Last month we nominated a mature 16-year-old for the community Ledge. This month we have a youthful 79-year-old, a former teacher who only gave up teaching or “laid down my chalk”, at 70 – enabling her to concentrate more on community activities.

As much of her work for the community has been as a teacher, we like to think she represents all the hard-working teachers of Hastings, as well as her own hard work.

Erica Barrett a self-confessed “woman who can’t sit still” has lived in Hastings with her husband Raymond since they moved here in 1984 and has been getting to know people, as well as organising them, ever since. 

Whether or not she takes up the offer of an Albion speciality pie, I have a feeling she has a healthy appetite.

Erica was born, according to legend, as the all-clear sounded on an air raid siren. She’s proud to be a Battle of Britain baby: she even had a recording of a pathe news report filmed on her birth day of a dogfight over The Channel made into a clock to hang in the loo. 

As a schoolteacher she remembers showing children re-creations of air raid shelters. “I told them that they were completely artificial. The real ones stank of urine!”

She’s been a teacher since 1961, starting out teaching university entrance students. She soon wondered what she was doing teaching “hormonal adolescents” and retrained as an early years primary teacher, working as a nursery teacher in Northumberland for ten years. 

She says teachers are good at “drawing people out” and I soon learned that one of her remarkable qualities is as a listener. This seems to enable her to identify problems very quickly and find solutions. 

She gave a snapshot of her practical side with an example of being asked at short notice to take an assembly. “You have to think of a theme and make it happen”. She once did a theme of Noah’s Ark using sugar paper to make the masks of animals, two by two to go into the ark. The theme was “everybody needs a companion, a friend” even though they “may not look like you or think like you.” 

When teaching up to 45 in a class, she quickly realised the benefit of getting parents involved. Not only that but she realised the importance of getting them involved in a “dummy run” knowing that people are often concerned about their competence. “Give them something they can talk about afterwards with pride and they’ll do it.” 

I quickly sensed a real understanding of human nature as well as a respect for people as individuals. Having said that she confesses: “Some people find me impossible because they find me bossy.”

“I’ve taught so many primary children here,” she says. “at St Pauls, Sandown and Red Lake Primary Schools, among others. They’ve all grown up now, but people still come up to me all the time at the till in supermarkets.”

“I’m involved or have been involved with a lot of organisations,” She says. “When you first arrive, you join things, you meet people. So you get pitched into voluntary things. The spider wraps its thread and you are enmeshed.”

Erica is a trustee of the Old Hastings Preservation Society. She joined with her husband when they came to Hastings – they are both historians. “I was asked if I could take the Minutes [at a meeting] of the Fisherman’s Museum in 1998 and am still doing it.”

Back when she started, she says, some of the fishermen on the committee still spoke Sussex.

She is perhaps best known for organising the programme of free Old Town walks. “I inherited this from my husband and just stepped in about ten years ago.” She expanded it to group walks and for a while included EFL student groups. “It was so successful; we could have done three times a day five days a week. The students loved it. We made it interesting for them.”

She joined the residents’ association and became Chair in 2011: “The association had become moribund. Up here in North Hastings it’s the forgotten land.”  They subsequently fought a number of applications which would have otherwise passed. These were usually sites of historical importance (in the broadest sense of term) in which she takes great interest.

“We became a voice for the area, writing to the Observer, she says proudly, adding as an example: “There was no thought as to how the Link Road would impact the Ridge.”

At which point she launched into the history of the area during the Roman Empire. “Most of the iron ore for the Roman empire came from here. The Ridge was one of the most important roadways in Roman times.” 

The next project she fell into was volunteering at the Salvation Army charity shop in Ore  which she’s been doing for about ten years. She used to buy a lot of books there as she noticed they had a wonderful collection. One day she saw a dealer loading up his estate car with books and suddenly realised the charity was missing out on a lot of money. On pointing this out, they asked if she would come and price their books. “And I’ve been doing it ever since”

She explains that people of her generation have a soft spot for the Salvation Army so when they die their families often donate to things like their collections of books. “It’s [one of the few] a charity most people don’t object to.” She emphasised how they do great work under the radar, things like helping discretely to connect runaway children with their families.

A couple of weeks ago she had a first edition of Aesop’s Fables illustrated by Arthur Rackham and sold it for £75 on eBay. “I tend not to put the valuable ones in the shop. Over the years having sold lots of books I can contact people and say I’ve got such and such.” 

It’s these little hints that give away how she gets involved and takes over. As she says herself: “If I get involved with something, I get involved.”

All this is meticulously recorded with monthly cheques to the Salvation Army and accounting.

Typical of how she gets involved: having been a teacher in Ore Village, she was approached by Sarah Kowitz of Fairlight Hall to help “brighten the place up”. And so Ore in Bloom was born. “I don’t do much now but do what I can. We do the Christmas tree with the children pushing the plunger to turn on the lights. Adding in relation to organising the children on the day “I have the voice!”

She has also been secretary of Christ Church, Ore.: “I met a lot of people doing that,” she said, going on to point out the archaeological importance of the nearby ruins of old St Helens Church.

Many of the things Erica got involved with were after retiring from full time teaching – but while continuing as a supply teacher. She found supply teaching fascinating as “You can come out of nowhere and save everyone’s bacon”.

But Erica’s adult life began as a teacher. She recalls teaching in Notting Hill back in 1962, heavily pregnant because she didn’t have enough stamps to get maternity benefit. 46 kids, coke stove in the middle of the class. Children crawling all over her. Children coming with adult underwear pinned together to fit or alternating with siblings to come to school as only one pair of boots. This was where the learning took place.

Read all our Community Ledges here:
Alison Cooper
John Knowles
Claudine Eccleston
Alan Turing
Rachel Holtom
Ruaidhri Guest
Erica Barrett
The Horse & Groom Pub
Jane Grimshaw

• And read what it takes to be a Community Ledge here

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