With the passing of Brenda Chester last month, Faversham has lost a powerful force for good, a remarkable campaigner and community leader driven by a genuine desire to help others.
Her legacy will be felt in the town for many years to come. Even by those who didn’t know her personally. If you have benefited personally from the town’s health services, for instance, the chances are you have Brenda to thank. She was instrumental in saving the Faversham Cottage Hospital and its Minor Injuries Unit from closure and campaigning for its new, much needed x-ray centre.
“It if wasn’t for Brenda being who she was, we wouldn’t have it today,” said fellow health campaigner Ken Rogers, chair of Concern for Health in East Kent (CHEK), who worked with Brenda for many years. “If nothing else, that is one thing Faversham owes her a great deal for.”
As chair of the Faversham Health Matters group, Brenda never stopped working for better local health services. One of her last battles was to secure premises for doctors at Faversham Health Centre
And as secretary for the Creek Bridge Steering Group, she was the leading figure behind the campaign to replace the town’s swing bridge. Like many, Ken Rogers believes naming the new creek bridge after Brenda would be the most fitting tribute. “She deserves recognition,” he said. “We don’t get many people like Brenda passing through our lives. She will be missed and one wonders who is going to take her place.”
A formidable campaigner, she fought relentlessly for the people of Faversham, even if it sometimes brought her into conflict with the local political establishment.
“She was pretty bloody fearless! She has always been a firebrand and you know where you stand with Brenda!” said close friend Jude Sach. “Brenda pricked people’s social conscience and called people out when they were talking rubbish. I always rather admired that about her. She would puncture pomposity.”
Alongside her non-stop campaigning, Brenda was equally committed to volunteer work. She was driven by a passion to improve the lives of people living in Faversham.
In 2014 Brenda started the the Creek Learning Project, a DWP-funded series of hugely successful six-week courses for local long-term unemployed people run with the help of the Brents Community Association and the Faversham Creek Trust.
Tutored by Faversham boat builder Alan Thorne, the group built a wooden punt which is still used by the Friends of Westbrook Stream to clear Stonebridge Pond. The training, support and work experience, helped two participants start their own business and four find full-time jobs.
Jude Sach, who managed the project, said: “The transformation in some of these people was astonishing. The pride they took in it was phenomenal. One guy was homeless and jobless and had been for a long time. Now he’s had a job for well over a year, he’s well-settled with his own place and his life is substantially different.”
Brenda founded the Brents Community Association and was her most recent project was working to create a new building in Barnfield Road to serve as a community hub for residents of Faversham’s Priory ward.
“It’s a horribly deprived ward. Brenda lived there and the hardships that people live with there are so out of kilter with the rest of the town and there’s no real community space in that area,” explained Jude Sach. The ambitious project, supported by Optivo, is already at the planning application stage.
“It was a twinkle in our eyes 12 months ago and now there are drawings,” says Jude.“There was no vanity whatsoever about what Brenda did. It was never about what was in it for her,” said Jude Sach. “Her concern has always been the people who need help the most. Sticking up for the underdog.”
Faversham knew her as a woman of great intelligence, integrity and compassion who made a huge difference in our town. But Brenda lived a full and extraordinary life before settling here.
Born in 1948, she was adopted at the age of two by Medway couple Harry and Violet. The family moved to Faversham, living in Athelstan Road and Nightingale Road and Brenda went to Barton Court Grammar School in Canterbury. She married very young but the marriage didn’t last long and she left to work in accountancy and bookkeeping in London.
As a young woman in the 1970s she worked in the Middle East, travelling to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Qatar and learning fluent Arabic. Returning to London, she worked for ABC News who sent her head up their Cairo bureau. Brenda met and married Egyptian engineer Ali Hanafi in the early 1980s and the couple had a son, Karim.
They came back to the UK, bought property in Whitstable and ran businesses together in the town until the recession hit, the marriage broke down and Ali returned to Egypt. Moving to Yorkshire with Karim, Brenda started working in urban regeneration and in 1992, in her early Forties, graduated with a masters degree from Liverpool John Moores University.
Brenda and Karim went back to the Middle East, to Doha, to work for a Lebanese law firm for two years in the mid-1990s before returning to London. But Brenda’s health soon started deteriorating and she moved to Faversham.
Karim said: “She had to give up work when she was 57 due to arthritis, which was a hard thing for someone like my mum. She always grafted and pushed the boundaries and norms of the time for a woman which was an inspiration. She wanted to do something good with her skills and give back into the community or something that was worthwhile. Over the years I’ve realised all the things she’s done and its incredible.
“She has always wanted to help people. Harry and Violet were always avid Labour Party supporters. It was always a big part of her childhood, helping others and rallying people.
Brenda was immensely proud of her son Karim, who lives in Cheshire with his partner Hannah Platts and their daughter Laila who was born in 2014. “Mum was an amazing grandmother to Laila,” he said. “They had a special relationship.”
Now successful tech businessman, Karim competed for Britain in the Commonwealth Games and won a US university scholarship as a teenager. “It was all down to my mum and her help,” he said. “We were always so close because it was just me and her since the age of six. We knew each other really well. She was a mum and dad to me. She was everything to me.”
Brenda passed peacefully at William Harvey Hospital, Ashford, with Karim at her side.