Twice Madam Mayor: an interview with Toni Letts


By - Friday 22nd December, 2017

“I have been fortunate – and I want that for everyone”


Madam Mayor Toni Letts at Croydon Heritage Festival.
Photo by Fluid4Sight, used with permission.

Twice Mayor of Croydon, a domestic violence survivor with an OBE for her services to housing and community, Toni Letts has many stories to tell. Funny, poignant and heart warming, her anecdotes are underwritten with her commitment to make a daily difference to the lives of Croydon folk. Describing herself as a “servant of the people”, Toni was inspired by her father, an Irish Protestant priest, “who would say we were all there to serve each other.” She grew up in Dublin and attended Alexandra College in County Wicklow, before coming to London to train as a nurse.

Toni was first moved by homelessness whilst nursing in Guy’s Hospital in the late ’60s. At that time, homeless people – mainly male army veterans – would take shelter in bomb ruins, light fires, then fall asleep drunk and roll over into them. “You’d clean them all up and get their wounds dealt with, and then we’d send them back out to where they’d come from. I used to think that’s a terrible thing – what a way to treat them.” This motivated her to study for her first degree in Community and Youth Work at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“Think of the bigger picture and go for it!”

Homelessness also led her into politics – after witnessing children sleeping in sheds, she joined the Labour Party and has served as a councillor in Selhurst since 1986. Toni describes how over a 10-year period, she helped rebuild Croydon YMCA from being on the brink of bankruptcy into South London YMCA, saying that she “had to have a business mind, I had to think on my feet and that’s why I know businesses can do it think bigger picture, go for it.”

Toni likens the process of supporting people through recovery from homelessness to nurturing a child, and quotes one YMCA manager describing the support he received as a virtual wall, which protected him from his old ways until he felt “I can do this – I don’t need this wall.” She clearly has a knack for spotting and empowering other people’s potential: she gave a former building-society thief the chance to transform into a brilliant YMCA manager. “He could look at young people and they could not hide from him; he’d seen and done every trick in the book,” Toni explains.

“Croydon is a community of communities”

Toni has her own story of recovery from domestic violence (DV), which she endured for 20 years throughout her first marriage. She underlines the need to be vigilant for signs of DV. “If I’d had someone else to say to me, ‘you don’t have to live with this, you’re worth hearing’, I would have done something earlier.” It was her daughter’s parting words as she left for university that finally gave her the strength to leave. She found her way to Selhurst, where she was spotted up a ladder trying to fix her guttering by a local pastor who called in members of his congregation to help. “Here was I, an Irish white woman, and they – the black community – were embracing me. I felt at ease. That’s why I love Selhurst… We are such a community of communities in Croydon and, the majority of the time, our communities are amazing and work together. There’s a great sharing of understanding and knowledge.”

After giving a speech about domestic violence in 1999 at a United Nations women’s assembly in New York City, which was translated into 100 languages, Toni finally felt she “had reached somewhere and I was someone.” She describes how she founded Croydon Family Justice Centre and a safe house for victims of DV, and how she encourages women to talk to that little inner self, talk to others and say ‘I want to be heard and I can do better than this’.” Madame Mayor for the second time, with an impressive track record of business and community leadership, she is an inspirational role model for women.

“You can all have a piece of this. It’s not just for the lucky few.”

Citing the example of Richard Burton learning about Shakespeare from one of his father’s friends, Toni sees mentoring as a way to reduce social isolation in the elderly and support young people, and describes how she matched members of Croydon U3A with young refugees. She feels that teachers need to be valued for the important role they play in the “next generation’s futures” and encourages those influencing young people to “ask them what they want to do and affirm that they can and will do it.” She hopes that the forthcoming Westfield development, with its proposed community arts space, can “send out a message of hope for the whole borough – that you can all have a piece of this. It’s not just for the lucky few.”

Welcoming young people’s interest in politics, Toni emphasises that the role of a councillor is “being there to serve, to help, to support, sometimes to guide and sometimes to be the butt of all people’s worries. That goes hand in hand with making decisions in the council chamber.” The pleasure she gets from working with people shines through in her stories. One young man was on the verge of being expelled from school because his mother could not afford his specialist size 15 shoes; Toni explains how she asked the school and the police station before buying them for him herself.

Her closing comment, “I’m so lucky, I’m very fortunate and I want that for everyone,” leaves me feeling that Croydon is also lucky and fortunate to have Toni as our Madame Mayor.

Katie Rose

Katie Rose

Katie Rose - Singer, Composer, Conductor, Writer - Katie loves singing and helping people sing. Described by the Guardian as a 'fine singer' and by fRoots magazine as an 'eye (and ear) opener,' she has released three albums. Committed to creating uplifting, inclusive experiences of singing, Katie has led singing sessions in hospitals, hospices, festivals and community choirs across London. Convinced of the power of music to make waves in the world she has conducted mass choral events for Sing for Water and is directing Croydon's first Festival of Peace 2018. For more information visit www.therosewindow.org

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  • Anne Giles

    I am impressed!

  • http://www.thegreenstoryteller.com Charles Barber

    A lovely article about a very impressive, hard working and kind lady. Her concern for those less fortunate than herself shone through when she helped us plant bulbs at White Horse Park.