When Captain Tom Moore set out with his walking frame at the start of April he had a modest goal: to raise £1,000 for the NHS by walking up and down his garden 100 times before his 100th birthday. One of his daughters, Hannah Ingram-Moore, thought it might make a nice little story for the local media, and so on 7 April her consultancy firm, Maytrix, knocked up a press release heralding his mission.
The release included a photograph of the then 99-year-old wearing a navy blue fleece, pushing a walking frame on which was balanced a panama hat and his stick. “We are all being rightly advised to stay home, stay safe and protect our NHS, and that is exactly what local 99-year-old Tom Moore is doing,” the copy began – and, with it, one of the most startlingly successful fundraising stories of our time.
How exactly a centenarian managed to capture a nation’s heart – prompting an RAF fly-by, an upgrade in military rank and Piers Morgan pledging ten grand of his own money, not to mention an array of conspiracy theories – is a tale that proves both the ongoing power of the mainstream media and the British public’s hunger for joy during a time of bleak national crisis.
The global media onslaught began in Milton Keynes, where the press release caught the eye of Damien Lucas, head of news for a group of local newspapers. Within a few hours the story was on Bedford Today, with a headline about the ambitions of a “Bedford man” and his 100th birthday challenge, inspired by the treatment he received from the NHS after breaking his hip and for skin cancer.
A local ITV report followed and by 10 April, Good Friday, Captain Tom was live on BBC Breakfast. “You have lived, and you have seen some tough times in this country, can you inspire people who are watching now, just reassure them, it will be fine?” asked Naga Munchetty. “Remember,” he said, “tomorrow is a good day, tomorrow you will maybe find everything will be much better than today.”
A star was born. The BBC Breakfast team watched, staggered, as donations to Captain Tom’s Just Giving Page went from £1,000 to a million and beyond. Before long, their rivals on Good Morning Britain had picked up the story, with Piers Morgan pledging £10,000 of his own money.
Back in Marston Moretaine, a small village 12 miles from Milton Keynes, journalists and well-wishers began congregating outside the house Captain Tom shares with Hannah and her family, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero doing his laps.
On 16 April Moore finished his challenge live on BBC Breakfast surrounded by a guard of honour from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment. By 20 April he had raised over £20m and had recorded a duet with Michael Ball that was on its way to number one in the charts.
The family began to worry about crowds outside the house. A neighbour got a number for DIY SOS presenter Nick Knowles to see if he could help. Hannah, a huge DIY SOS fan, texted asking if this was really Nick Knowles. He suggested a Facetime call to prove his identity and soon had arranged for a fence to be put up outside the family garden, according to Megan Carver, Knowles’s longtime PR.
Carver came on board last week to help field inquiries for free. One of her first calls was to Schillings, the notorious London libel firm, famed for its sky-high fees and celebrity clientele. “It was probably the easiest phone call I’ve ever made,” said Carver. “I explained that Captain Tom’s family needed a bit of help and Schillings immediately said, yes, and of course this will be pro bono.”
Schillings contacted Ipso, the press regulator, to ask journalists to stop “either leaning over the fence or placing their long-focus-lens cameras through hedges to take intrusive photographs”, noting that the family had set up a Twitter account, @captaintommoore containing images that could be used for free.
Then came the backlash. The family had to refute claims that they or Maytrix were profiting from the fundraising. A virulent Whatsapp message had spread, claiming they were lining their own pockets and accusing JustGiving, the fundraising platform, of keeping up to £2m. Full Fact, the independent fact-checking charity, reported JustGiving was in fact taking around 1% of the total: around £320,000 of the £32m pledged by Thursday late afternoon for NHS Charities Together.
Back at the village, the family could no longer cope with the deluge of cards and presents arriving from around the world. Bill Chandi, the local postmaster, stepped in to help, offering his post office as their correspondence address. “Since then I have been working 24/7 and it is my honour to do so,” said Chandi.
Bedford school, where Captain Tom’s grandson Benji is a pupil, offered its school hall to house the cards. By Thursday they were spilling out into the classrooms too. “He’s already received at least 160,000 cards,” said Chandi. “Quite a few people want to make sure they definitely get to the right place so they send them recorded delivery, which means we have to log them all in the post office – we don’t sign for them because of social distancing.” The local sorting office has had to set up a separate “Captain Tom” team with two or three dedicated workers, he added.
On Thursday, Captain Tom became Colonel Tom, promoted to an honorary role by the British Army. Boris Johnson wished him happy birthday, the Queen sent her customary telegram and a wartime Spitfire and Hurricane flew over Marston Moretaine.
He has been the perfect hero for our times, says BBC Breakfast editor Richard Frediani. “There’s nothing self-centred or grandiose about Captain Tom. He’s just a wonderful man. You can tell it has hit a nerve with viewers when they are looking for something to rally around. He brings a little bit of good news and light into what are very difficult times.”