Mrs Elsie Brown had been dead for two years – forgotten by her neighbours, her friends and her family.
It was not until a neighbour eventually realised she had not seen Mrs Brown for an extended period of time that Victoria Police were notified. Sadly when officers broke into her home they found Mrs Brown’s skeletal remains still wrapped in a blanket on her sofa.
It is estimated Mrs Brown had died sometime in January 2001. Remarkably the gas, electricity, telephone and water all remained connected.
This is how Seven News and journalist Peter Morris covered the discovery of Mrs Brown’s lonely death.
While Andrew did not know Mrs Brown he was appalled by the apparent ease in which the world had left her behind. Neighbours had watched piles of mail, store catalogues and newspapers build up at her front door but they did nothing.
Widespread local and national media interest followed and it was this coverage that prompted Andrew to suggest a ‘National Check on Your Neighbour Day’ in a Letter to the Editor of The Age published on 17th March 2003.
Andrew was inspired by his late grandparents and his own neighbour – 83 year old Clive Tayler of Albert Park. An active resident in the street Clive mowed the nature strips of his neighbours, picked up the rubbish and recycling bins on Monday mornings, mended loose gate and fence pickets and took care of the odd jobs which needed to be done.
Always good humoured, gentle and kind Clive was was never intrusive - proving you can be a great neighbour without actually becoming intimately involved in other people’s lives. Clive Tayler died peacefully at the age of 91 in November 2007, survived by his partner of 15 years Joan Nicholas.
So Andrew’s concept was refined, renamed and on Sunday 30th March 2003 the first Neighbour Day was observed.
It generated surprisingly widespread media coverage and support, primarily because of the simplicity of the idea and the ease with which Australians everywhere could take part.
Importantly it also brought to prominence a major issue faced every day by senior Australians.
But sadly the tragedy of Elsie Brown’s death was not a one-off.
In August 2003 a 91-year-old Melbourne woman was also discovered dead in her home. Her 67 year old son and carer had died of natural causes three weeks earlier and unable to raise the alarm she too passed away.
The deaths of isolated senior Australians made headlines again on 6th March 2006 when an 86 year old Sydney woman was found dead in her unit, months after her death.
However it was a two week period across February that year when six other people were found dead in similar circumstances that really shocked Australia. A few months later in the regional city of Orange an elderly woman died from complications after she returned home from buying her groceries, fell and was not discovered for days.
In April 2006 at the Hornsey Coroner’s Court, London the Deputy Coroner Andrew Walker recorded an open finding at the inquest into the death of 40 year old Ms Joyce Vincent of Wood Green. Police broke into her flat in January where they found the television and heating on and the body of Ms Vincent in the living room.
Ms Vincent’s body was so badly decomposed dental records had to be compared with a holiday photograph. She had been dead since December 2003. The Metropolitan Housing Trust reportedly took action only when rent became thousands of pounds in arrears.
Since 2003 the evolution of Neighbour Day has been quite remarkable. What started as a warning to check on elderly neighbours has grown into a much wider annual celebration of strong communities and friendly streets. People of all ages participate because everyone, everywhere is a neighbour no matter where you live or your personal circumstances.
Not only do residents hold barbecues and street parties on front lawns and in the car parks of apartment complexes to celebrate but councils and other local government bodies hold major festivals and community events!
For the first time in 2008 every Premier and the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory publicly endorsed Neighbour Day. It was supported by the Lord Mayors of Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney and the City of Darwin along with federal, state and local government politicians.
The Hon Kevin Rudd became the first Prime Minister to publicly endorse Neighbour Day, which he did in 2009 and 2010.
At a global level Neighbour Day has been endorsed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former President Bill Clinton and HRH The Prince of Wales who described it as ‘a splendid idea’. It was through Mr Annan’s enthusiasm that Andrew Heslop was invited to speak about the development of Neighbour Day in Australia at the United Nations in May 2008.
Now there are plans to make Neighbour Day a truly global event as an official UN Observance Day following ratification by the General Assembly, which could lead to an International Year of Neighbourliness sometime in the future.
That would be a great development for an Australian idea which started off as a Letter to the Editor following the sad and lonely death of an elderly woman in her home.