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Ex-Police Officer Devotes her Retirement to Helping Others

Hospice volunteer Penny Bassett has dedicated her life to serving the community.

Compassion for her fellow human beings has been an enduring aspect of her career, her family life and her busy retirement. Here we follow her journey from growing up in Devon in the ‘60s, joining the police force, becoming a mother and grandmother – and now her vital volunteering role at ellenor.

Values Learned in Childhood

Penny was born in 1956 in Exmouth, the youngest of three children. Her childhood instilled a strong work ethic and a fundamental respect for others.

She said: “My childhood was lovely; we lived by the sea and my parents had a guest house. My dad was a landscape gardener and mum worked as a nurse in the village hospital. It was a good upbringing and I learned not to be scared of hard work.

“I also went to a girls’ convent school. If you have been taught by nuns, nothing much scares you in life after that! I left home at 17 to do a nursing course at college in Exeter, but although I enjoyed the bedside part, talking to patients and so on, I found I couldn’t cope with personal care. I think I was just too young.

“My sister had left five years before me to join the police, so I decided to follow in her footsteps. On April 8, 1974, I left home for good with three suitcases. I said goodbye at the station to mum and dad and off I went. I was just coming up to 18.”

A Career in the Police Force

Penny started her training at Maidstone because Devon and Cornwall Police did not recruit female officers.

She said: “I had never even heard of Kent, let alone been there. Luckily I made friends with another girl on the course and her family took pity on me and invited me to stay with them.”

In May 1975, Penny was made up to a police constable and during the subsequent 13-week training period she met her husband-to-be Tony.

She said: “At the end of 13 weeks I was a fully-fledged officer on two years’ probation, dealing with all sorts of things including traumatic events like fatal accidents. We always wore skirts, never trousers, and women didn’t work after 2am. We were often given missing persons cases, until they realised us girls were just as capable as the men. When equal pay came in, we were of course expected to work the same shifts as the men and do the same work.”

Penny and Tony were married in 1979 and bought their first house in Gravesend. When their daughter Charlotte was born in 1982, Penny gave up work as it was not possible then to have a part-time position in the Police Force. They later had a son, Christopher, and both children are now happily married with children of their own. Tony went on to complete 30 years in the Police Force.

Penny said: “People often say police marriages are very difficult to achieve, especially longevity, but Tony’s my best friend – I’m very lucky. My background in the police meant that I understood what it was like for him, which definitely helped. He did all sorts of things in his career including policing the miners’ strikes. Often I didn’t know if he would be coming back to us.”

Penny later worked as a store detective in Debenhams, then took a civilian job in the front office at Gravesend Police Station. Before long she was in the control room and then she was promoted to the Intelligence Unit, where Tony worked.

She said: I was in the police service for 32 years in all, eight of them as a police officer and 26 as a civilian. My last job until I retired was as an intel co-ordinator stationed at Bluewater, which I really enjoyed. We set up a community shop there for people from all the different organisations.”

Giving Something Back

In 2016, Penny had a “wake-up call” when she was diagnosed with cancer.

“I was out with a friend one day and she asked what the mark on my arm was – it looked like a raised blister. She told me to go to the doctor and I did. He removed it but then he phoned me at work. It was skin cancer, a melanoma, one of the worst kinds, and I was very scared. I have red hair and what they call 'Type One skin', so I’m more susceptible to this sort of thing. It probably goes back to when I was young, sunbathing on the beach, rubbing in coconut oil. Sunscreen was not invented; the creams were just designed to make you go brown.

“I had a big chunk of my arm removed in the hospital and then I had regular all-over body checks for four years. My friend Sally saved my life. And once everything was OK, I decided I wanted to give something back. If things had been different, I could have found myself in a hospice bed. I’m one of the lucky ones.”

Penny had heard so much about the good work that ellenor does, so in 2018 Penny went online to look at roles at ellenor and decided to start volunteering.

“After completing all the training and paperwork, I worked on the ward, making tea and talking to patients and their families. Working for the police for all those years taught me how to talk to people, and the police diversity training is also so good.

“Until the pandemic, I worked at ellenor every Wednesday. My family always come first, but they knew that was my hospice day. Now the volunteers are able to come back to the hospice, I have decided to work in the café and on reception. I love it. It makes you feel good to give your time.

“I knew when I retired that I wouldn’t be satisfied with a life of coffee mornings. Volunteering at ellenor means I’m still able to use my skills. The police force taught me how to listen, and people at the hospice often open their hearts to you, not just the patients, but their families too. Another thing I learnt in the police is absolute discretion – an important skill in itself.”

Penny is delighted to be back volunteering at ellenor now the Covid restrictions have eased and is busy trying to recruit her friends.

She said: “Just because you retire, you don’t have to hang up your hat. It’s a new life, a new direction.”

Follow in Penny's footsteps... 

Volunteers play an important role within our organisation. We value the contribution our volunteers make and wouldn’t be able to offer the services and care without their help and commitment.

We’re always looking for new volunteers to join our team so whatever your skills and experience, become an ellenor volunteer.


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