1st November 1925 – 25th January 2019

Coram Beanstalk’s Founder Susan Belgrave died aged 93 on 25th January 2019. Susan was a truly inspirational woman who set up the organisation that was then known as Volunteer Reading Help in 1973. Since then over 190,000 children have received vital one-to-one reading support following the same simple but impactful scheme she and her friends set up all those years ago. That’s 190,000+ children whose lives would be very different if it hadn’t been for Susan.

Susan first became aware of the value of a friendly non-authoritarian figure in helping to sort out children’s problems when she was working as a School Care Worker in the 1960s. The scheme was based on the premise that knowing the child’s family as well as the child was the only way problems could be understood. At the same time friends who were magistrates would comment to her that often in juvenile court children could not read the oath.

Seeing the value of friendship and encouragement on the one hand and the lifelong limitations imposed by poor literacy on the other, Susan resolved that something could be done to encourage young children into reading and she set her mind to designing a solution to help disadvantaged young children avoid that trap. In the 14 years before returning to live in London she and her family had lived in various corners of the world, including New York City, where she had glimpsed the New York School Volunteer Program. Interestingly it was based on London’s School Care Service, though focused on help with reading rather than social problems.

That memory and Susan’s incurable optimism combined and catalysed each other. She worked out a way in which it might prove possible to recruit and train volunteers to encourage children in primary schools to enjoy reading when they had been put off the whole process.

Months of networking led her to London’s Chief Primary Inspector who it was thought might lend her proposition a friendly ear. The law of chance was on Susan’s side and he allocated two primary schools in North Kensington that were participating in a programme for children with Special Needs to be the first hosts to herself and a few of the friends she had recruited to encourage children with their reading in this way. Thus began what was known as Volunteer Reading Help and its slow and patiently fostered spread. It was, and probably still is, the volunteers who achieved its growth by demonstrating to initially sceptical teachers the value of their work. Susan set up a small committee meeting in her kitchen and outlined the basic rules for this work, which still apply to Coram Beanstalk today.

Susan thought it was wonderful to see the organisation still going from strength to strength over forty years later. Now known as Coram Beanstalk, that same simple idea of offering one-to-one encouragement to children struggling with their reading continues to change the lives of thousands of children every year. 

Susan’s granddaughter has set up an in memory fundraising page with all donations going to Coram Beanstalk. If you would like to make a donation to pay tribute to this wonderful woman who did so much to change children’s lives, you can do so at:

Photo credit for first image: Phil Yeomans/BNPS