Britain’s oldest poppy seller, 92, found dead after “losing faith in people”

May 14, 2015 | by | 0 Comments

Britain’s oldest poppy seller has been tragically found dead in a gorge at the age of 92 after ‘losing her faith’ in people.

Poppy seller Olive Cooke outside Bristol Cathedral (SWNS)

Poppy seller Olive Cooke outside Bristol Cathedral (SWNS)

Treasured Olive Cooke started selling poppies in 1938 when she was just 16  after her father served in Gallipoli during WWI.

She vowed to continue after the death of her first husband Leslie in action during World War II when she was just 21.

Come rain or shine, the great-grandmother dedicated almost eight decades to raising thousands of pounds, selling an estimated 30,000 poppies in 76 years.

But a trusted friend said she “lost faith in people” two months ago when #250 in cash she sent to a relative went missing in the post and she “couldn’t get it out of her system”.

Generous OIive – who was a postwoman for 17 years – was also getting harrassing phone calls and up to 260 letters a month from charities pestering her for cash.

She had been forced to cancel some 27 direct debits payable to charities as in addition Olive had battled breast cancer and found her finances difficult to manage.

Olive found herself innundated by the charities eager to get her to restart her payments and close friend Michael Earley said she was struggling to cope.

Her body was found in the Avon Gorge in Bristol last Wednesday after onlookers saw her climb over the railings with the help of a stepladder.

The tragic discovery near the world-famous Clifton Suspension Bridge came two days before 70th anniversary of VE Day and police are not treating the death as suspicious.

Mr Earley, 72, said the cash theft from the post was the start of her demise, which was compounded by the constant charity phone calls which left Olive feeling “guilty”.

Distraught Mr Earley, who visited Olive every day, said: “She thought the post office was always trustworthy and it brought her down terribly.

“She could not get it out of her system.  That was already beginning to make her suicidal; that was the beginning of it.

“I said to her ‘you have to forget about that £250’, but she couldn’t get it out of her system.  She spent hours and hours talking about it on the phone.

“With all the charities on top it just broke the camel’s back.

“It was the loss of faith.  She always had a lot of faith in people and expected people to be the same.

“She thinks people should be honest and should respect each other.

“It was because of the constant pestering [but] I know for definite the #250 was the one that really clinched it really.

“She lost faith in other people.

“When that £250 went she was not the same.  She realised she couldn’t trust people.

“If only that post person could realise that money has been the fault of this situation.”

Olive Cooke pictured at her home in Bristol with piles of junk and charity mail (SWNS)

Olive Cooke pictured at her home in Bristol with piles of junk and charity mail (SWNS)

Mother-of-three Olive started selling poppies after listening to tales from her father Fred Canning, who served in the Royal Irish Regiment in the First World War.

She was further inspired when he helped to set up the Bedminster British Legion in Bristol which helped 12 returning soldiers gain employment at a tobacco factory.

Olive, from Fishponds, Bristol, met husband Leslie Hussey-Yeo in 1939, a handsome sailor with the Royal Navy who was about to leave the service and settle down.

But the start of the Second World War meant he had to continue serving on submarines and he was killed in action in 1943 when Mrs Cooke was just 21 and he was 28.

The poppy took on a new significance and she pledged to continue to sell them, despite remarrying twice.

The grandmother-of-four would stand every year in the doorway of Bristol Cathedral, proudly wearing Leslie’s distinguished service medal awarded after his death for bravery in hazardous conditions.

Mr Earley said she was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2013 and had a successful operation and chemotherapy, and was feeling better by June last year.

But she was finding it hard to get to the bank to make payments for her 27 direct debit charity donations, and with the help of Mr Earley, cancelled them in January this year.

She was already being pestered by up to ten charity begging letters and countless phone calls a day, which only increased when she cancelled her scheduled payments, he said.

The grandmother-of-four was also suffering from sleeping problems and had suffered hallucinations, perhaps due to the tablets, her friend said.

Speaking yesterday (Thur) he added: “I bet if you went round to her flat today, you would find a pile of charity letters asking for money.

“She had 27 direct debits at one time.

“The bank were very, very good – they sometimes never used to charge her. But the problem was she couldn’t get to the bank.

“The phone calls were terrible when I saw there, and every hour of the day.

“They would phone and she would have a job to put the phone down again.

“It had a terrific effect.  She felt guilty she couldn’t give in the same way she wanted to give.

“[The calls] had a bearing [on her death].  In the end her daughter and relations couldn’t contact her. She would not pick up the phone.

“She had tried to stop the calls – we tried to stop them.

“We even changed the phone from the Post Office to BT and they were good first of all but soon the calls didn’t stop.

“It wasn’t a case she was short of money but it was a case she couldn’t get there because of the cancer treatment.”

He added: “I still can’t get over it, because of the tragedy of it all, that’s the thing, if it hadn’t been for her committing suicide, it would have been all right.

“If someone dies with torments in her heart.

“We did try everything we could to possibly could but she was determined to do it.  There was nothing we could do.”

Aerial view of the Avon Gorge where 92 year old Olive Cooke was found dead (SWNS)

Aerial view of the Avon Gorge where 92 year old Olive Cooke was found dead (SWNS)

Olive became Britain’s most well-known poppy seller, and reckoned she sold about two boxes a year.

She was given a special medal from the Royal British Legion for her efforts and was last year honoured with the Points of Light award from the Prime Minister.

Friends said Olive also raised thousands of pounds for other charities over the years, and before her death was spending almost all of her state pension on monthly donations.

She leaves behind daughter Kathryn, son Del, grandchildren Louise, Kevin, Rhia and Jessica, and great-grandchildren Louis and Aeris.

Proud daughter Kathryn King said: “My mum was much loved.  She lived a long life and achieved so much. We are all, as a family, so proud of everything she did.

“She was a humanitarian and would have done anything for anybody. She will be missed by us all.”

Granddaughter Louise added: “She was a bit of a legend in Bristol, and was well known and well-liked by everybody.

“We want her life to celebrated and for people to remember all the amazing things she achieved. She is now at peace.”

A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Police said: “We recovered the body of an elderly woman from the Avon Gorge on Wednesday, May 6.”

An inquest into Olive‘s death is expected to open at Avon Coroner’s Court in the coming week

Speaking in 2013, Olive vowed that she would “never give up” selling her poppies.

She said: “It is important to remember the people who died in the wars, and are still dying now.

“My father, Fred Canning, was in the Royal Irish Regiment and he had told me tales of how he fought at Gallipoli in the First World War, ever since I was a little girl sitting on his knee.

“I carried the standard for 54 years until 1998. I sold poppies every year and was given a special medal from the Royal British Legion for 66 years of continuous selling.

“I’ve now added even more years to that and am up to 75 now.”

She added: “The poppies took on a whole new meaning for me when I lost my first husband, Leslie, in 1943.

“We just had two-and-a-half years together when he was killed on the submarine HMS Thunderbolt.

“It was lost in the Sicily invasion, March 1943, by depth charge.

“Losing my husband when I was just 21 years of age, I vowed to always sell poppies.

“He was a loving and genuine man, and I had great times with him in those couple of years we had together.”

She added: “There was a time when no one could go past without buying a poppy.

“It’s harder now but I’m still determined to help in whatever way I can.”

The pensioner said she had begun to dread the arrival of the post in the morning when she was inundated with around ten charity begging letters a day.

Speaking in October 2014, she said she was being targeted by dozens of different charities who were sending her letters.

She said: “I open and read every single one of them but my problem is I’ve always been one that reads about the cause then I can’t say no.

“The stories play on people’s generosity.”

She added: “I have started to just put all the letters into a big box, and then I have to spend my Sunday afternoons sorting them all out ready for the recycling – but some weeks it takes even longer.”

Tributes were made yesterday to the selfless fundraiser following the announcement of her death.

David Lowe, Royal British Legion’s area manager for the South West, described her fundraising as “remarkable” and said she would be greatly missed – but never forgotten.

He said: “We are very sad to learn of the passing of Olive Cooke, who we came to respect and admire over more than seven-and-a-half decades of service to The Royal British Legion.

“As well as collecting, Olive found time to become the standard bearer in the Bedminster Down Women’s section – a task she carried out for 54 years until 1998.

Olive later became secretary and chairman of the section.

“Her dedication to the charity saw her presented with a special medal from The Royal British Legion to mark her achievements.

Olive‘s remarkable efforts over the years should be highly commended.

“She will be greatly missed, but not forgotten. Our thoughts and condolences are with Olive‘s friends and family at this time.”

Last year Olive was awarded the Bristol Post’s Gold Star Award by her local newspaper, as well as the Lord Mayor’s Medal for her dedicated work.

The current Lord Mayor of Bristol, Alistair Watson, said: “She was a wonderful lady who dedicated her life to selling poppies and helping other people.

“Our paths crossed at many events, and I was delighted to be able to award her the Lord Mayor’s medal last year at a special afternoon tea at the Mansion House.

“Her death is a big loss to the city of Bristol, and our thoughts are with all of her family and friends at this sad time.”

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