When Christian philanthropists John and Rosemary Lancaster met Howard Taylor, former head of fundraising for Mission Aviation Fellowship, he left unable to believe what had happened… he’d been promised an aircraft!
The mission flies small planes to remote parts of the world delivering goods, ferrying injured people to hospital, and providing a service no national airline would consider.
As they sat chatting, John asked Howard: “If resources were no problem, what would you really want to purchase for MAF?”
Howard produced a brochure for a Pilatus aircraft and explained that it could seat 12 people, can travel much further than the smaller Cessna, MAF’s usual aircraft, but using the same amount of fuel and it needed only a short airstrip, landing easily on rough ground. He was obviously hopeful that the couple would agree to give something towards the massive cost.
Instead, John and Rosemary looked at each other and John said: “Let’s go for it.”
The couple were about to spend £1.86 million on a Pilatus PC12.
When they visited the aircraft in the factory in Switzerland, Rosemary wept as she saw two small plaques on the wall of the plane’s interior.
One contained the words from the book of Joshua in the Bible: “Be strong… for the Lord your God will be with you.” The other was a dedication to their grandson, Joshua. At the time, Rosemary said: “Joshua was a great leader and we thought it apt to call the aircraft Leader.”
The couple, who had both had tough childhoods, had set up Ultraframe in Clitheroe, Lancashire, making conservatories using what was then a new product, UPVC. As the company prospered, they established alongside it a charitable arm, the Lancaster Foundation. It was that charity which was to revolutionise the mission work MAF was able to do.
My personal introduction to the Lancasters was over the telephone. As a journalist I wrote the quarterly magazine for MAF in my spare time and I documented the purchase of the Pilatus for the publication, chatting to John on a number of occasions.
I could not fail to be impressed by what a couple of committed Christians were able to do with a large company, putting such a slice of their income into a charity to provide for the needy.
Rosemary and John have now retired but six years ago Rosemary began to put down on paper her reflections on their family history for the benefit of their grandchildren. It has now been published as a book – Give the Best Away – which is a wonderful reminder of my early connection but more than that, a beautifully constructed précis of their lives and some of the organisations and individuals they have helped over the years.
Rosemary’s early life in Clitheroe and John’s struggle to make good after failing the 11-plus, are graphically covered including the time they set up Ultraframe, living for some years in a caravan while converting an old barn into a family home at the same time as running the fledgling company.
It also covers the day in 1997 when the growing company was floated on the London Stock Exchange for £136 million – benefiting each of their workers on average £20,000 because of the shares they had been given.
It was that generosity of spirit which led the couple to start the charity and even though they have retired and sold Ultraframe the charity lives on, helping and encouraging others.
The book lists the many organisations they have supported over the years – including buying two more aircraft for MAF, helping build Sparrow Rainbow, the first AIDS village in the world in South 103 Africa, giving fresh hope to abandoned children living on the squalid rubbish tips of Eldoret, Kenya, and even buying the Grand Cinema in Clitheroe for a theatre and arts project.
There are tearful moments with African children, and happy times as their various projects overseas and in the UK come to fruition.
The Foundation supports development work overseas, social action projects in the UK, youth projects – particularly those with a Christian ethos – and the local community of Clitheroe and surrounding districts.
Rosemary also deals graphically with her own mental health problem after needing surgery during a most frustrating spell of being batted from department to department in hospital at Blackburn.
The book concludes with John being given an honorary doctorate by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, being made an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list and then Rosemary being made an MBE herself, by Prince William at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace in recognition for her charitable work through the Lancaster Foundation.
The couple’s faith is a fundamental reason for all the projects they have personally been involved in – including one of their earliest adventures smuggling Bibles into Russia in a secret compartment in a caravan, in the days when such books were seen as dangerous.
This is a book showing a couple with an adventurous spirit, but with such caring hearts that those they are able to touch are blessed and enriched.
And while they have a holiday home in Switzerland for part of the years their hearts still lie in Clitheroe.
Give the Best Away, by Rosemary Lancaster with Murray Watts, is available to buy from Amazon £14.99 Amazon