The chance of a lifetime

A decade ago, The Independent ran a unique competition. We invited our readers to write to the newspaper saying how they would use a prize of up to £30,000 to change their lives. Did the winners' dreams come true? Here and overleaf, Julia Stuart finds out
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Ten years ago, in a "daft moment", Jonathon Croggon wrote a letter and put it in the post, and then forgot all about it. The reply, which arrived three months later, shocked him so much that he had to sit down. He re-read it so many times that he was late for work. The letter was from The Independent, informing him that he had just won £30,000.

Jonathon was one of nearly 5,000 people who had entered a competition The Independent ran in late 1993, when the newspaper was based at its original offices in City Road, east London. Called "Free with The Independent. You", it invited readers to submit a 150-word statement outlining how they would use a cash prize to change their lives - by fulfilling a dream, perhaps, or liberating themselves to take on a new job or complete a long-nurtured project. A panel of five judges, which included Sir Bob Geldof and the designer Katharine Hamnett, would select one winner, who would receive £30,000, and 20 runners-up, half of whom would be awarded £1,000 and half £500.

In due course, the winners were chosen, announced in the newspaper, and travelled to London to receive their prizes from the editor, Andreas Whittam Smith. The projects they were hoping to fund ranged from building a maze, to paying for IVF treatment or travelling to Brazil to conduct the Ribeirao Preto Symphony Orchestra. Now they had the money; the rest was up to them.

So what happened next? Did the money change the contestants' lives, as they had hoped? To find out, we have tracked down as many of the winners as possible.

It's been a slow and sometimes frustrating process. Though one winner, Sue Flood, rang The Independent herself to find out "what had happened in the past 10 years", others proved more elusive. Many had moved house in the past decade; the current owners of their homes didn't know where they might be now. One had died.

However, we have tracked down 10 of our original 21 winners. Their stories are given below. And, if the rest of you are still out there - why not get in touch?


'We had to decide if we should gamble our careers'

Dream: To return, with his brother, to Cornwall in order to save his family's 300-year-old tannery business

In 1993, Jonathon Croggon was 28 and a recently married fund manager who lived in London. For years, he had dreamt of saving his family tannery, J Croggon & Son, in Grampound, Cornwall. Started in 1711 and handed down from father to son (at the time, it was being run by Jonathon's father and uncle), it was one of only two remaining in Britain that still used natural oak-bark tanning methods.

"Margins are tight; the recession has had a devastating effect on the leather market," he wrote in his submission to The Independent. "If this company fails, another of Britain's oldest crafts would take a step into history. Bankers are reluctant to extend loans to such a company. I would spend the money refurbishing and improving the capital stock, and relocating with my brother so we can continue to manage the tannery into the next century. This would be a dream come true."

Jonathon was not the only one to get a shock when the competition's winners were announced. His boss, who read about his intentions in The Independent while on a plane back from New York, summoned him to the office on his return. Understandably, he was concerned that Jonathon would jump ship immediately.

But it wasn't until 1997, when Jonathon's uncle retired and a position became available in the company, that he moved back to Grampound, using the prize money to fund his salary. By then, however, the tannery, which supplied high-quality leather to shoemakers and saddlers, had already begun to change. "In 1994, we had to stop tanning using oak bark, which takes 12 months, in which time anything can happen to your customer base. And then, one of our largest customers was bought by another company and changed all of its suppliers," says Jonathon, now 37.

The firm had to switch to using a different bark, but in 2000, it was forced to close. "The modern methods of finishing saddlery leather in particular became better and cheaper. That was our death knell," explains Jonathon. "The market just went. We tried umpteen things to keep it going, but in the end we had to decide whether or not we should gamble our entire careers on it. At the time, a lot of other tanneries were becoming insolvent; it was frightening and we decided to bow out gracefully."

But it isn't necessarily the end for the tannery. Jonathon hopes to turn it into a museum, a suggestion first made by the council and supported by residents. "A tannery museum would be something to be proud of," says Jonathon. "It's a beautiful building, the historic centre of a pretty village. Most of it is a derelict industrial site, but 10 per cent is a beautiful, intact medieval tan yard."

Jonathon still lives in the village with his family, and has returned to working as a fund manager.


'My luck was changing at last - that's what I needed'

Dream: To join a team filming great white sharks

By the end of 1993, Sue Flood had had terrible year. She had given up her job as a researcher for Survival, the ITV wildlife programme, to work for a freelance cameraman making a documentary on orang-utans in Sumatra. But just days before she was to go, the cameraman died. Soon after, her father underwent triple-bypass surgery; Sue herself was then hospitalised with a stomach bug while teaching in Japan.

She entered the competition in the hope that the money would cover her costs if she went as a runner with a BBC crew which was making a film about great white sharks in South Africa. But even though she didn't win first prize, she "was terribly pleased" to receive the letter telling her she had been awarded £500.

"It felt like my luck was changing; it gave me a real confidence boost," says Sue, who is now 37 and living in Bristol. "And that's what I needed then."

The prize wasn't enough to fund the trip to South Africa or the specialist diving training she would have needed, so she didn't take part in the project. Later that month, she got a contract as a researcher at the BBC's Natural History unit, and spent her winnings on rent instead. She is now a producer for the unit. Sue went on to marry Doug Allan, the cameraman on that great white shark documentary. She has also achieved her ambition; she has just finished working on her own film about great white sharks.


'We'd have cycled a tandem round the world'

Dream: To rebuild the tandem he and his wife used to ride before they were married

In 1993, Ernest and Julie Nelson's bike, a pre-war tandem the courting couple had used, was in bits. Ernest, then living in Tavistock, Essex, won £500, but it wasn't until recently that he finally restored it. If he had won the top prize, he says, he would have cycled round the world with Julie. Now, as then, Ernest, 51, works in human resources, but he and Julie have moved to Munich, Germany. "I'm very pleased I won," he says. "I've still got the 150-word entryup on our wall. There's a happy ending for the tandem, too: my daughter Ruth and her boyfriend are using it for their courtship."


'I painted pictures of flowers in the Azores'

Dream: To complete watercolour drawings of plants on the islands of the mid-Atlantic ridge

According to the judges, David Powell, from Sawston, Cambridge, narrowly missed out on winning the top prize. Nevertheless, the science teacher was "elated" to be a runner-up and win £1,000. He used the money to fly to the Azores, where he spent three weeks painting about a dozen pictures. Now retired, the 65-year-old has returned to the Azores a further four times, and has 75 paintings in his collection, which he plans to pass on to his children. "I was very grateful," he says. "And I would be equally grateful if you sent me another £1,000!"


'I built a preying mantis-like hydrofoil'

Dream: To build a radical new boat for a single-handed transatlantic race

Christopher Dawson, a boat-builder from Scoraig, Wester Ross, Scotland, was another serious contender for the top prize. His ambition was to make a hydrofoil boat for the Singlehanded Transatlantic Race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island. "It wasn't enough to make the full-size boat," says Christopher, now 49 and a maths teacher. "So I made a smaller version, which looked like a sea-going preying mantis which made my neighbours laugh. It was able to hydrofoil and sail, but not at the same time. It doesn't exist any longer but I kept one of its hollow plywood foils hanging on the wall of my workshop. One day, a visiting wind-turbine manufacturer asked me if I could make wind-turbine blades using the same technique. Five years later we are still producing these blades. It has been a good spin-off from the hydrofoil, though not one I had foreseen."

The blades now account for about a third of Christopher's income. "I still think that one day hydrofoils will take off," he says. "And I did enjoy making the boat. Winning the competition allowed me to play around and develop this idea."


'Any excuse, I'll still go and climb a tree'

Dream: To train as a tree surgeon

Paul Samuels, now 38, was a care worker when he entered the competition. He used his £500 to pay for a 10-week course in tree surgery and then worked for a year for two Birmingham firms. But then he had a motorbike accident and broke his wrist. "I couldn't climb for a year," he says. "My first child was due, so it was back to the drawing board job-wise. I'm now working on an IT helpdesk. There are people doing tree surgery now who are 20 years younger than me and quicker, and speed is everything."

Paul still works as a volunteer in woodlands, and helps with family and friends' gardens. "I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to do something different. It's nice to have a skill that not many people have. Now, if there's any excuse I will always go for a climb. So while the prize didn't change my life totally, it gave me a whole new set of skills and great fun."


'Our ducklings were self-destructing'

Dream: To breed ornamental ducks

John, from North Chailey, near Lewes, East Sussex, hoped to breed ducks as a business. "I'd seen some at a local tourist attraction," he says, "and I thought they were attractive, bonny little creatures."

The local government officer, now 51, spent his winnings on a dozen ducks, fox-proof fencing and a poultry house. However, the project never got off the ground commercially, as John and his wife Maralyn, who both worked, didn't have enough time to devote to it. "The ducklings have this kind of self-destruct mechanism and if you want them all to survive you really need to be quite intensive with them," said John. "If you can get them through the first three weeks they toughen up. But - especially in the early years - we'd get back from work expecting to find them all as we had left them in the morning, but instead would find that two or three had managed to drown themselves in their water bowls, or been attacked by large birds."

John still has five ducks kept as pets: the oldest is one of the original contingent. "He's still fit and well," says John happily. "In a way I'm disappointed that it didn't work out as a business, but we've had endless fun. The ducks are great creatures: each one has got its own personality.

"Winning the money hasn't changed our lives, but it's certainly kept us entertained. We've had a great deal of fun out of the ducks - and the odd heartache when I've come back and found that my favourite duckling has been sat on."


'The trip to Paris was a much-needed morale boost'

Dream: To buy a battery-powered all-terrain buggy to enable her to get out and about

About a year before The Independent launched its competition, Catherine Baines was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the time of the competition, she was reliant on her wheelchair; the buggy that she hoped to buy cost about £8,000, and she dreamed of using it on a trip to Paris.

Instead, she won £1,000 and decided to spend it celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary with a five-day trip to the French capital. Her husband pushed her around the streets in her manual wheelchair, and they had "a lovely time".

"Considering my health - which was enough to depress anyone - it was a morale-boost to have won £1,000 for writing something," says Catherine, now 56, from Market Harborough, "even though it was only 150 words. It was a great fillip."

Sadly, the couple separated last year. "I long to go back 10 years. My adult children, their partners, my relatives and friends have, with love and hard work, kept me alive. But I weep for my husband many times a day."

She has also changed her name to Catherine Tomato Collard. "My maiden name was Catherine Margaret Collard. But Margaret is really boring; I thought 'Tomato' would give people something to smile about, especially as 'collard' means cabbage," she says.

Catherine now has a four-wheel all-terrain buggy, and recently travelled 19 miles on it along a disused railway path. "But best of all, last Christmas, I went to the Giant's Causeway. It's such a magical landscape."


'My husband became quite a celebrity for a time'

Dream: To buy desktop publishing equipment for a parish newsletter

Sadly, Tony, a retired maths teacher from Kent, died in March this year, a week before his 83rd birthday.

His widow, Sheila, says the computer, printer and desk he bought gave him enormous pleasure. Tony (pictured, far right, with Andreas Whittam Smith) had started the Alkham Monthly Newsletter, delivered free to about 300 homes in his village, in September 1993, just before The Independent's competition was launched. He had to use the Dover District Volunteer Bureau's computer in the evenings. "It was very difficult," says Sheila, now 82. "When the competition came up he thought he'd have a go. Nobody was more surprised when he got an award. The magazine went down very well. He became quite a celebrity for a time, I think. Everybody seemed very pleased and they were always ringing up with little bits for him to put in. He loved it. It improved his quality of life very much."

In June 1997, Tony and Sheila moved to Minehead, Somerset. He offered the computer to the new editor of the parish magazine, but when the offer was declined, Tony's computer went with them, and he used it regularly right up until his death, particularly to keep in contact with his friends. "He enjoyed it tremendously," Sheila says. "He did all sorts of things on it and would spend ages on it. I'm very grateful that he had it, because it kept him busy and opened up his world, really. He loved the fact that he could go upstairs to his room and get on his computer." The Alkham Monthly Newsletter is still going strong.