Sheila McWattie was a treasured member of the BWC volunteer team who did a huge amount to support, raise the profile of the organisation and make a difference in the lives of women in Brighton & Hove. She died suddenly in February this year, aged 58, and is much missed. Here, women who knew Sheila through her work at BWC and Pride share their thoughts about her.
Michelle Pooley – BWC Coordinator
Sheila confided in me that after she arrived from London in 1996, it took her a while to get used to the fact that this so-called LGBT nirvana of Brighton & Hove seemed so much less diverse and accepting than she’d anticipated.
She’d lived and worked in London for 15 years after leaving her hometown of Paisley, in the west of Scotland, and spending time in the Isle of Skye, Edinburgh and Amsterdam. Diversity was one of Sheila’s crucial ingredients to making anything work. As a BWC volunteer, she met many lesbians who felt isolated in this supposedly gay-friendly city. Her aim was to be part of the team to put BWC on the city map. She fundraised relentlessly and joined in with events for International Women’s Day and Pride. This made her more connected as a lesbian and a Brighton & Hove resident.
In the late 90s I was the first coordinator of BWC and I had the sheer pleasure of seeing Sheila light up BWC with her effervescent personality. Sheila forged a strong friendship with the unforgettable Shirley West, treasurer and co-founder of BWC. Sheila would never forgive me if I did not mention Shirley because in Sheila’s own words “Shirley inspired many who were on the verge of giving up in the face of petty politics and lack of vital resources.”
It was with Shirley’s support that Sheila changed her life around by retraining as a journalist and began to earn her living as a writer, editor, publicist, events coordinator, creative-writing tutor and fundraiser. Together with Shirley West, she laid the foundations for the Women’s Performance Tent in Brighton & Hove. However, it was Sheila’s warm yet feisty approach that worked well with many local and amazing women musicians, singers and compères. Her work with Pride organisers and BWC generated 15 extremely successful Pride Women’s Performance experiences – one of which was a free event outside Preston Park.
This city is fortunate to have such an abundance of creative people within its LGBT communities, and special thanks are due to everyone who just keeps working towards making life here exciting and diverse. I know Sheila will be dancing and enjoying herself after personally welcoming everyone into her tent. She knew and worked with so many people and touched their hearts in so many different ways. A true legend.
Nicky Mitchell – Musician and Friend of BWC
I first met Sheila when she appeared as a Pride volunteer around 2001, (when Sue Nichols ran it). We went for a drink afterwards in The Cooper’s cask in Farm Road, Hove. The sunlight was pouring in onto a honey-coloured varnished wooden table, and Sheila, who was going through a relationship breakup, started to cry.
Over the next few years, which were tough, miraculously whilst falling apart Sheila was also spectacularly pulling it together. Five years on, she had completed an MA in creative writing and journalism, was working on a book and planning a solo trip to the West Coast of America.
We continued to work together with successive Pride committees over the next ten tears. During that time we developed a strong friendship, which was sometimes very challenging for both of us. However, it was a strong boat and we were always able to right it.
I was privileged to know Sheila for the ensuing 11 years. She had a deep sense of social equity and worked as a volunteer and fundraiser for BWC, and grew the International Women’s Day event into a phenomenal celebration.
I knew this small part of Sheila’s journey. When her life was tough, she pulled herself together and held herself and all the other women around her aloft in absolute worth. She taught me this. My heart is a bigger place for having had her in it. I will never forget her, because her presence, her humour, love, kindness, compassion and steadfastness shone such a bright light. My dear Sheila. Thank you. I miss you every day.
Sue Shaw – Former BWC Volunteer Coordinator
I am writing this while listening to some of the music I would probably have missed if I had not met Sheila. The first time I met her was shortly after I started working at BWC. I was the volunteer coordinator at the time and we chatted about needing volunteers for the Women’s Performance Tent at Pride. Before I really knew what was happening, I was walking headlong into an unknown world of lesbian music celebration. Organising volunteers, I knew. The rest of the tent was a whirlwind of activity unknown to me. But Sheila was always there, sensible, grounded, organised and committed to something so fantastic, real and alive. Getting me involved; it was like Sheila saw something in me, or released something in me that wasn’t yet visible to myself. Her faith in me allowed me to grow, express and be a part of something that would have not otherwise been possible. I very much enjoyed working at BWC, but one of the things that stands out the most is being a part of WPT and for that Sheila, I thank you.
As a result, we became good friends which continued post BWC and WPT. She was always there for those important chats and the important laughs and smiles, even at times that were difficult for her. There was always a feeling that once you have connected with Sheila, this was going to be forever. You are still there; when I do something, I think about who I want to share it with and you are on that list. When I pass the places we had lunch and the cafe we were planning to go to next, there is a loss.
One thing I could always rely on Sheila for was to underline and correct my spelling and grammar, which she insisted was a consequence of being an editor. So, to Sheila, I am doing my best to respond to auto-correct but I may have missed some … I am smiling as this feels a bit naughty, but it is done all with LOVE and R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Sheila, you are very much missed. R.I.P.
Lynda Bennet – BWC Centre User and Volunteer
I’m so glad to have this opportunity to make a tribute to Sheila who gave so much to women and BWC. To also have had a rare opportunity to spend time talking to her at the BWC AGM 2013 where she looked so well at the time.
She was a woman of conviction and I will always remember how she organised an alternative free WPT in the Latest Music Bar in Manchester St at the same time as Brighton Pride 2011 took place, as a protest following the charge into Preston Park.