Zoom raffles and Wallapop sales: British Ladies Association goes online to continue charity work in Madrid

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stopped the group from going ahead with their annual Christmas Bazaar, which has been held since 1952 and benefits a range of social organizations

Members of the British Ladies Association (l-r) Annie Roda, Alicia Arias, Sheila Stuart and Sarah Hambleton.
Members of the British Ladies Association (l-r) Annie Roda, Alicia Arias, Sheila Stuart and Sarah Hambleton.

For almost 70 years, the British Ladies Association (BLA) has been celebrating its Christmas Bazaar in Madrid on the last Sunday of November. Stalls sell cakes, clothes, toys and books while a raffle offers a range of prizes. “We would open at midday but people would already have been lining up since 10.30am,” says Annie Roda, the daughter of the association’s president. This year, however, it was the daughters and granddaughters of the members who had to take the reins so that the event could go ahead – on Zoom, the online video conferencing tool. And despite efforts to initiate some of the older members – many over the age of 80 – into the mysteries of the virtual world, a few struggled to grasp what was going on, among them, Annie’s mother Sheila Stuart:

– But where will it be held?

– With everyone in their home.

– But do they all go out at the same time or what?

Sheila is 87 and has chaired the association since 2007. Currently, there are about 50 members, but she says there have been periods when there were three times as many. Before the coronavirus pandemic, they met every month and drank tea and wine, attended talks and workshops and went on excursions – “within Madrid because we are all a bit old and didn’t want to go far,” says Sheila.

The Christmas Bazaar once raised a record €28,000 for charities in Madrid

The last outing was to the Royal Botanical Gardens in March. But the ladies’ most emblematic event is the Christmas Bazaar – one that earned Sheila the British Empire Medal in 2019 that Queen Elizabeth II herself presents each year – all but this year, that is. “It’s waiting for me at Buckingham Palace,” she says.

Normally, they start preparing the bazaar three months in advance, but 2020 found them working against the clock. Sheila’s granddaughter, Carmen Rodríguez, was in charge of advertising the event online through the association’s recently created social networks, which have already garnered more than 300 followers. Using social media, they shared information about all the items on sale, from cakes and homemade marmalades, to sweaters and scarves knitted by members of the BLA. They also created a Wallapop account advertising all the objects on sale that couldn’t be sold in person this year. As well as making handicrafts to sell, the women ask for product donations from companies. “A few years ago, we held it in what was the Hilton Hotel and they gave us a car for the raffle,” Sheila recalls.

The first Christmas Bazaar was held at the British Embassy in 1952, but it has been held in all sorts of locations, including at Madrid’s British Council School, though according to Sarah Lerma, 80, that one proved too much of a success. “When they opened the doors, it was crazy. It was like the sales,” she says with a strong English accent, despite the fact that she has been in Madrid for more than 50 years.

Screenshot of the virtual event of the British Ladies Association.
Screenshot of the virtual event of the British Ladies Association.

During the hour and a half that the virtual event lasted this year, there were a number of technical hitches, such as a muted mic or a frozen screen, but there were plenty of smiles. Making up for the lack of stalls was an opening speech by María Antonia Elliot, the wife of the British ambassador to Spain, Hugh Elliott, carols by a choir to which several members belong, humorous sketches by British actors and a Christmas toast.

The event itself raised €750, which is being added to the money from the sale of products in the online catalog – bringing the total to €2,000 to date, a figure the ladies are confident will increase in the coming days.

This year’s bazaar, has, however, remained a source of bewilderment to many. “But if I want a cake, what do I have to do, how do I get it?” asks Sarah. Annie explains patiently: “You look at the catalog, see what you want to buy and add up what it costs in total, make a transfer to the BLA account, send the receipt to their email and they tell you when you can pick up the order. It’s not very easy, but it’s the best we can do.”

Whatever is raised – the bazaar’s record is €28,000 – is divided up between a number of charities, though Annie says they have reduced their numbers so that each gets a more significant donation. This year, the money will go to Manos de Ayuda Social, which runs a soup kitchen in the Vallecas district; Avante 3, which works with disabled children; and Asociación Nazaret, based in San Blas which addresses the needs of the underprivileged in the neighborhood.

The Christmas Bazaar is hard work for the ladies and their families but Annie maintains that while every January they swear it’s their last, the tradition has managed to survive, even during the pandemic.

A slice of England in Spain

Sarah was once a ballet dancer in England. When she gave up dancing, she accepted a job as an English nanny in Madrid and caught a plane for the first time in her life. She was 24 and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. “For my mother, the BLA has always been a little piece of her own country in Spain and it gave her an instant group of friends,” says her daughter, Sally Hambleton. “She always says that their friendship was fate.”

But to be a British Lady, you don’t need to be English; you just have to speak English. Member Alicia Arias, 83, for example, is from Madrid but learned English during the six years she studied nursing in England. “I signed up because I had a friend who was married to an Englishman and we had gone to the bazaar before. I told her, ‘When I retire I want to sign up’ and that’s what I did.”

English version by Heather Galloway.


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