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Review of the year 2020: The heartbreaking stories of coronavirus and the tragic loss of others in a year gripped by death

Once the pandemic hit, those who lost their lives to coronavirus were in danger of becoming just faceless statistics charted only on  daily briefing graphs.

The true horror of the virus, and what was at stake as Southwark and the country faced a lockdown, could only truly hit home when we saw and heard the individual stories of those families torn apart by the loss of a loved one.

The News featured just some of the people whose lives were cut short by COVID-19. In April at the height of the pandemic Andy Shelley, Terry Coakley, Kathleen Chaplin, Marguerite Orford and Kayla Williams were no longer just hidden among numbers of COVID deaths. Their names, faces and the stories of how they came to their untimely ends featured in the News, in the hope that people could see just how imperative it was to stay home and save lives.

Then as now hospital deaths and the number of people contracting the virus in London were rising higher and higher.

Despite self-isolating and taking every possible precaution, on day twelve of his lockdown 70-year-old Andy Shelley succumbed to coronavirus – he died a week later alone in St Thomas’ Hospital.

The Irish born great-grandfather, who brought up his family in Bermondsey, living here for past fifty years, had underlying medical issues – but his daughter Michelle says he could not have done any more to protect himself.

Living in Amina Way off St James’s Road with his wife Nora, the pair had received their letters from the NHS telling them that because they suffered from certain conditions they were to self-isolate for twelve weeks.

“Dad was a typical man of his generation and time and enjoyed going out twice a week for a pint, usually to the Old Bank in the Blue, but he was serious about keeping to the rules. We knew this when he was not even tempted to go out for St Patrick’s Day,” Michelle told the News.

Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, COPD and heart problems, Andy knew that he could be in danger, but with three children, seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren Michelle said he loved being surrounded by his family and was not going to take any chances.

Unusually at that time his wife and Michelle were able to see him, “but we were all suited and booted with masks. He perked up again, but an hour and half after we left he died,” Michelle said.

Aged just 34, Terry Coakley’s sudden death shocked friends in Bermondsey, who immediately set about raising money for a plaque and a donation to the doctors and nurses who battled to save him for over two weeks at St Thomas’ Hospital.

His younger sister Toni, who grew up with him on the Longfield Estate, spoke to the News saying: “If you can take anything away from this, it is the need to look after yourselves, protect yourselves and do as you are told.”

For his mother Joanne and father David, as well as his other brother, also called David, and girlfriend Amy, this tragedy was made all the more heart wrenching as they were not able to hold his hand and sit with him as he battled the pandemic.

Only seeing him through glass, the family were allowed to call as often as they liked and spent the entire two weeks waiting for updates. Toni continued: “You can’t do anything to help. I went around cleaning his flat, getting it ready for when he came home. Mum had just one video call with the consultant to explain what the machines were for. Mum was able to visit after he passed away, but just briefly. It is all so impersonal. But the doctors and nurses have been fantastic. They tried their very best.”

His father David added: “All we wanted to do was to give him a cuddle and you can’t do that. Everything is on the phone.”

Terry did have asthma, but Toni says it was by no means the worst. He was not taking daily tablets and when he did get ill before what would normally take someone a week to get over it took Terry two. “Terry got access to all the treatments while in intensive care for two weeks and actually died of a heart attack,” Toni explained.

“People need to understand the severity, more and more young people are losing their lives. Once you get coronavirus, because of the high temperature and dehydration you need kidney dialysis, it’s not just your lungs.

“My children have asthma a lot worse, and have to have daily steroids, so as a parent this makes me extremely worried. Entering my house you shower from head to toe, wash with Dettol. I can’t risk it. Some people have said that it is extreme but I say I have lost my brother.”

Even for those who did not die from coronavirus the lockdown prevented grieving families from giving their loved ones the funeral they deserved.

Bill, pictured in August 2019, as he spoke to the News

In April tributes were paid from over the world to an old-school Bermondsey gentleman who passed away aged 91.

Bill Brenland was well-known around Bermondsey’s Blue, where he had lived for nearly five decades before sadly passing away from pneumonia.

But he was known further afield too, for videos on local history on YouTube, which his daughter Sally uploaded for him.

Bill was born in 1928, and had his formative years during the war. Like many of that generation, he knew tragedy as a result of the Blitz.

On the first day of the bombing, Bill had been out playing outdoors with his sister. His father went looking for him but was forced to shelter inside Keeton’s Road School. The school took a direct hit – and Bill’s dad was among those killed.

Sadly, because of the coronavirus pandemic, only ten people were allowed to attend Bill’s funeral on April 9, with others watching over the internet.

“I would’ve given him the biggest funeral Bermondsey has ever seen, but because of the circumstances we weren’t able to,” says Sally.

She placed a plaque to Bill in her home in the New Forest – and a candle she lit in his memory on the day of the funeral has not gone out.

“It’s a life to celebrate, not to mourn,” says Sally. “He was my dad and my best friend. He was a friend to all and an enemy to no-one – proper old school, they don’t make men like that any more.

“He would’ve said: ‘Farewell Bermondsey and Rotherhithe – until we meet again.’”

The situation in care homes brought untold hardship to families across Southwark and beyond. Bermondsey’s Kathleen Chaplin is believed to be one of three people to die in quick succession in her care home from coronavirus and her family had little to no contact as the lockdown stopped them from visiting.

The 91-year-old had been used to seeing her family since she moved into the Riverlee Care and Nursing Home in Blackheath suffering from dementia.

“I would take mum out every couple of days,” her daughter Sally told the News.

“Even with the lockdown we were popping by every three or four days with grapes and whatever mum needed, but we could not see her as it would just upset her. I don’t think she would be able to understand why we were not coming in. And she was not one for FaceTime or Skype. We tried it, but I don’t think the home were prepared for it; and mum, even with the dementia, was old school.”

For Sally and her brother John the only time they got to physically see her was when she was laid to rest, back in Bermondsey at Albins’ funeral home.

“When she was taken into Lewisham Hospital we called two or three times a day. The nurses would tell mum we would be in later. It was heartbreaking,” Sally said. “I just wanted to be there to hold her hand.”

Kathleen was hospitalised once she got a chest infection and after exactly one week she passed away on April 1.

Towards the end of April the Health Secretary Matt Hancock made a huge change, announcing families would be able to visit dying loved ones. “Wanting to be with someone you love at the end of their life is one of the deepest human instincts and it’s a moment that can be with you forever.

“Done right it can help those left behind and it brings comfort to those that are dying,” he said.

During the Downing Street briefing he said that the death of Ismail Abdulwahab from Brixton at King’s College Hospital affected him deeply.

“I have been really moved and upset by some of the heartbreaking stories of people dying without a loved one nearby. As the father of a thirteen-year-old myself the reports of Ismail, dying aged thirteen without a parent by his bedside made me weep,” he said.

Marguerite in her land army days

The change came too late for the family of Marguerite Orford, who lost their mother in March. COVID-19 was listed as a contributing factor to her death in St Thomas’ after she suffered a stroke and complications from other long-term conditions while living in Tower Bridge Care Home In Bermondsey.

She was only meant to stay in the home on a temporary basis after moving in the previous November for rehabilitation for a badly broken bone.

Marguerite had sustained the injury while living in her specially adapted south Bermondsey flat, where she had lived for decades after moving from the demolished old Bonamy Estate.

Although unable to hold her during her illness and last moments they were asked to visit both the hospital and home after her death to collect Marguerite’s belongings.

“If it’s a lockdown, it’s lockdown,” George told the News before health secretary Matt Hancock’s change of heart.

“I don’t understand why you can’t have people visiting a home or hospital if they take sensible precautions but you can have staff traveling in on public transport and going in and out because it’s ‘essential’. It doesn’t make sense.”

Kayla and Fabian

In April we also highlighted the tragic events surrounding the death of a Camberwell mum-of-three Kayla Williams, who died from suspected COVID-19 after being refused hospital treatment by paramedics.

Well-wishers set up a fundraising page to help cover the funeral costs for 36-year-old.

Kayla had been unwell for days with a temperature, cough and stomach pains when she was told she was not an urgent enough case for hospital treatment.

Her bereaved husband, Fabian, had called 999 on Friday, March 20 after she rapidly deteriorated – telling the sole paramedic who arrived that she desperately needed help.

She was advised to rest up and take paracetamol.

The next day her distraught husband found her lifeless in the living room.

“On Friday I got up during the night and I kept watching her. On Saturday morning she was so weak she couldn’t move.

“Later I took her to the bathroom, I put her in the bath and brought her back after, and kept checking on her. I slept for about 20 minutes and when I looked in on her she had died.”

Although neither were tested for COVID-19, medics arrived in full hamzat suits and her medical notes are reported to have listed COVID-19 as the suspected cause of her symptoms.

As in all years the heart-rending accounts of people dying were not always confined to coronavirus in 2020.

Left, JR with daughter Nevaeh

Tributes were paid to a ‘smiley and bubbly’ Bermondsey man who sadly died of a sudden pulmonary ebolism, leaving his fiancee and seven-year-old daughter devastated.

Easton Jr Shagourie Gayle – known as JR to friends – sadly passed away on April 12, aged only 35.

JR and fiancee, Lisa  Burgess  had been working in childcare together, before his career took a separate path. “We were both in child care, we got on so well and then we got together – that was nearly ten years ago,” Lisa said.

JR popped the question on February 13 2019, but tragically, before the big day could arrive, he fell ill suddenly.  Arrangements for the wedding had not yet been made, his loving fiancee told the News. “Because we’re young, you just think, ‘We’ve got our whole life, so that can come later,’” she said.

The former Mayoress of Southwark Cleo Arnes  sadly died of cancer aged just 40.

Holding the mayoress post at Southwark Council between 2006/7, she was remembered by her colleagues for bringing “a sense of youth and glamour” to the role.

She was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, a type of blood cancer, five years ago, and had been receiving treatment, but passed away in August.

Karla Pappon was assistant special educational needs coordinator at The Charter School North Dulwich
Ruby, just weeks before she died

2020 was a year of double tragedy for the Charter School in Dulwich after Karla Pappon, an assistant special educational needs coordinator passed away in October.

She was involved in an accident during a London to Brighton sponsored ride with nineteen other members of staff in September, held in honour of a former student, head girl Ruby Fuller, 18, who died in May from leukaemia.

More than £15,000 was raised towards research into new blood cancer treatments in memory of Ruby.



  1. So sad what is happening, and we have these thoughtless people in Bermondsey that keep saying it’s a conspiracy and not wearing masks, keep bombarding fb with there conspiracies in my eyes they are nothing but Morons, let’s hope they don’t go running to th NHS

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