Barbara And Mickey Banner
Barbara And Mickey Banner

How Gravesend Cab Driver Micky and His Late Wife Barbara are Raising Money for ellenor – and Changing the Way Londoners Travel

“She was an ordinary woman, as I’m an ordinary man. We didn’t think we’d do extraordinary things; certainly nothing as extraordinary as this. But we lit the blue touch paper on a firework of unknown size. Then, rather than step back, we lit five more!”

Gravesend-based black cab driver Micky Harris and his wife Barbara were childhood sweethearts. Married for 40 years, they had four children; they did everything together.

But around 18 months ago, Barbara was tragically taken.

Cancer which she’d beaten more than a decade ago came back, and it had spread. ellenor stepped in to care for Barbara in the final days and weeks of her life. She opted to receive that care from the comfort of her own home, with her loving husband by her side.

ellenor spoke to us about our needs, about Barbara’s last wishes – and asked her how, and where, she wanted to be cared for. But they also took time for me. It was my wife who was ill and passing away, but ellenor are fully aware of the effects that life-limiting illness can have upon the patient’s family. ellenor understands that when your loved ones are going, it’s a journey you together – and they supported me so well throughout.”

When Barbara passed away, in Micky’s arms, he was devastated.

“You feel robbed,” he says. “Of your old age, your retirement; you were just working up to it, getting ready for the next stage of your life. The disease takes everything.”

That’s not to say rest and relaxation was what the couple had planned for their retirement, though. Because up until Barbara’s diagnosis, the two had been working on a special project. A project with the potential to disrupt and transform an age-old establishment in one of the world’s oldest cities – while giving back to the people there who need it most.

After becoming frustrated with the exploitative, often unregulated conditions cab drivers had to work under – apps charging both drivers and customers extortionate amounts to book a taxi, for example – the pair came up with a plan.

To build a taxi-booking app that charges customers just £2 (the maximum the regulations permit, although largely ignored by current companies) to reserve a black cab and send it to their pickup location. Instead of ending up in the pockets of private organisations, though, the profits from that £2 booking fee go entirely to the charity of that driver’s choice.

“For the drivers, the app is free to use,” Micky explains. “It’s non-exploitative. For the customers, they’re only paying the metered fare, and they know the small booking fee goes entirely to charity. Our taxis can’t cancel, so the customer can book safe in the knowledge that the taxi will arrive. And it saves them having to venture out into London’s often rainy, cold, windy, dark conditions to flag a taxi down themselves.”

It was Barbara, Micky explains, who was the “driving force” behind the app. As the two waded into the unfamiliar world of app creation and graphic design – starting from scratch but learning as they went – it soon became clear that their idea had wheels. And, even after the losing his life (and business) partner, Micky knew it was his role – his responsibility – to see the app to market.

12 weeks ago, Unify London was launched – and Barbara’s legacy app is already gaining traction with local drivers.

At the time of writing, more than a quarter of all London cabbies have already signed up – a figure that equates to around 3,000 taxis.

Unify London is causing such a splash, in fact, that it’s caught the eye of the Prime Minister. Micky received a Points of Light award from Sunak’s office, an accolade that acknowledges the outstanding work of individual volunteers in the community. Micky and Barbara’s work has also caught the eye of a global advertising company, who are so enchanted with the app’s concept and story that they want to market it to the world on a pro bono basis.

So why has the app already been such a big hit? Micky elaborates.

“When someone proposes doing things a different way – being sensible, rather than greedy – it’s like a breath of fresh air to people. They like it. But we didn’t set out to do that, necessarily – we just wanted to raise money for charity.

“Giving to charities, like ellenor, is what’s most important. The services ellenor provides – not only in terms of care for the patient, but support for their families as well – ensures that people can have the best, most pain-free experience possible when they pass. Hospices like ellenor need to be able to concentrate on that – not be scrambling for beds, PPE, and other medical equipment they need.”

Ensuring ellenor benefits from Unify London’s proceeds is particularly important to Micky, because of the excellent care she received at ellenor.

ellenor was absolutely superb for us. We knew that, when the time came for Barbara to pass away, ellenor’s team would be ready and waiting to assist. ellenor’s services offer such comfort.

When you’re young – when you’re fit, healthy, and don’t need hospice care – you kind of ignore it. But as you get older, and experience more of life, you realise just how important organisations like ellenor are. What a relief it is to have ellenor there – I know it’s kept me going through some extremely dark times.

“But hospices are as underfunded as they are important – and that’s an issue. So if we, with Unify London, can help contribute, it’s brilliant. And at the same time, we’re providing a non-exploitative product that’s free for drivers to access and is cheaper, for the customer, than similar products out there.”

ellenor was one of the first charities Micky added to the app. And he can’t wait to see the money his and his wife’s app generates go to helping fund the organisation that cared for Barbara in the twilight of her life.

As for Micky, he isn’t doing it alone. 

“On her deathbed, Barbara held my hand, and said ‘Make it work, Micky; make it work’. To this day, I still have her on my shoulders. It’s crazy – when things are getting hard, the door will open. A phone will ring, or I’ll get an email – and it’s from the prime minister, or an advertising agency offering to work for free.”

Yes, the other half of the app’s founding pair is looking on. Chances are, too, that she’s enjoying what she’s seeing – and, like the rest of us, can’t wait to see where Unify London’s exciting upward trajectory takes it next.