News, Culture & Society

London knife crime: Mail’s Woman of the Year knows exactly how to clean up Wild West Britain

Children ask the most difficult things. A few weeks ago, Pastor Lorraine Jones was taking the Sunday School class at her church. The topic was the Holy Spirit. One little girl had a question.

‘She asked: “Would the Holy Spirit protect me if someone came to stab me?”’.

Even Pastor Lorraine, who has a quotable piece of scripture for every occasion, was floored. ‘I deflected,’ she admits.

‘I asked why she had been thinking about this and she said they had been talking about stabbings in schools.

‘I know they had. My youngest son came home with a form asking for my permission for him to take part in First Aid lessons, so they know how to stop bleeding.’

In the Sunday School class, made up of 30 children aged between eight and 11, Lorraine asked how many had lost a brother or sister to knife crime, or knew someone who had.

‘About half of them put their hands up. This is what we are dealing with. This is their world,’ she says.

The Mail’s Inspirational Woman of the Year, Pastor Lorraine Jones, knows exactly how to clean up Wild West Britain, having helped guide hundreds in her hometown of Lambeth, south London, away from gangs

Just last weekend, Girl Scout Jodie Chesney was stabbed to death

Grammar school boy Yousef Makki was also a victim. Statistics show knife crime rates have soared to their highest level since the war

Just last weekend, two 17-year-olds, Girl Scout Jodie Chesney and grammar school boy Yousef Makki, were the latest victims of this world, in which statistics show knife crime rates have soared to their highest level since the war

Their world is one that currently dominates news headlines, as an epidemic of youth stabbings in the UK has plunged the country into a national crisis.

Just last weekend, two 17-year-olds, Girl Scout Jodie Chesney and grammar school boy Yousef Makki, were the latest victims of this world, in which statistics show knife crime rates have soared to their highest level since the war.

And it is Lorraine’s world, too. She was born in the London borough of Lambeth, raised seven children there ‘and also buried one of them’.

Her status in the community — at the heart of much of the charity work and respected as a church leader — did not give her immunity from the knife crime culture.

She had thought it the end of the world when one of her boys, Dwayne, was sent to a young offenders’ prison aged 15 after becoming caught up in gang culture. Dwayne had turned his life around after his release, but that world claimed his life nonetheless.

He died at the age of 20 after trying to stop another youngster being attacked. He suspected he would die young, too.

‘He said he wouldn’t make the age of 21 — four of his friends didn’t,’ says Lorraine. ‘I remember him saying “The streets aren’t safe”. I didn’t take him seriously, but he was right. He didn’t make 21.’

On Thursday, Lorraine won this paper’s Inspirational Woman of the Year award for her tireless community work in Brixton.

Dwayne’s death in 2014 galvanised her into action. She took over the running of his boxing club, turning it into not only a sporting venue but a community hub.

Against all the odds — she is the first to admit that her feelings against the authorities have often been less than Christian — she has become a calm voice in her community, helping smooth the historically explosive relations between the police and locals.

She sits on advisory panels and stands on the frontline. She is the first woman parents call when they discover that their sons have been arrested or injured, or worse.

‘Because I’ve been there, they know that I understand,’ she says. ‘I’ve comforted women who’ve had their sons die in their arms. I’ve gone to court with others, who are going to watch their sons go to prison for a long time.

‘I also talk to the police. I am on good terms with them now. Some are even friends.

‘When our local liaison officer comes round, he gets a cup of tea. That would never have happened before. But people here have accepted it. They don’t think I’ve sold out. They know why.’

On the notorious Angell Town Estate, they refer to Lorraine as the Chief Angel. Most call her ‘Mum’. She, in turn, calls everyone ‘my love’. She cuts a glamorous figure, younger than her 46 years, and her face certainly doesn’t tell the story of her life, which has been tough.

She has been married twice. She left her first husband, Dwayne’s father, when their son was 13.

Dwayne did not take the split well. ‘There is a lot of talk about lack of father figures, role models. It’s a factor. I cannot deny it.’

When the marriage collapsed, Lorraine was the breadwinner, at one point working at three jobs to make ends meet.

Her son Dwayne Simpson, pictured, died aged 20. He had become involved in gang culture five years before but was on the straight and narrow after a stint in a young offenders' prison

Her son Dwayne Simpson, pictured, died aged 20. He had become involved in gang culture five years before but was on the straight and narrow after a stint in a young offenders’ prison

The Dwayne she describes is a sweet and caring boy who wept for a week when his goldfish died. Yet, at some point, he became part of a dark and tangled world

The Dwayne she describes is a sweet and caring boy who wept for a week when his goldfish died. Yet, at some point, he became part of a dark and tangled world

She had seen Dwayne just an hour before he was attacked on that day in 2014. She had popped to Iceland to pick up some groceries.

‘Ordinary day. No inkling of anything. Afterwards, you are racked with guilt. You are the mum. It is your job to know if they are in danger.

‘He asked if he should come with me to the shops. I said: “No, won’t be long.” And that was the last conversation I had with him.’

While she went shopping, Dwayne went out with her brother and a friend. They were driving along the High Street when Dwayne spotted a youngster being chased by another youth.

Later, at the trial of his killer, it would be claimed that he knew the attacker — they had once been members of the same gang.

Whatever, he leapt from the car, and tried to intervene. What happened next was fast and furious.

‘The guy pulled out a sword and stabbed Dwayne. It went right through his heart and out his back. He really didn’t have a chance. I knew,’ says Lorraine. ‘There was something about the way his hand was just hanging there off the stretcher. I knew I was going to lose him.

‘It doesn’t feel real. It’s like being in a movie. Sometimes, I think I’m still in shock. I still remember the smell of blood.’

For two days Dwayne was on a life-support machine. Lorraine marshalled the family, and the community, as they flocked to see him.

‘I’ll never forget ushering the kids in, two by two. They all just came out in tears. Some mothers never get to say goodbye. I did.’

The Dwayne she describes is a sweet and caring boy who wept for a week when his goldfish died. Yet, at some point, he became part of a dark and tangled world.

Lorraine, a natural orator, starts to talk in general terms about how it happens.

‘They groom the kids. I see it over and over again. There is such poverty on our estate. You have single mothers — fathers, too, but mostly mothers — living in disgusting conditions. I went to one woman’s house and the walls were black with damp. So black it looked like wallpaper.

‘Her son had asthma. He was getting into trouble at school. She didn’t know where to turn. This is what happens. Then the gangs come in.

‘They promise the kids that they’ll only have to deliver something, run an errand. Suddenly, they are trapped.’

Then there is the two-fingers-up-to-authority attitude. Many teenagers have this. Perhaps black teenagers on sink estates have it more than most. Even the church-going children of ministers.

‘Oh, my family experienced police brutality,’ says the woman who now sits on advisory panels with politicians and this week had tea with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at a Clarence House reception to honour our Inspirational Women finalists.

Since his death, Lorraine, pictured with Met Police Chief Commissioner Cressida Dick, has guided hundreds of vulnerable youngsters away from gangs

Since his death, Lorraine, pictured with Met Police Chief Commissioner Cressida Dick, has guided hundreds of vulnerable youngsters away from gangs

After Dwayne died, came the anger. Not necessarily anger towards the perpetrator, interestingly (‘he was just a confused kid, too’), but towards the system

After Dwayne died, came the anger. Not necessarily anger towards the perpetrator, interestingly (‘he was just a confused kid, too’), but towards the system 

‘Dwayne’s older brother went off the rails, too, around the same time. The police were convinced there was something going on at our house. We were raided many times. They found nothing.’

The police left an impression, though. Her voice becomes shrill as she recalls the feeling of violation. ‘They don’t knock on the door at 5pm. It’s BANG BANG BANG at 4am, them shouting POLICE POLICE, and stamp-stamp-stamping up the stairs.

‘You have a torch in your face, and your kids are screaming and they herd you all into one room. Sometimes, they have dogs.

‘They break down the doors. They break the furniture. The kids don’t forget that. There’s mistrust. It’s a vicious circle.’

Then there was the contentious practice of stop and search. Interestingly, Lorraine is not against it now. She says that the best way to stop knife crime is to take the knives out of circulation.

‘If it is properly used, and not abused, and if the police wear cameras which make them accountable.’ In many cases, though, it [stop and search] was abused, she says.

‘Dwayne got flung into vans, not given the slip he was supposed to be given which told him which officer had done the search. He was angry about it, of course he was.’

She admits that Dwayne made some terrible mistakes, but believes he was harshly treated when he was handed a three-year sentence for his part in a robbery.

‘It was his first offence, and his last. All he did was act as a lookout boy for an older gang,’ says Lorraine. ‘He didn’t gain anything — except a prison sentence.

‘But he came out insisting that there was no way he was going down that road in life. It shook him up. He was determined not just to get his own life back on track, but convince others that they didn’t need the gangs either. He would have achieved great things, too. I know it.’

After Dwayne died, came the anger. Not necessarily anger towards the perpetrator, interestingly (‘he was just a confused kid, too’), but towards the system.

‘I was furious with the police,’ says Lorraine. ‘The boy who Dwayne saved ran straight past a police station when he was trying to get away. It didn’t even occur to him to go in.

‘How could we, as a society, have got to the point that even when a young lad’s life was in danger he wouldn’t go to the police?’

Then she was angry with the council, ‘for all the cuts, for the fact they slashed budgets, and where were all our community centres?’; then with the Government, ‘because where were they when we needed help?’

The bitterness might have consumed her but for one man. Just after Dwayne died, the new local police chief, Commander Richard Wood, visited Lorraine.

Together they stood looking at a portrait of Dwayne. ‘He told me that he had sons and he could not imagine my pain. He said that Dwayne had died trying to save someone, a hero.

‘He asked about the boxing club, and wanted to see it.

‘That was the start of it. The man showed me humanity. He opened the door.’

He also provided money — the police funded new premises for the boxing club, allowing it to expand. Somehow, community support officers became part of the furniture too. Now his officers train with the kids at the boxing club.

‘Five years ago, none of them would have spoken to a police officer in uniform. Now they will pose for selfies with them. They see them as … human beings.’

Dwayne, she admits, never did. ‘He thought the police were just members of another gang, but a gang that no one could touch.’

It’s only a start, obviously. Lambeth regularly rides high in the ‘most dangerous boroughs of London’ leagues, and community relations are tricky.

‘They are not lost — not for ever,’ Lorraine, pictured with the Duchess of Cornwall says. ‘While there is life, there is hope.’

‘They are not lost — not for ever,’ Lorraine, pictured with the Duchess of Cornwall says. ‘While there is life, there is hope.’

This makes Lorraine’s stance all the more impressive. Today, she shakes with fury when talking about how her community has been historically let down — but she is also quick to remind her neighbours of their own civic responsibilities when it comes to reclaiming their streets.

She is candid about how some parents have allowed the knife crime epidemic to flourish either by a head-in-the-sand attitude, or wilful blindness.

‘I have been shocked by how accepting some people are of what is happening,’ says Lorraine. ‘Some parents have benefited from it, too — from the drugs culture.

‘I went to court with one mum, whose son was found guilty, and what do you think she said? “How am I going to pay my bills now?” She wasn’t concerned that her son was going to prison.’

Others are complicit by default — not questioning why their sons are coming home covered in blood, or with slash marks in their jeans, or why the sharpest knife is missing from the kitchen drawer.

‘Oh, they know. They know they’re missing a knife. They are turning a blind eye to the bloody clothes that are coming in. They are just washing them.

‘I’ve heard a mother saying it’s better she washes them than sends her child to prison to get killed. She’s thinking that, rather than that her son could have killed someone.

‘I can’t support that. I understand that as a mother you want to protect your child, but as an adult you have to do what is right.’

Most parents aren’t bad, she insists, just bewildered. ‘I had a call from a mum whose son had just attacked her, pinned her to the bed and beaten her up.

‘She couldn’t — wouldn’t — go to the police, but she was desperate. She knew he was involved in something — gangs, drugs, whatever.’

The child was 11.

Lorraine asked if she could look in his room. ‘It was a tip, crisp packets, rubbish everywhere. Then I looked in his bed. In the pillowcase were two knives.

‘I asked: “Did you know?” She didn’t. She sat and cried.’

That was three years ago. Where is the boy now? ‘Juvenile prison’.

It is an awful reminder that there are many ways to lose a son, but Lorraine refuses to see it like that. She says it’s her faith in God that keeps her going, but her faith in humanity is pretty awesome, too.

‘They are not lost — not for ever,’ she says. ‘While there is life, there is hope.’ 

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