Last week, TV presenter Johnny Ball visited Blind Veterans UK to officially open our refurbished Brighton centre. Johnny is just the latest celebrity to visit the charity since its foundation in 1915.
Among our early famous visitors was the legendary army officer Lord Kitchener (the star of the iconic 1914 ‘Your country needs you’ recruitment ads). Kitchener visited St Dunstan’s Lodge in the charity’s early months and met some of our first blind veterans. Kitchener was followed by a fellow dignitary, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who visited St Dunstan’s Lodge and gave a talk to our first blind veterans in 1917.
St Dunstan’s Lodge played host to another 20th century icon in 1920, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle paid a visit to the centre to experience our work first hand. Elementary, my dear blind veterans…
Olympic athlete Harold Abrahams, whose story was later immortalised by the 1980s film Chariots of Fire, also visited St Dunstan’s Lodge in 1920. During his visit, he participated in runs with our blind veterans – both blindfolded and sighted!
Our subsequent move from St Dunstan’s Lodge in 1921 didn’t slow the steady stream of celebrity visitors keen to meet our blind veterans. In the years that followed, the deaf-blind writer and activist Helen Keller visited our base at St John’s Lodge and the comedian and singer George Formby visited our wartime training base in Church Stretton, Shropshire.
Helen Keller is also on the list of visitors to our Brighton centre. Since its opening in 1938, our oldest centre has paid host to numerous celebrities over the years. These range from comedian Max Miller, boxer Freddie Mills, actress Tessie O’Shea, comic actor Jimmy Edwards, actor/presenter Wilfred Pickles and cricketer Denis Compton to Last of the Summer Wine star Bill Owen, prolific actor Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small), actress Dame Thora Hird and presenter Isla St Clair.
Recent visitors to the Brighton centre include presenters Eamonn Holmes and Angela Rippon, actor Bernard Cribbins, and wartime sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn. A frequent visitor to the centre, Dame Vera last met our blind veterans in Brighton during her 2009 visit.
The list doesn’t stop there, though. In 1995, we played host to the Doctor himself, Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee, when Jon visited our headquarters in London. Presenter Jim Rosenthal also dropped in to our London base to record some material for our blind veterans in 2005. More recently, the Blind Veterans UK Llandudno centre gave the Military Wives Choir a warm Welsh welcome in 2012.
In the past few years, Blind Veterans UK has played host to three actors as part of their research and training for film and TV roles as blind veterans. In 2012, actor Lachlan Nieboer spent time at our Brighton centre in preparation for his role as a World War I blind veteran in series two of Downton Abbey. (Lachlan later ran the London Marathon in aid of Blind Veterans UK.) The following year, actor Alec Newman spent two days at the Blind Veterans UK Llandudno centre researching for his role as an Afghanistan blind veteran in the upcoming film Greyhawk.
Earlier this year, Blind Veterans UK’s Brighton centre and London HQ played host to another well-known British actor in preparation for his role in an upcoming 2015 film release. Look out for full details of this in the next few weeks!
Clearly, Blind Veterans UK has enjoyed the support of many celebrities and dignitaries over the past 100 years. Our heartfelt thanks to them all.