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The Bridge Interviews

Tom Benyon

Tom Benyon

July 2023

What do the following have in common? The Association of Lloyd’s Members; London Insurance Insider magazine; Zimbabwe - A National Emergency:; and the Community Emergency Food Bank. The answer is that they were all set up by this month’s interviewee either alone or in conjunction with others. Tom Benyon is a man with a rare gift for bringing people together in a common cause, starting new organisations and doing good works.

First, a little about his background. Tom was born in Suffolk in 1942 and was educated at Wellington School and the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst from where he was commissioned into the Scots Guards. He did not stay in the army for long and instead moved into careers in business and politics. He stood for parliament at both the general elections of 1974 in safe Labour seats. In 1979 he was elected as Conservative MP for Abingdon. His predecessor was Airey Neave who was murdered by the IRA just before the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. However his tenure was short as his seat was abolished in boundary changes so he left parliament in 1983. His continuing interest in politics is evidenced by his regular letters to The Times and other publications.

In all his endeavours Tom is aided and abetted by his wife of 55 years, Jane. “We met at a wedding and I knew within a week that I wanted to marry her.” He launched a campaign with flowers and chocolates, showing the determination he brings to all his projects. They have four children, three of whom are ministers in the Church of England. Thomas and Oliver are vicars in Bristol and Cambridge respectively while Clare is chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. Asked how he achieved this, he says the explanation is simple: “I prayed fervently that one of my children would join Goldman Sachs and make a huge amount of money. This was the result”. The other child is Camilla who works in running training courses specialising in how to manage anger, something that many of us could benefit from occasionally. Between them they have provided Tom and Jane with 11 grandchildren.

As a “Name” or investor in the Lloyd’s insurance market he was at the eye of the storm when many of the 34,000 members were faced with bankruptcy as a result of huge losses arising from asbestosis claims combined with the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill with a few hurricanes thrown in. He set up the Association of Lloyd’s Members to fight the authorities on behalf of the Names affected and his proud boast is that he started more legal actions in the Commercial Court than any other litigant in history (and in the process enriched lots of lawyers - it’s an ill wind).

His greatest achievement, however, has been to set up the charity Zimbabwe - a National Emergency (ZANE) in which he is still heavily involved as director of operations. The story begins with a chance encounter with Cathy Olds. Her husband had been a farmer in Zimbabwe who was murdered by henchmen of the former dictator, Robert Mugabe, who were engaged in taking possession of farms from their owners by violent means. Cathy, who additionally had suffered from polio, was left penniless. Tom was so moved by her story that he gave her some money to help her to resettle in Britain. Tom had never been to Zimbabwe so he arranged to stop off there during a business trip to South Africa. His first discovery was that there were many ex-service personnel there who were living in total poverty as their pensions had been made worthless by hyperinflation. “These were people who had fought for this country in forgotten wars - Korea, Borneo, Aden.” On his return home he set about lobbying the numerous charities for ex-service men and women to help and persuaded them to set up a partnership. (True to his belief in bringing people together, he is a great proponent of teaming up with others to advance a good cause.) ZANE was born with the help of several other supporters including Burford resident Jim Pringle, a man for whom Tom has enormous admiration. Tom ran the charity in conjunction with Nicky Passaportis who managed the Zimbabwe end while he looked after things here, principally fund raising. ZANE now has a team of 28 people in Zimbabwe.

After pensioners, he turned his attention to club foot. This is a congenital condition which produces a deformity in the foot which causes pain and makes it difficult to walk. It can, however, be cured in children. Tom formed a partnership with Chris Lavy OBE, an orthopaedic surgeon in Oxford who specialises in this condition. So far they have treated nearly 6000 children in 11 centres in Zimbabwe. “It’s wonderful to see them playing football within a year of being treated”, he says. “That is my proudest achievement.” Other initiatives include supplying food to 42 care homes and providing hearing aids as well as supplying prosthetic limbs to victims of land mines which are still causing grievous injuries long after the civil war in that country.

To do all this necessitates attracting donations by standing out from all the other charities which are raising money. One method he uses is to send out books of poems (of which he is a great reader) and cartoons to supporters in order to solicit funds. He even uses cartoons to persuade donors to leave money to ZANE in their wills. He and Jane also raise funds by walking. So far they have done 11 long-distance walks, staying with friends and supporters en route. The first was from Edinburgh to London. Later ones include Land’s End to London, York to Canterbury, Anglesey to Oxford, Brighton to London via the Isle of Wight and Hull to Liverpool which was a journey made by many emigrants from continental Europe on their way to America. All the walks are recorded in books which he sends to supporters. Later this year, in recognition of increasing age, they will be walking through the flat county of Norfolk. (You can find out more and donate at Tom was awarded the OBE “in recognition of his services to vulnerable people in Zimbabwe” while ZANE was named as Daily Telegraph charity of the year.

If this were not enough, in 2007 he and Jane started the Community Emergency Food Bank in Oxford ( after seeing the work of a food bank in Chicago. This is a non-denominational Christian charity which helps people in Oxford and the surrounding area who are suffering financial hardship. “Jane runs it while I run ZANE but we help each other as well.” He contrasts the work of the two charities. “In Zimbabwe there is no health service and no social security so if you have no money you will starve to death in your own squalor. In this country we have both but people still fall into hardship as a result of divorce, coming out of prison, gambling, addiction, alcoholism, desertion or human folly”. Tom’s work is inspired throughout by his strong Christian conviction. He and Jane moved to this part of Oxfordshire 13 years ago and are committed members of Swinbrook church.

With all this activity, does he have time to relax? Yes, he is a great reader and meets regularly with various men’s groups: two whose other members are all vicars, one of ex-army officers and one of former MPs.

Out of all the people we have interviewed over the last eight years it is difficult to think of anyone who has done more than he has to improve the lot of all sorts of people. Now just into his ninth decade, he shows no sign of slowing down. Keep on walking, Tom.

Tom Benyon
Tom Benyon
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