Mora Dickson (nee Robertson), author, painter, poet and campaigner, was born on the 20th of April, 1918.
Mora Dickson and her husband Alec took the concept of volunteering to new heights and much of the current thinking in citizenship and social responsibility, both in Britain and internationally, stems from their work. At one point, the US government consulted the pair about using the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) scheme as the model for its new Peace Corps. The adventures of the Dicksons began in 1958. Mora and Alec gained the inspiration for the VSO scheme from the combination of their own experiences, before and during the Second World War, and the example given by national service. They came up with the idea of sending volunteers to work abroad in developing countries as those territories emerged into independence.
The Dickson’s concept was also based on the success Alec had in developing the community development ‘Man O'War Centre’ in the Cameroons on the Gold Coast. The idea was to give young people from Britain a chance to make a contribution, helping their fellow men and women in developing countries, by carrying out voluntary, rural community service in the year between school and university. In the first year, sixteen people joined projects in Nigeria, Ghana and Sarawak and, since its inception, with backing from Christian Aid and the then Bishop of Portsmouth, thousands of VSO’s volunteers have shared their skills in dozens of countries around the world. According to Mora, they had far fewer disasters in the early years than they ought to have had. Of the doubters, she said, “People wondered how eighteen year olds could be responsible enough. Wouldn’t they run off and have love affairs? We said that if you believed in them, they would astonish you. They bloomed.”
VSO is now an institution, but in its first years it was run, unpaid and unsupported, from the kitchen table of the Dickson’s London home. That was until 1962, when a dispute led to Alec’s replacement as Director. Undaunted, and within a year, the Dicksons started up the Community Service Volunteers (CSV), which was a volunteer programme focussing on Britain. In contrast to the highly selective recruitment policy of the VSO, the philosophy of CSV was to take all comers, in the belief that anyone willing to offer their services could be found something meaningful to do. CSV’s plan was to encourage young people into full time volunteering. As Alec was quoted as stating, “There are as many social problems in Bermondsey as there are in Burma.” In its first year, thirty volunteers were placed, the first going to work at Glasgow’s Mossbank Approved School. Since then, CSV has widened its remit as all age groups are now encouraged to volunteer, including schoolchildren, young offenders and people with physical disabilities.
Mora first met Alec when she was staying with his family in London. Then, in late 1950, he suggested that she visit him in the Cameroons. Being quite the opposite of demure, she set off, unchaperoned and unconventional, to see him and a year later, they were married in Moffat. That was the beginning of a remarkable partnership as they were a formidable pair. Mora provided wisdom and judgment, together with strong organisational skills to complement her husband’s vision, oratory and occasional flights of fancy. As Alec lectured non-stop around the country, Mora wrote and illustrated brochures, interviewed volunteers, and reassured parents. As David Green wrote in ‘The Guardian’ obituary, “Mora was also a woman of strong opinions and clarity of expression, and woe betide the upstart who criticised Alec or his VSO scheme.” The Dickson’s public relationship was neatly summed up in a letter from an early VSO volunteer, who wrote to Alec and Mora, saying, “Salaams to the lion of Acacia House – and good wishes to the lion tamer.”
Mora was born in Glasgow on the 20th of April, 1918, although she spent her early years in Moffat, Dumfriesshire. She was educated at St Felix’s, Lowestoft, where she became head girl. She also studied at Edinburgh College of Art, however, her fine art studies were cut short by the outbreak of the World War II. During the war, Mora worked for the Church of Scotland in the canteens at Glencorse Barracks, in Edinburgh, and then at the Scapa Flow naval base, in the Orkneys. By 1945, she was in charge of a large YMCA canteen at Nijmegen, on the Dutch-German border. After the war, Mora resumed her fine art studies when she moved to the Byam Shaw school in London, where she stayed with the Dicksons and met Alec. Later, in 1957, Mora and Alec took a Church of Scotland mobile soup kitchen to the borders of Hungary, to help the refugees fleeing from the uprising. Those experiences no doubt helped in developing the idea of VSO and certainly helped Mora with its organisation.
Throughout her life, Mora wrote, painted and drew. Her poetry included some moving pieces, such as in ‘Poems of Love and War 1944-45’, partly reflecting her fondness for a young Polish officer she hat met. She was the author of fifteen books (twenty-one according to the obituary in ‘The Scotsman’), many of them accounts of people who made a significant contribution to improving the human condition. Her books include: ‘Nannie: A Lifetime Of Devotion’ (a moving account of her nanny and her early family life); ‘A Chance To Serve’ (recounting the beginnings of the VSO); ‘The Inseparable Grief: Margaret Cargill of Fiji’ (one of the first female missionaries to live, and die, in Fiji); ‘Portrait Of A Partnership’ (an account of her work with Alec); and ‘A Season in Sarawak’ (a description of her initial venture with the VSO).
Mora Dickson wrote two biographies. One was of Mary Moffat, the wife of Dr. Robert Moffat, the famous missionary and man who inspired David Livingstone. The other was a book called ‘Teacher Extraordinary: Joseph Lancaster’, which was about a pioneering educationalist who advocated the monitorial system of schooling. This system encouraged the use of students as teachers, where the more able pupils would teach the less able – not unlike the work of the VSO. Examples of her artwork appear in her illustrations to Peggy Appiah’s admirable collection of stories, entitled ‘The Pineapple Child and Other Tales from Ashanti’.
In the 1990s, the Dicksons were reunited with the VSO and at its 40th anniversary celebrations, Mora was elected an honorary vice-president. After her husband’s death in 1994, Mora Dickson settled in Edinburgh, where she died on the 17th of December, 2001.