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Penny Wade: Worker for the homeless

Beneath a modest, charming, calm exterior, Penny Wade had a will of steel and an unwavering determination to help anyone who needed her help. It is largely thanks to her that there continue to flourish in Richmond, Surrey, the Vineyard Project, an open-access drop-in centre, and Spear (Single Persons Emergency Accommodation in Richmond), an organisation devoted to the homeless.

She was born Penny Ladds, at Frenchay near Bristol, in 1930. Her father was an officer in the Gloucestershire Regiment and in 1932 the family travelled by P&O liner to Mhow in central India. Penny herself described that long-gone way of life, with cook, butler, gardener, "washer man", groom and night-watchman and her own privileged life in the nursery. "My parents taught me to believe that everyone, whatever their colour, should be treated equally," she wrote.

At a later stage Penny's father was stationed in Madras and the family lived in the beautiful Nilgiri Hills, where Penny started her education with postal lessons from England. "It was an idyllic life," she wrote. Back in England, her brother William was born and the whole family left for a posting in Burma.

Penny's first school was in Rangoon, but there was soon talk of a Japanese invasion. Two attacks at Christmas 1941 (when Penny saw "bombers like huge birds of prey" and "the bodies of people killed in the raids") led to the evacuation of the women and children, taking with them only what they could carry. The train to Calcutta was attacked by bandits. "We lay on the floor of the carriage like sardines, as bullets came through the windows."

There is no doubt that these childhood experiences, as well as her training in the 1950s as a nurse at St George's Hospital (then at Hyde Park Corner in London), helped Penny Ladds to cope with the challenges she was to meet in Richmond. She commented herself on the emotional strain for nurses of "dealing with serious illness and death while learning to be calm and detached".

A writer recently referred to "the unquestioned domesticity" of wives in the1950s (compared with "the unquestioned possibilities of the 1970s") – but for our group of women domesticity was never going to be enough. Penny Wade (she had married Robin Wade in 1953) and I met when we were both young mothers, full of idealism and energy, members of the CND and the NCT (then the Natural Childbirth Trust). We shared intense interest in other people's lives. I was always a writer and would suffer from a strong feeling that what Penny was doing was more worthwhile than what I was doing myself.

I went to her ante-natal classes and have always been grateful for learning how to relax. "Relaxation for living" would become an important part of the programme at the Vineyard Project. Richmond – that leafy small town on the Thames on the south-west edge of London – may look affluent and fortunate, but it has always attracted a large number of the dispossessed and unfortunate. One of Penny Wade's colleagues writes: "Many of the regular users of the centre had mental health problems, learning difficulties, alcohol or drug; dependency, were homeless and disadvantaged or lived alone and felt lonely or isolated. Penny had the unique ability to recognise in each person individual needs, strengths and abilities and would help and guide them towards reaching their potential."

Spear was the result of two people (who had spent time at the Vineyard) being found dead on the river bank, after sleeping rough on dangerously cold nights. A survey in the borough found 33 sleeping rough and a further 35 "insecurely housed".

Penny Wade retired from the Vineyard Project in 1995 after 18 years, but continued to be involved in many community projects as a trustee of the Richmond Parish Lands Charity, chair of Spear and as a committee member of Kingston Refugee Network. She was glad to have more time to spend with Robin, who had always been the most supportive of husbands. She took up painting seriously, and they both enjoyed lots of theatre, concerts and travel to Robin's native Australia.

Ann Thwaite

Penny Ladds, community worker: born Bristol 16 March 1930; married 1953 Robin Wade (one son, two daughters); died Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, 22 July 2008.