History

From politeness to courtesy

A brief history of the National Campaign for Courtesy

by Edward Thomas

In 1986, the Rev Ian Gabriel Gregory was Minister of the Congregational Church at Basford, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Among his congregation were returnees from two years’ work in Singapore. They expressed astonishment at how unpleasant people here had become compared with the smiles and gentle courtesy with which they had been greeted in the Far East. They said that coming home to the sullen and surly resentment which seemed to characterise much of Britain’s service sector felt like being hit with a bucket of cold water.

Ian Gregory knew immediately what they meant and was spurred into forming a group of like-minded people. A former newspaper man himself, he offered a letter to his local paper and received considerable supportive response.

In the September of the same year, businessman Gerry Hanson was driving into London and heard Ian Gregory on the radio putting forward his ideas. He wrote offering his support as did a few hundred others. Gerry Hanson was to discover that almost every letter included the sentiment: ‘I thought I was the only person left who cared.’

Hanson then received a call from Ian Gregory in which he was invited to join him and a couple of dozen other equally enthusiastic correspondents at the hotel in Oxford made famous by Inspector Morse, the Randolph. From the meeting, The Polite Society was formed. In the initial stages Gregory worked as a one-man band, supported by his devoted wife, Tricia. Between them they acted as chairman, secretary, treasurer and general dogsbody.

Another interested participant of the time was eminent barrister Francis Bennion who offered to steer the society through the labyrinths of the Charity Commission. The offer was accepted, the society became a Registered Charity and, in Gerry Hanson’s words, ‘ceased to be a kitchen table set-up’. Hanson himself became the first official chairman, in which post he was to remain for twelve years.

The media started taking more notice, but not necessarily seriously. Barely concealed ridicule was frequently the order of the day. ‘Oh, we’ve got to watch our Ps and Qs with the next item’ was usually the refrain heard by the presenters of the local radio stations involved. One man who did take Ian Gregory seriously was Jimmy Young, who interviewed him on his Radio 2 programme. That produced more interest and membership.

Other personnel began to arrive and were enlisted.
Retired librarian Bernard Stradling of Cheltenham was brought in as the first treasurer. Gill Mackenzie from Henley-on-Thames became the first secretary. Gradually Ian Gregory was relieved of the day-to-day administration to concentrate on the creative side of the society.

A National Day of Courtesy was established, on the first Friday in each October, to focus attention on the behavioural problems of the nation. A different theme was adopted each year. Gerry Hanson recalls that one year the highlight centred on the importance of showing gratitude and the slogan adopted was ‘Think of someone to thank’. In the very early days Frank Bruno’s services were enlisted for the day and the theme was: ‘Frank’s a Million.’

In 1996 The Polite Society joined forces with the R.A.C. and the Highways Agency in an attempt to ‘De-rage the Roads’. Edmund King of the R.A.C., now at the A.A., was particularly encouraging and joined several of our meetings. Among the results, the Highways Agency allowed the motorway network to display messages appropriate to the day. Motorists therefore found themselves faced with variable signs such as ‘Courtesy Day’, ‘Keep Clear’, and ‘Keep Your Distance’. They were days when John Humphrys was still reading the television BBC Nine O’clock News and the campaign was featured significantly with Gerry Hanson interviewed on the national network.

The exercise was repeated in May 1998, which induced interest from the Guild of Experienced Motorists, now GEMotoring Assist. One of their officers, David Williams, who has since become the organisation’s C.E.O., had already joined the society as a member and is now its vice-chairman.

It has been a constant surprise that no matter what representations have been made, the society has never been injected with mass cash support. Gerry Hanson again: ‘Despite the millions that the world of commerce spends on customer care programmes, no organisation has yet seen the merit in allying itself to the cause of courtesy.’

Nonetheless Gregory and Hanson were always keen to accentuate the positive wherever possible. Thus began the awarding of certificates for courteous service, which continues apace. The theme was extended with audits of restaurants and Ian Gregory was invited to Perth to do a city audit. It was named ‘21st century City of Courtesy’ in 2004. That spurred publicity with radio broadcasts involving society members and the Provost of Perth. A similar accolade was addressed to Cardiff which was proclaimed ‘The Courtesy Capital of Wales’. Currently Robert Zarywacz is adopting a similar technique with regard to Ilfracombe in south west England, of which he is the regional executive: a post whose creation is one of the developments that have taken place over the years.

In 2007 Ian Gregory retired from secretarial work, having taken it on following the untimely death of Gill Mackenzie in 1999. Chairmen have come and gone and today the reins are held by Peter G Foot, former newspaper man – like Ian Gregory – but also former show producer and show business agent. Peter it is who is putting the ‘national’ into the campaign by establishing regional executives around the country. For indeed as personnel have changed, the same has occurred with titles.

In 1996 it was decided, though not unanimously, that the time had come to let go of the word ‘polite’ which Ian Gregory felt had begun to acquire pejorative connotations, as in: ‘He’s only saying that to be polite.’ Much debate and heart-searching took place and the name The Campaign for Courtesy emerged and was established. In the most recent of years, it was further decided that to give the society even more kudos, it should become The National Campaign for Courtesy. The Charity Commissioners took some persuading but came round to the notion and that is the name for which the society has currently settled.