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Paul Bellringer of Horsham

Paul Bellringer

I was born in Windsor, Berkshire, in 1943. My father was in the army and finished up in intelligence.

He wasn’t a particularly good father. I was the youngest of three children and it was my mother who was the constant parent. She brought us up single-handedly for much of the time. I recall my childhood being a happy time and I have memories of going for walks around Windsor Castle.

We moved to Cheltenham as my father moved to the new Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). I didn’t distinguish myself at school, but I did enjoy my time with the sea cadets. My brother had been through the cadets and joined the navy, and I would do the same thing.

With the cadets, I learned how to play the Bosun’s Call. I was also coxswain of a whaler, a 27-foot boat. Cheltenham didn’t have a river so we used to practice on the lake, but one year we did very well and made it to the area finals held on the Thames. I was told off as my swearing had wafted over to the bank and some of the ladies were not impressed.

I joined the navy a month before my 16th birthday. I didn’t want to follow my father in to the army. I was on HMS Ganges, opposite Harwich harbour, for my shore training and I was there for 18 months. In those days it was said to be tougher than being in a borstal and it toughened me up.

They did a BBC television broadcast and out of 2,000 boys I was the one selected to do it. I went to broadcasting house and my mother was thrilled when it was on television. When I returned to the ship, the captain called me in and said: ‘Very good, Bellringer, but keep out of the way of the Supply Officer for the next few weeks’. The television crew had asked me a question about the food on the ship and I had told them it wasn’t very nice!

Following that, I was on HMS Hermes for a time and then on a frigate, HMS Plymouth. On the aircraft carrier we went through a typhoon in the South China Sea. A few of us went to the stern of the ship, tied ourselves to the
railings and watched waves 40-foot high crash by. It was the first time in my life I had experienced a feeling beyond fear, but we were all overcome with a sort of calmness.  It gave me a true appreciation of nature.

In those days you didn’t have cheap package holidays, so joining the navy was a way of seeing the world. Whilst at HMS Terror, the Singapore Naval Base, I committed a minor infringement. But I was told I could escape punishment if I donated blood, so I did. I donated for the first time and I have now done so 80 times. I’m targeting 100.

However, the navy wasn’t a particularly happy experience for me so I left after nine years in 1968. My career hadn’t progressed. I stayed on the lower deck but I did at least educate myself. I went in with no O’ Level and came out with eight O’ Levels and two A’ Levels. I’m a great believer that you can learn something from every experience you have in life.

I went back to Gloucestershire and for a couple of years I worked for Dowty Rotol, an engineering
company, before moving to London in 1970. It was here that I became a Samaritan volunteer at St Stephen in Walbrook.

I met my first wife, Colette, who was half-French. She then took a job with the World Health Organisation in Geneva, and I went along with her for 18 months. If I hadn’t been British I wouldn’t have minded being Swiss!

I returned to England in 1973 and took a job with the probation service. I became very busy and this led to the breakdown of my first marriage.

My favourite role with the probation service was working for Croydon Crown Court. In those days the probation
service was very much part of the court system and the judges would often call you into their chambers to discuss sentencing.

I feel I made a difference to the lives of some individuals. With some offenders though, you do have this revolving door syndrome.

Due to circumstances or somebody’s way of thinking, it can be difficult to break out of a criminal mentality, particularly if they are dealing with any form of addiction.

Whilst at the Beckenham office I became a liaison officer for a hostel called Gordon House, which was a specialised place for people with gambling problems. It was named after a great man called Gordon Moody, who helped establish Gamblers Anonymous. He said: ‘Paul, you have a real feel for this. Perhaps you should take it further.’ Eventually, I did.

I married for a second time, and my two sons Matthew and Nathan were born in 1980 and 1982, the year we moved to Chichester. I had returned to the probation service in a senior position. I stayed with them for another eight years but all the while my interest in gambling addiction was developing.

I began to do things with the West Sussex Probation Service to raise awareness of gambling addiction and by 1990 I had decided I was going to leave. I was confident with the skills and attributes I had attained, so I set up a charity with the help of Youth Clubs UK.

Together with a Board of Trustees we founded the ‘UK Forum on Young People and Gambling’. We ran it on a shoestring, but after three years we needed more money. People were not really interested in a national organisation on gambling, so I became a youth worker.

Whilst the UK Forum was no longer a charity, I took it with me into the youth service. I remember one memorable week in Avon Tyrrell in the New Forest, when we ran a week long seminar with young people from 14 different European countries, all based on gambling.

My attitude to gambling is that I’m not against it. I’ve gambled myself, although I don’t do it very well, and it’s a perfectly legitimate activity. But it has an addictive element, so it’s up to the industry, the government and of course gamblers to treat it responsibly.

In 1996, I was made redundant. I took this little lump of money and reformed the charity and brought the trustees back together. I said: ‘It’s May, I’ve got a young family but I will halve the salary I had at Youth Clubs UK and I’ll give it to the end of the year. If the charity is not viable I’ll have to get a proper job!’

On the 1st December I contacted the probation service and said ‘help!’ as we were running into the sand. But two days later I had a meeting with David Rigg, Communications Director at Camelot. The result was that Camelot put enough money on the table to keep the charity going for another three months.

In 1996, I got a group together that included Nigel Kent-Lemon, who had great knowledge of the gambling industry. We looked at the viability of establishing a national charity across all ages. It was my vision but he helped me tremendously.

I had been three weeks away from throwing it all in. But with this new group we applied for Lottery funding and they gave enough for us to fund ourselves for three years. We launched GamCare in April 1997.

I might condemn the gambling industry for not being responsible, but I had never condemned gambling and I think that helped us to make progress. We received another Lottery grant and gradually the charity developed. We ran a helpline, counselling services, as well as education and training on responsible gambling.

The numbers of people we reached built up every year and they continue to rise. We have 74% of the adult population gambling in this country and yet there is still moral ambivalence to it. As human beings we are programmed to take risks and gambling is a stylised form of risk taking. People would do it whether it was legal or not.

We worked with, rather than against, the gambling industry and began to talk to them about creating voluntary codes of conduct. In 2000, four of us went to see George Howarth, who was the minister responsible for gambling, and pressed for a review. This happened, and I gave lots of evidence, and that resulted in the Gambling Act 2005. I was one of three specialist advisors to a joint parliamentary scrutiny committee.

I was amazed at the profile I suddenly received. I was involved in an awful lot of media work and would speak all around the world. I was in Canada once when I spoke in a live radio broadcast in England. The phone rang when I was in the shower so I actually gave the interview whilst sat on the bed stark naked. It  tickles me to this day!

One of my worst media experiences was on ‘Dispatches’. The journalist wanted to put words into my mouth. I didn’t budge and I ended up being in the programme for three seconds.

Another time, I was invited by the BBC on to a programme compered by Jeremy Paxman on the issue of gambling but it was  totally hijacked by John McCririck. I didn’t say a word!

I wrote a book called ‘Understanding Problem Gamblers’ which sold well. It took me a year to write and is now also printed in Chinese.

I married Anne in 1998 and we moved to Horsham in 2000. That year, I was staggered to receive an OBE from the Queen for my work in the gambling industry. It was recognition for me and my team as well of course.

For me, personally, it meant something else. No matter what I did as a child, in my father’s eyes it was never good enough. In a backward sort of way, that was probably one of the things that drove me on all my life. When I received the OBE, it laid that ghost to rest.

Two years later I was invited to St Paul’s for a service related to the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Anne and I went up. My office was in Westminster, so I thought we would get changed there and ring for a taxi. Twenty minutes later, a  Cockney taxi driver appeared and said: ‘You’re bloody lucky I’m here! The copper told me ‘there’s no way you’re getting through the cordon!’ I told him ‘look, I’ve got a piece of paper here that says I need to take two bell ringers to St Paul’s and if the Queen doesn’t have her bells rung, on your own head be it!’ They let him  through!

The OBE is not my top achievement. That would be ensuring that social responsibility was written into the Gambling Act.

The industry has expanded a great deal in the last 20 years. This ‘in play’ market throws up new challenges, as does the internet. This hasn’t created a new breed of gambler. It has created a migration of people who are
vulnerable to having a problem with gambling from one form of gambling, perhaps fruit machines, to another, such as casino machines. 

In my view, it’s rare that you should ban any kind of activity. It’s much better to legalise it, regulate it, enforce regulation and tax it.

I left GamCare in 2004 having achieved what I wanted to. I set up my own business for the first time, as a consultant on social responsibility. I’m still involved in a national strategy board on responsible gambling and I’m a non-executive director of an organisation that settles disputes between gamblers and operators. After 33 years I still haven’t beaten my addiction to the social impact of gambling.

Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and battled on until 2011. She remained an elegant dresser to the end and would step out of that door with a smile on her face ready to help other people. 

She was the love of my life. I rather hoped we would live long into old age together. But it didn’t happen that way.

The idea of turning the old putting green into a landscape garden had already been mooted, but Anne was instrumental in making it happen. They needed £200,000 and she made it. Half of that amount came from a Lottery grant, and Anne and the In Bloom committee matched it.

Sadly, the garden opened one month after she died. But I’m delighted that there is a garden bench with a plaque dedicated to Anne. If there’s nobody around and I’m in town I’ll go and sit down there for a while.

They put an open stage in the garden and I realised it wasn’t really being utilised. I thought  I could make something happen. I wanted to do something with a local focus that brought joy and pleasure to people. I also wanted to prove to myself I wasn’t a one trick pony.

I put together a committee, and last year we held the first Horsham Garden Music Festival. We want the event to grow and make it a feature of the summer in Horsham. The ethos is that it’s for the people by the people, and we have a great mix of concerts, with a young musician showcase, and people with learning disabilities performing.

I turned 70 in February, but I haven’t got used to being 60 yet. For as long as I can, I just want to go on making a difference.