Lady Penelope Worsley – talks about fundraising, her book and the inspiration behind both

PUBLISHED: 00:16 06 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:15 20 February 2013

Penelope and Sal Bunrachaisawan, who built a water system with her son and now runs the Thai side of her charity

Penelope and Sal Bunrachaisawan, who built a water system with her son and now runs the Thai side of her charity

Lady Penelope Worsley talks to Jo Haywood about her new book, her fundraising work and her inspiration for both – the son she lost 15 years ago

The death of a child often brings a halt to their parents lives too, like a full stop in the middle of a sentence. But for Penelope Worsley, the death of her much-loved son marked the start of a whole new chapter in her life.

It was not a path she would have chosen to tread, but she felt very strongly that she must try to live life more fully, with commitment and vibrancy, to somehow make up for the time snatched unexpectedly from Richard, who died in a road accident, aged just 24.

When Richard was born he created something really exciting, she said. A spark lit up inside me and he continued to light a spark in everyone he met. So when he died I felt I had to go into overdrive to make sure he got what he was owed from life.

Richard the third of four siblings had been born into a privileged family. His father, Oliver, is the brother of the Duchess of Kent and Sir Marcus Worsley, fifth baronet of Hovingham Hall in North Yorkshire. But he did not take his position in life for granted.

He recognised that he was from a privileged background and wanted to spend time with people who had nothing, said Penelope. So, at 19, he volunteered to go and live with the Karen hilltribes in Thailand. And it changed him. It changes all of them.

When she refers to all of them she means the 50 or so volunteers she now sends out to help the Thai people every year as part of the work of the Karen Hilltribes Trust, a charity she set up in her sons memory in 1999.

The tribespeople still remember him very clearly even though it has been almost 20 years since he was there, said Penelope. When he came home, he encouraged me to help them, he said they needed me, but I just dismissed the idea.

On his return from Thailand, Richard went to Sandhurst before joining his regiment, the Light Dragoons, in Bosnia in 1995. A year later, Penelope answered a knock at the door at 4am to be told by a soldier her son had been killed in a car accident in Germany, where his regiment was based.

I had a whole list of people I needed to tell when he died, she said. I faxed Jim Soutar (director of the Ruamkanpattana Foundation in Thailand) and got back four pages of sheer emotion. When I realised the effect Richard had had, and not just in purely practical terms, I knew I had to do something to carry on the work he had started.

So she set up an appeal to raise 50,000, starting with the 600 people who came to Richards funeral in Hovingham, and set off to Thailand.
I was as green as grass, she said of her first trip. It was the middle of the rainy season and I arrived without a clue of where I was going. But I have always loved adventure and those two weeks completely changed my life.

On her return to Yorkshire, Penelope decided her initial appeal had to become a full-blown working charity. She had worked in the voluntary sector all her life and had the skills and contacts to ensure her charity prospered where others had failed.

Lots of people set up charities virtually every time a child dies another one appears but I knew it had to be sustainable, she explained. If it was to last it had to be a working partnership with the people of the Karen. Its about giving the power back to them, letting them have control of their own lives.

Penelope has now written a book, due out on December 1st, about the Karen people, about Richards death and about another terrible blow dealt to her family Huntingtons Disease.

Oliver, her husband, was rushed to hospital in 1998 with a leaking heart valve. Surgeons at York Hospital saved his life in an emergency operation, but while recovering, nurses noticed the first signs of Huntingtons, an hereditary disease of the central nervous system.

Tests later showed the couples eldest children, Georgina and David, also had the disease, leaving only their youngest, Anne, untouched.

Penelope admits shes worried that people will criticise her for including details of her husband and childrens deteriorating condition in her book, Footsteps to the Jungle: A Personal Journey, but believes it is time to set the record straight on this often-misunderstood disease.

Ive never had trouble talking about it, although I am something of a talker anyway, she said. This seems by far the healthiest way of dealing with it. If Im honest, I found writing the book very therapeutic. I had so many things I needed to write down and this was a way of sorting through the chaos.

That chaos now includes selling the family home to pay for a smaller, purpose-built house for herself and her brave but ailing husband; caring for her children, even though their condition often makes them pull away from family ties; looking out for her grandchildren and providing a haven when they need it; running her charity; and now, promoting her fundraising book.

The chaos just goes on and on, said Penelope, with a wry smile. It all sounds very dramatic, but after a while you just get used to it. People who live a so-called normal life might be aghast, but so few of us actually live normal lives, dont we? Almost every family, no matter who they are, is dysfunctional in its own way.

For more information about the Karen Hilltribes Trust visit For a copy of Footsteps to the Jungle (Pen & Sword, 16.99 or 12.99 in December) email or call 07973221362.

The Karen Hilltribes Trust

The charitable trust, set up by Penelope in memory of her son Richard, now raises around 350,000 a year (3 million in the last decade) and works with 35,000 people in 400 villages in the Mae Hong Son province in north-west Thailand, close to the Burma border.

It has three main aims: improving health, improving education and improving income generation. To that end, it has:

Provided access to clean water every day to more than 27,000 people.

Given out 20,000 blankets so people can keep warm as temperatures plummet to below freezing.

Bought 30,000 mosquito nets to protect people from malaria.

Provided school transport for 8,000 children (more than 200 have also been able to attend university).

Brought rice fields back into production by building or repairing irrigation systems.

Trained more than 50 volunteers every year to live and work with the people of the Karen, building water systems and teaching in schools.

Huntingtons disease

Huntingtons is an hereditary disorder if one of your parents has it, you have a 50:50 chance of getting it of the central nervous system.

Early symptoms include uncontrollable muscular movements, stumbling, clumsiness, lack of concentration, memory lapses, depression, mood swings and anti-social behaviour.

Later on, people often experience difficulty in speech and swallowing, emotional instability, loss of organisational skills, psychological problems and physical deterioration.

For more information, call the Huntingtons Disease Association on 0151 298 3298, email or visit

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