Obituaries overlook Casey’s inspired work in London housing

JOHN HOWES remembers an Irish Catholic bishop who scandalised the church, but who had laid foundations in south London to help find homes for thousands of families

The obituaries of Eamonn Casey, the former Bishop of Galway, concentrated on the scandal of his having fathered a child in 1975. That story did not break until 1992, when Casey’s son was 17 years old, but it caused Casey’s resignation as a bishop and his temporary and self-imposed banishment to missionary work in Ecuador.

Eamonn Casey in 1980: his work in London in the 1960s helped to established one of the country’s biggest housing associations

But homeless families in Croydon and elsewhere in Britain have reason to remember Casey, who died on March 13, aged 89, with lasting gratitude.

As a young priest, he was sent to England in 1960 to care for the thousands of his fellow Irishmen and women working here. Remembering it causes outrage and shame now when used to highlight the racist attitudes of the times, but there really were some signs outside properties for rent in London in the 1950s and 1960s that said, “No blacks” and “No dogs”, and which often included another line: “No Irish”.

In his parish in Slough, Casey initiated a form of aid for those in poor housing that included advising them how best to spend their money and how to save so that they could solve their housing problems themselves. He also bought a couple of houses and rented the rooms out as flats, charging rents that included compulsory savings to be returned to tenants for deposits when they bought homes of their own.

In 1963, Casey was appointed director of the nascent Catholic Housing Aid Society and set about establishing branches throughout the country. Among the first were in Croydon, Norbury, Norwood, Sydenham and Wandsworth, whose voluntary members held weekly advice sessions for people, whether Catholic or not, who were in poor housing.

Soon they found that advice was not enough and they, too, began to buy and convert houses for their clients. In 1968, with about 30 flats between them, they joined together to form the South London Family Housing Association, or SLFHA.

After amalgamating with other housing associations, and now called Amicus Horizon, this housing association has grown to 28,000 homes throughout south London and the south of England. It is now on the brink of yet another amalgamation, and the new association, to be called Optivo, will still based in Croydon and will have more than 44,000 homes.

The initiative for all this development came from individual men and women, working voluntarily in their spare time, and who shared Eamonn Casey’s inspiration for social justice.

  • John Howes was a co-founder, one-time honorary secretary and later chairman of SLFHA, and knew the bishop well

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