The Douglas Coal Fund is officially the Isle of Man’s oldest and longest-serving charitable organisation.
Hear the phrase ‘coal fund’ and you might assume that the charity doles out money to buy coal, something which was initially true when the organisation was first formed in the mid 1800s.
But the fund’s activities have since changed dramatically, due in part to society’s reduced reliance on coal.
Instead, the charity now hands out ‘fuel vouchers’ which it distributes to families and individuals on low incomes to help with their overall fuel costs - something which the charity has done for the last 170 years.
The fund sees paper vouchers worth £40 distributed monthly between November and March to those who desperately need them based on strict eligibility criteria set entirely by the trustees.
This criteria is reviewed regularly, in addition to the amount the vouchers are worth.
People are referred to the fund by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), health or social workers, other charities, and even friends and neighbours.
The Douglas Coal Fund vouchers can only be used to pay for domestic fuel and cannot be used for anything else.
The vouchers are accepted by Manx Utilities, the Co-op or Spar stores in Douglas that have electric key machines, Manx Gas and coal merchants (Castletown Fuels Ltd, A.A. Solid Fuel, Northern Fuels Ltd, Bio-Mann, Manx Petroleums, Ellan Vannin Fuels and CPL Petroleums).
In 1960, the Isle of Man Times said that ’no one can quite recall just when the fund was founded’ but the general consensus is that the fund was formed in 1849 and in that year, the ‘Manx Sun’ wrote: ‘We understand this excellent charity continues to give out every fortnight, to 400 applicants or thereabouts, 1 cwt (hundredweight) of coal each.’
The charity has been operating ever since thanks to the dedication shown by volunteers who these days ensure fuel vouchers are distributed to those in need in Douglas and some surrounding areas (Onchan, Union Mills and Braddan).
Steve Fuller, the treasurer of the fund, said that the demand for these vouchers has increased.
‘The charity made a conscious decision to reach out to as many people as possible last winter, so we generated a lot of the increased demand ourselves,’ he said.
‘There are a lot of people who don’t know of our existence even though we have been around since 1849.
‘We also increased the amount of benefit we would distribute to eligible applicants and increased the minimum household income threshold to capture more people.
‘As a result there was a 50% increase to 300 households assisted last winter. We have a wide range of beneficiaries ages too, ranging from 18 to 85 years old.’
Drilling down into the fund’s figures from last year, Mr Fuller said: ‘Approximately £100,000 was distributed out from the fund over the winter.
‘This was an increase of over 100% from the previous year, largely as a result of the increase in applications and the 25% increase in voucher value from £40 to £50.
For the past 125 years, the High Baliff of the island has acted as the president (now patron) of the charity, a position that continues to occupy to this day along with Mrs Jayne Hughes who sits in the chair.
The fund has been lucky enough to have many dedicated volunteers working under its banner during the charity’s long existence, but one noteable stalwart and driving force of the fund was the late Jacqui Shimmin, who was involved with the organisation for 34 years from 1976 as a committee member, and in later years as chairman.
She co-opted many friends, neighbours and family onto the committee of the fund.
Amid the current cost of living crisis and coupled with a rising number of applicants leaning on the fund for support, Mr Fuller has admitted that the charity is currently experiencing hard times.
‘We are a small charity with limited resources.
‘We would definitely like to do more, but we are probably at the limit as to what we can do at the moment.’
Charities like the coal fund are a rarity on the Isle of Man - the only other area to run a similar initiative is the Peel Coal Fund.
When asked if the charity’s name was a concern due to the fact the fund now hands out vouchers instead of coal, Mr Fuller replied: ‘We have considered this question as we provide vouchers which can be redeemed against all forms of domestic fuel costs, but the trustees decided that, given the age and history of the charity, they wished to retain the original name.
‘We did change our vouchers quite some time ago to include the word ‘fuel’.
‘This concerns household fuels such as gas, electric, coal and wood. We made it more modern I suppose.’
One challenge the charity sometimes has to face is turning away people who have applied for support from the fund.
This happens when families and individuals do not pass the threshold of the fund’s strict eligibility criteria.
Mr Fuller said: ‘There is always the ability of the trustees to exercise their discretion if they believe the circumstances warrant it, but with limited resources we have to be reasonably strict on who we can distribute funds to.
‘We increased the household income threshold twice last year in view of the cost of living crisis, raising it to £340 at the start of the distribution period and to £375 a month later. This year we have raised it again to £380.
‘Regrettably we can’t always help and have to turn people away, usually because they are earning too much or because they live outside the Douglas, Onchan and Braddan area.
‘We also only operate over the winter months and have had people coming to us in the summer months for help after we have closed off our books for the year.’
Registration and distribution meetings for the Douglas Coal Fund are held at All Saints Hall on Alexander Drive in Douglas once a month from November until March. They take place at 1pm and finish at 2.30pm, with the initial registration meeting taking place on Tuesday, November 21.