How Downing Street is keeping the art of the thank-you letter alive

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Between David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, there have been 1,796 recipients of a Points of Light letter
Between David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, there have been 1,796 recipients of a Points of Light letter

I bet you thought that the thank-you letter had died out, destroyed by the internet. Not in Downing Street, it hasn’t.

On Monday this week, Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, was astonished to learn he was about to get a thank-you letter from the Prime Minister. He thought he was going along to hear Boris Johnson talk about free trade at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Trade, held by the Centre for Policy Studies at the Guildhall, London.

And then the PM suddenly declared: “It’s a little-known tradition in Downing Street, whereby every day the prime minister writes a thank-you letter to recognise someone somewhere in our country for their service. And so today I am sending you such a letter, Robert, and we have a framed certificate for you, too. And, on behalf of everyone here, and indeed the whole country, I want to say thank you.”

Colvile, from London, received the award – called a “Points of Light” letter – having raised more than £100,000 to fund projects with the Medical Research Foundation into autoimmune hepatitis in memory of his late wife, Andrea. She died in July 2019 of the disease, aged 40, shortly after the birth of her second son.

“I was incredibly surprised and deeply humbled to receive this award,” he said afterwards. “The Medical Research Foundation is genuinely life-saving and I’m so grateful that people were inspired by Andrea’s story to contribute to its work. This is a neglected disease but it’s one that blights the lives of thousands of people, predominantly women.”

Robert’s letter highlighted a tradition started in the Cabinet Room in April 2014 by David Cameron, for Britain to have its own “Points of Light” winners – the brainchild of President George H W Bush in America in 1990. And so, on every weekday since then, the prime minister has recognised a volunteer with a letter and certificate. So far, there have been 1,796 recipients.

The first was Storm Wallace, who rushed to action when flooding hit Portland, Dorset, in February 2014, co-ordinating the clean-up operation. The most recent, this week, was Keira Arnold, 13, from Oldham, who created “Keira’s Wishes” to fund activities and gifts for local hospice residents in memory of her father, who spent his final months at Dr Kershaw’s Hospice, Royton.

The stories make up an extraordinary and eclectic combination of good deeds, from young and old. Sixteen-year-old conservationist Kabir Kaul from London says he was “very honoured and overwhelmed” to be honoured in March last year, after creating the first interactive map of more than 1,000 nature reserves and wildlife spaces in the capital, about which the Prime Minister wrote: “I know you do this with no thought of praise or reward, but allow me to offer my own recognition of how through ‘Kaul of the Wild’ you are inspiring others with your passion.”

This month, Laura and Julia Coryton, 28, twins from Devon, won awards for campaigning against the tampon tax – the five per cent rate of VAT that applied to sanitary products and was abolished in January this year. “We were really excited,” says Laura. “When we started our campaign in 2014, it was challenging to secure any parliamentary engagement because many were put off the subject. Today, there is such a difference, as the Prime Minister is signing our letter of congratulations for ending the tampon tax. It’s amazing.”

Laura and Julia Coryton
Laura and Julia Coryton

Daniel Raven-Ellison, 41, has spent the last seven years campaigning to make London the world’s first National Park City. He was recognised two months ago and describes it as “a real honour”. When Johnson was Mayor of London, he’d previously written to Raven-Ellison to say his plan was impossible.

“When I started, people said the idea was bonkers,” he says. “So to be supported by the establishment in this way is actually a really big step forward. When Boris Johnson says, ‘Congratulations’, it helps give strength to what it is we want to achieve.”

One of the oldest recipients is Normandy veteran Mervyn Kersh, who served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps during the D Day landings and helped survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was the 1,368th person honoured on May 8, 2020 – to coincide with the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The 96-year-old, who lives in north London, was sent his award for his work going into schools and educating children about the Second World War and received a letter from Boris Johnson that praised his mission to help “them to understand that they live in a free country not by happy chance or accident, but because of the struggle and sacrifice of your generation. I am lost in admiration for your tireless efforts.”

“I had never heard of it before and the letter came as a complete surprise,” he said. “Thrilling, I think is the word.”

There are Commonwealth Points of Light, too. In 2019, 11-year-old Hunter Mitchell, a fundraiser for injured rhinos, and Jade Bothma, 13, who turned plastic litter from the sea into eco-bricks to build houses for homeless people, were given their awards in Cape Town by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their royal tour of South Africa.

Jade Bothma and Hunter Mitchell with the Sussexes - Facundo Arrizabalaga - Pool/Getty Images
Jade Bothma and Hunter Mitchell with the Sussexes - Facundo Arrizabalaga - Pool/Getty Images

So how are the recipients elected? The Prime Minister’s Office asks people to write in, nominating an inspirational volunteer. A selection of nominees are then forwarded to the prime minister.

“The correspondence section are brilliant. They give you a round-up every week [of letters] and show you everything, from the mad to the sad to the very funny,” David Cameron tells me.

Even before the Points of Light initiative, prime ministers regularly wrote to members of the public. David Cameron says: “The correspondence section, along with private secretaries, suggest thank yous and out-of-the-blues, congrats, commems [commemorations of admirable figures who have recently died] and everything else in-between.

“I remember promising to write to every medal winner at the 2012 London Olympics, which turned into a fairly massive exercise. More tragic are the handwritten letters to every fallen serviceman or woman, and their families. Sadly, in Afghanistan, this could be several every day.”

The practice of writing to relations of those who have died in battle has long been a practice of prime ministers.

In his six years in No 10, Cameron says that two correspondents stand out. One was Kirsty Howard, who raised more than £7.5 million for Francis House Children’s Hospice in Manchester, and sadly died in 2015, aged 20, having been born with her heart back to front. “She was an absolute sweetheart,” says Cameron.

He also fondly remembers writing to Niamh Riley from Manchester. In 2010, aged six, she sent her tooth-fairy money – a pound coin taped to a letter – to the former PM, saying she wanted to help him “make the country better and pay for jobs”. Cameron wrote back, telling her to spend the money on something nice or start saving for the future – which she did, putting the coin in her money box.

Niamh Riley, pictured with her mother Regina in 2010, tugged on David Cameron's heartstrings - Dave Thompson/PA Wire
Niamh Riley, pictured with her mother Regina in 2010, tugged on David Cameron's heartstrings - Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Another keen letter-writer was Margaret Thatcher. She often wrote to members of the public, as Charles Moore reveals in his biography. In 1983, after laser treatment on a detached retina, she received over 1,000 letters from well-wishers. Helped by the Garden Room staff in Downing Street, she wrote thank yous to every single one.

In 1985, just after the end of the coal-miners’ strike, she wrote to the wife of a Staffordshire miner, Terry Hackett, who had refused to take part in the action. She had already thanked Mr Hackett but wanted to thank her, too, because she knew “how much he values the help and support which you have given him throughout this difficult time”.

Thatcher knew the potentially explosive effect of sending a letter with No 10’s printed insignia to a mining community. And so she wrote a covering letter to her staff, saying, “Please send in plain envelope.”

So watch out next time the post thumps on to your doormat – that innocent-looking letter might have come direct from Downing Street.

Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)

Visit pointsoflight.gov.uk to nominate someone for a Points of Light award.

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