Dave Ferris: neighbourhood worker who led collective action and fostered a community spirit

By Nick Bailey, Helen Haigh, and Mairi Mills

Dave Ferris (left) with partner Adrian Dowson.

Dave Ferris, who died in April, was a community worker at the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre for more than two decades, and was highly regarded by his colleagues and the management of the organisation.

Generous in spirit, and genuinely democratic, it was his idea that the neighbourhood workers operate as a collective, but he was also a leader who pulled everyone together.

Though Dave would refer to himself as grumpy, he was generally charming, witty, and always had time for everyone. He nearly always wore sandals, but was definitely not a hippy. In his spare time he loved to listen to classical music and visit the theatre.

Dave was born in Canada in 1942 and graduated with a degree from the University of Alberta. He came to London in 1969 and took a diploma in youth and community studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He later worked on community projects in Wandsworth and Battersea.

In the autumn of 1976 he was interviewed for the post of neighbourhood worker in the Neighbourhood Centre which had opened at 39 Tottenham Street the previous year by the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association (FNA).

Dave had an excellent record of community and advice work and was duly appointed and began work in January 1977 with Rebecca Plato, and Tina Reid. Helen Haigh joined the team from 1978 to 1980. When Tina moved on, Terry Rich (from 1979 to 1987) was recruited.

Dave managed to keep on top of the four key strands of activity: providing an advice centre specializing in welfare benefits, housing and immigration law; bringing together a disparate group of residents’ and tenants’ associations on both sides of the borough boundary; making collective representations to both Camden and Westminster on a wide variety of planning, environmental and licensing issues; and enabling new organisations for groups such as children and pensioners.

In 1977 he wrote: “The great attraction of this job is its variety and open-endedness: there is an almost infinite number of situations we could find ourselves involved in. But that open-endedness also poses the greatest difficulty of the job: how to decide from moment to moment what is the best use of our limited time and energies?”

During a period when both Camden and Westminster provided funding for the FNA, Dave ensured the grants continued despite sensitive political differences between the boroughs’ different local priorities.

He fostered real community development — often through events and parties — because he held the philosophy of grassroots work over top down, and funding-led priorities. He also had the acumen to identify pro bono advisers in specialist fields.

When businesses and the councils started to develop their ideas, exploiting the community spirit, Dave was consistent in pointing out that “the people live here” and resisted co-option by corporate Fitzrovia.

One of the people Dave drew into the FNA’s work was his partner Adrian who was instrumental in fundraising in the nineties, setting up a parachute jump which raised vital funds to support the organisation. Adrian, a talented artist, contributed graphic art for Fitzrovia News’ pre-computer editions, and his artwork also featured in annual reports.

When computers arrived at the Neighbourhood Centre, Dave became enamoured with database development, and again led the rest of the team — who included Samina Dewan, Mairi Mills and then Nicola Charalambous — and adapted his skills and knowledge.

Every year the three neighbourhood workers would go to Dave’s sunny Bloomsbury flat to talk without interruption and put the annual report together. It was a collective effort but Dave played the most crucial role of all.

His commitment to the local community was very strong and his thoroughness in helping people who were often living in extremely difficult situations was unquestionable.

As an out gay man, he was outraged by Clause 28’s “pretend family relationships”, and valued his chosen family. He would send warm and funny handmade birthday cards from ferrisdowson publications.

As local authority grants got smaller each year he would spend more time working late and often on Saturdays writing funding applications trying to keep the organisation afloat. The strain affected his physical and mental well-being and he eventually took the difficult decision to announce his early retirement.

After his retirement in 2000 he went to work part-time at a community project in Waterloo. He returned to work for the FNA from time to time — happier and refreshed — as a consultant, and in 2003 he proudly joined his former colleagues at the march against the Iraq war.

Later Dave and his long-time companion Adrian moved out of their top floor flat in Bury Place and into retirement housing at the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury.

In his mid-70s he suffered a number of strokes and after suffering a short illness he died at University College Hospital in April. He leaves behind a brother Jim and sister Heather in Canada, and long-time companion Adrian in London.

The Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association was forced out of the Neighbourhood Centre at the end of June 2019 by Camden Council who wanted vacant possession of it. The Grade II listed building has remained empty, boarded up, and a heritage asset at risk ever since.

Dave Ferris: born Windsor, Ontario, Canada 1942; died London April 2020.