshire really began through my father, Brigadier Thomas ‘Tommy’ Sheffield CBE TD DL, who founded and fundraised for the Cheshire Home at Marske Hall, North Yorkshire.

Michael Sheffield

Because of this, and then my Chairmanship of Markse Hall, I got to know Leonard himself personally and became friendly with him. I continue to feel today the importance and depth of his legacy, and am amazed and inspired by what he achieved.

My father’s involvement happened just after Leonard Cheshire opened the first three homes in the UK. ‘Tommy’, as his friends referred to him, had just retired and he wanted something to do. I read that Leonard was opening homes. So I said to my dad ‘why don’t you open one,’ and he threw himself into it. He got in touch with the Marquess of Zetland, who let him have one of his family homes near Redcar which was seldom used, called Marske Hall. It became the fourth or fifth Cheshire Home to be opened.

Tommy rang many of his friends in the Teesside area and created 27 support groups. He also persuaded some friends to join the first committee. He did two three-year stints as Chairman and found his successors. Nearly everything was on a voluntary basis, so it really was amazing the amount of people-pulling power he had. He remained on the committee for the rest of his life.

As this was happening, I was a lawyer, (and was a Coroner for over 42 years). In a bid to get me involved, and drive my father to the meetings, the local committee made me Secretary of the Home, then Vice Chairman, and then Chairman. I hadn’t been Chairman very long when I got a call from Leonard himself. He asked me for lunch — just us. Although I knew he knew my father, I was a bit worried. But we met and we got on really well.

We continued to have many lunches over the years. He told me many of his war time stories. He said he didn’t mind me asking as anyone who had been in the war had had the best and worst experiences. He felt it was important that people should share and talk about them, as if you didn’t it was not good for you. He also told me about being posted to Delhi, India, at South East Asia Command, and flying over Nagasaki, Japan when the Americans dropped the bomb, as the sole British official observer.

He really did see so much of the war, and sometimes he took himself off in a spitfire to do reconnaissance missions, particularly over Burma – just to know the lay of the land. He would report his first hand experiences to the Authorities but they were sometimes ignored, at their peril. He said he didn’t believe in war, but the situation in the 1940s meant it was inevitable.

He asked me to be a Trustee of the Leonard Cheshire Foundation — which was extraordinary. What I really remember was how pleasant and warm he was — somehow very down to earth. And you didn’t realise how inspiring he was until after he left. I feel very honoured to have worked with Leonard. Thanks to him I spent just over 15 years as a Trustee.

I continue to feel today the importance and depth of his legacy.