Philip Jackson left the UK when he was 22 and returned when he was 67. During that time, he had worked in construction in Thailand and Australia. When he retired and returned to his native Barnsley, Jackson felt “like a foreigner” in his own country.
“I had a strong Australian accent, and everyone I knew when I was younger had moved away or was dead.” He was lonely. And he wasn’t the only one. “I’d never seen loneliness like it,” says Jackson. “There were so many lonely old men, in particular.”
Looking for something to do, Jackson became a member of English Heritage and travelled around the country, visiting castles. He applied for jobs, but no one wanted to hire a man in his 60s. He read about the suicide rate in Barnsley, which is higher than the national average, and was appalled, but not surprised. “When I came back home,” he says, “I saw how industry had been decimated. The factory where I did my apprenticeship had closed down.”
Jackson, who is 78, remembered an initiative he’d heard about when he was abroad. The Australian Men’s Shed Association is a collective of more than 1,000 sheds aimed at combating loneliness through communal woodworking.
It’s like the shed at the bottom of your garden, but all your friends are there
Jackson decided to set one up in Barnsley. In 2014, with the help of a small National Lottery grant, Jackson secured premises from Barnsley council and woodwork equipment from donations for The Barnsley Men’s Shed. He then set up the “She-Shed”, a community space for women. The Sheds’ members range from 22 to 87, and meet once a week: the men on Tuesdays, the women on Wednesdays. They’re a diverse bunch: ex-coalminers, ex-shopkeepers, ex-homemakers. There’s even a retired carpenter, which is handy.
“People apply to join the Sheds,” he says, “and we have interviews. We tell people to come down and have a cup of coffee and a chat. Look around the shed. If they’re happy with the environment and the people, they’re more than welcome to continue.”
Shedders, as Jackson calls them, make everything from ornaments, dog kennels, bird and plant boxes through to wheelbarrows. “One guy made an operational windmill for his garden,” Jackson says. “And a lighthouse, with a flashing light on top. I’m sure the neighbours loved that one.”
But the Shed is about so much more than bird boxes and windmills. “It’s like the shed at the bottom of your garden,” says Jackson, “but all your friends are there. It’s a break from people’s weekly routines. It gets them out and talking to similar people.”
That’s the beauty of the Sheds, he says. “It’s not really a woodworking shop. It’s a community enterprise where people with problems can come and discuss them with friends.” People talk about their marriage breakups, bereavements, grandchildren and housing problems. At the moment, one shedder is having difficulty with some of the people he lives with. “He sits and chats with us,” says Jackson, “and we say, ‘Right, what can we do to solve this problem?’”
During lockdown, Jackson called the shedders every week, to check they were doing OK. Many were struggling. He also set up live streams on Facebook so people could work together remotely from their homes, and feel more connected. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” Jackson says. “But I love the Shed.”
Sandra Potesta, a social enterprise director and active shedder who nominated Jackson for this column, tells me that although he recently had an operation to remove bladder and prostate cancer, “he is still working very hard to keep the Shed going by applying for funding and attending shed sessions”.
“The Shed has become a brotherhood and a sisterhood, where many people have found solace and respite from the many anxieties that are impacting on their life,” she says.
One guy made a lighthouse, with a flashing light on top. I’m sure the neighbours loved that one
Potesta has been a curative for loneliness in more than just a platonic way. Jackson first met her when he was looking for people to help secure lottery funding, and their friendship developed into something more. When I ask Jackson about his treat, his suggestion blows me away. “I’d like you to plan something romantic,” he says, “so I can ask Sandra to marry me.” I screech. “Do you think 78 is too old to get married?” Jackson asks nervously. Absolutely not! I insist.
Team Guardian angel springs into action, and arranges a slap-up dinner at the award-winning Nonnas in Sheffield. Jackson, who has been married before, wasn’t nervous. “Let’s just say I have some experience,” he chuckles. After a fish platter and rum babas, Jackson presented the ring. “She wasn’t expecting it,” says Jackson, “let’s put it that way. But I was very pleased that she said yes.”
They haven’t set a date yet for the wedding. “It will probably be when we finish running the Shed,” Jackson jokes. “When I’m 105 years old.”