Oldest town finds new community spirit as Colchester bonds during lockdown

You can watch Charlie Frost's report here.

NHS workers in Colchester Credit: ITV Anglia

Coronavirus has changed our lives inexplicably over the last few weeks, restricting our freedoms and in the worst cases, taking our loved ones. But while Covid-19 has many negative consequences, the virus has also brought out the best in communities. Nowhere more so than in Colchester, where residents believe a group, which started out as a cheekily named Facebook group, rebelling against panic buying, has brought back community spirit to Britain's oldest town.

‘Colchester’s Anti-Loo Roll Brigade’ began in March, setup by local scaffolder Peter Dutch. He didn’t have high expectations, but had faith that more people in the community wanted to help one another, than they did panic buy or hoard for themselves. He was right - and his group has gone from strength to strength. It’s become a place where Colchester residents can lean on one another for anything, from food shopping, to furniture, or simply a smile.

The lockdown has brought fresh community spirit in Britain's oldest town Credit: ITV Anglia

'I set it up as a reaction, to seeing videos of everybody scrambling for the toilet rolls and thought, that can't be right, there must be nicer people. We've managed to provide a support network all around the town that simply wasn't there before and people that were stuck, isolated aren't isolated and stuck anymore, they've now got friends in their road, they've got people getting their prescriptions, their food and it's just alleviated a lot of stress and a lot of worry for a lot of people.'

Peter Dutch, Founder ‘Colchester Anti-Loo Roll Brigade’
Peter Dutch, the founder of ‘Colchester’s Anti-Loo Roll Brigade’ Credit: ITV Anglia
The Bizzell family found themselves searching for Jake's favourite food Credit: ITV Anglia

Amelia Bizzell was one of the first to post on the Anti-Loo Roll Brigade page. She was asking for help finding custard for her brother Jake who has cerebral palsy. Jake’s favourite dessert is cake, and he needs the custard to help him swallow. And it is important he has dessert as keeping his weight up is a constant concern for his family. With the panic buying at the start of the pandemic Amelia and her mother Natalie couldn’t find custard anywhere.

Jake Bizzell's family were touched when the community rallied round to source his favourite food Credit: ITV Anglia

I put the post on Facebook, I think it was 11 o'clock at night and I woke up the next morning and I must have had 60 messages saying to me ‘where are you?’, ‘how can I help?’, ‘what's the situation?’ And from the minute I woke up there were people coming round dropping it on my doorstep. It's been lovely.'

Amelia Bizzell - Jake’s sister

'It's been wonderful, just makes you so proud to live in such a wonderful town and all the kind people that are out there.'

Natalie Napier - Jake’s mum
Colchester Castle Credit: ITV Anglia

Now with more than 7,500 members, big or small the group continues to find ways to solve every problem thrown at it, and sometimes, within minutes. From replacing stolen bicycles of NHS workers, to finding temporary houses for two families whose homes became unusable after fires.

It’s also cultivated friendships and new connections across the town. Colchester’s Bangladeshi community reached out to the group, wanting to cook meals for NHS and care workers. Now, the group delivers those meals weekly to the hospital and other facilities. People are beginning to know their neighbours better than they ever have, something that’s got a little lost in recent decades.

It also has a campaign ‘Get Colchester Covered’ raising thousands for protective equipment for the town’s hospices and care homes. It’s incredibly hard to keep up with the positive work the group is doing, because it increases daily!

The centre of Colchester has been quiet since the lockdown Credit: ITV Anglia

'It's just become this wonderful platform for facilitating kindness and it's just truly heartwarming to be honest with you.'

Peter Dutch, Founder, ‘Colchester Anti-Loo Roll Brigade’

At a time when we are driven apart physically by the fight against the spread of Covid-19, our collective attitude to try to beat it is drawing us together, even if it is digitally or at a social distance for now.

In Colchester it’s hoped this outpouring of compassion and heightened sense of wanting to help one another, the ‘good old fashioned community spirit’, will become the new normal.