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2024 New Year Honours list: Lymington’s John Ward made MBE and Christchurch’s Betty Smith-Billington made BEM

A New Forest planner who turned around its housing policies, and a Christchurch Gypsy and Traveller advocate have been recognised in the New Year Honours list, unveiled tonight (Friday).

John Ward, formally of the New Forest District Council and national park authority, and current chair of the New Forest Association (Friends of the New Forest), has been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to the community in the New Forest.

And Betty Smith-Billington, chair of Kushti Bok and vice-chair of the Dorset Council Gypsy Traveller Forum, has been made a Medallist of the Order of the British Empire (BEM) for services to the Gypsy and Traveller community in Dorset,

John came to the Forest from Sunderland in the late ’70s as “purely a career move”, in charge of planning policy for NFDC. He didn’t know much about the area and, before his interview, gleaned what knowledge he could from the only book in his local library about the Forest – written by the A&T’s New Forest Notes author Anthony Pasmore.

New Forest Association chair John Ward
New Forest Association chair John Ward

On being given the role, he set about making some changes.

“I was looking at what was going on and what wasn’t going on, and it seemed very odd to me what was happening. We were building all over paddocks, and commoners were trying to keep their horses on them. I just slowly looked at this whole lot and it was all a bit upside down.”

It was a chance meeting with Colin Tubbs from the Nature Conservancy Council which had a lasting effect on John.

“He was an expert on the Forest, he’d written a definitive book on it; Colin’s book was like the standard work. I got to know him, and everything I ever knew about the Forest I learnt from him. If it wasn’t for Colin I perhaps wouldn’t have gone down the path I have done. He was the inspiration.

“If anyone should have been given the honour it should have been Colin, although I suspect he was the kind of guy who probably would have turned it down.”

John (76) said his acceptance of the award is “in a sense” for Colin and others just as deserving.

“Why they’ve given me the honour God only knows. You could have given it to one of hundreds of people. It’s a bit sentimental but I felt I should collect it almost on behalf of Colin who never got anything and was far more deserving than anyone.”

It was an emotional morning’s post for Betty Smith-Billington when she opened a letter about her inclusion in the honours list.

The Gypsy and Traveller advocate from Christchurch said she “wanted to cry a bit” on finding she had been made a BEM.

“I felt a bit emotional, really,” she told the A&T. “But then everyday life takes over and you forget about it for a while.”

Chair of Kushti Bok and vice-chair of the Dorset Council Gypsy Traveller Forum, Betty is a proud Romany whose family have lived in the area for around 600 years. Despite that, however, she says there’s still a lot of prejudice.

”Kushti Bok is a voice for Travellers and Gypsies. We’ve always been a volunteer group, never been paid – it’s our passion.

“But even though my family has been here for hundreds of years, I feel a lot of prejudice. I just wanted to work and get us out there, let people know we’re not the thieves and vagabonds we’re sometimes portrayed in the press.”

Kushti Bok chair Betty Smith-Billington
Kushti Bok chair Betty Smith-Billington

Kushti Bok works with Dorset’s police and councils, particularly on unauthorised encampments.

“We try to make life better all round for them, and also the local people, to make them see not all Gypsies are bad.

“We need to let people know who we are. People say ‘we don’t want them here’ but at the end of the day where do they think we’re going to go? There are hundreds of travellers and Gypsies in this area, and also in New Milton, Lymington and Highcliffe.”

Betty (76) is looking forward to picking up her medal next year from Angus Campbell, Lord-Lieutenant of Dorset, with whom she has worked closely.

“He opens the Roma Holocaust Memorial service at Kingston Maurward College. It was 80 years this year since the Night of the Gypsies when 2,897 were annihilated in one day and night at Auschwitz Birkenau.”

Betty says the group’s biggest highlight this year involved the Archbishop of Canterbury.

“He came to the Church of the Good Shepherd in Parkstone and gave a service about the church backing Gypsies and Travellers, and trying to find stopping places for them. We having pictures of him and a Romany showing him how to make dollypegs.”

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