Bill Thornton of the Billingsgate Fish Market was awarded a Medal of the Order of the British Empire (BEM) for serving the community in Docklands
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Tower Hamlets residents celebrated in the 2023 New Year’s Honours list

Tackling hunger in Tower Hamlets, delivering humanitarian assistance in Ukraine and furthering early years special education are just some of the services that local residents have been recognised for in the 2023 New Year’s Honours list. 

Every year, the New Year’s Honours list recognizes the extraordinary achievements of people from across the UK. This year’s list is the first to be signed by King Charles III, and totals 1,107 individuals from all walks of life.

Most honours are awarded on the advice of the Cabinet Office, and anybody can make a recommendation if they know someone they believe to be worthy. The final decision about who gets an honour is made by a special committee, whose decisions go to the Prime Minister, and then, finally, to the monarch to be checked. Recipients must then accept the honour before attending an investiture ceremony where they are officially recognised as a Commander, Officer, or Member of the British Empire, or awarded a British Empire Medal (CBE, OBE, MBE, BEM). 

The number of people rejecting their honour has doubled in the last decade, citing personal and political reasons. Local Mile End film director, Danny Boyle, was nominated for an honour for directing the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Boyle rejected the honour on the basis that it was wrong to claim credit for his work as the man behind the ceremony when thousands of others were also involved. 

From services to education, to furniture design and fighting hunger in our community, a wide range of inspiring individuals have been recognised in Tower Hamlets again this year, reflecting the hard work and achievements of the people in our borough during 2022. 

Rachel Kessler

Bow resident Rachel Kessler spent much of 2022 away from her home in Chisenhale Road, travelling between Rzeszow Poland and Kyiv advising the UK Government on its £220 million humanitarian programme in Ukraine. Kessler’s role focussed on supplying emergency life-saving support to the 17 million people in need of assistance inside Ukraine, not including the estimated eight million people who left the country after Russia’s invasion. 

Reflecting on her work Kessler said: ‘Ukrainian civil society mobilised in a way that I’d never seen before in my thirty years working in humanitarian support. Nobody in our wildest imaginations expected the invasion to be of the nature, scale or ferocity that it was, but the Ukrainians are so young, dynamic and resourceful and they mobilised across the whole global diaspora.’ 

Coming to the end of her work in Ukraine in December, Kessler said she was surprised and delighted to be nominated for an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her work. Continuing her work in humanitarian support, this year Kessler will be advising the government on their humanitarian strategy in Afghanistan. 

William Michael Thornton

Bill Thornton of the Billingsgate Fish Market in Canary Wharf was awarded a Medal of the Order of the British Empire (BEM) for serving the community in Docklands. 

Go down to the Billingsgate Fish Market in Docklands, ask after Bill Thornton, and you’ll see the expression on everyone’s face light up. Born just across the River Lea, Thornton has worked at the market for over 50 years. On paper Thornton is now retired, but he still helps out with the odd shift for his former employer, James Nash & Sons Ltd, conducts market tours, and is at the helm of the market’s charitable output donating fish to nearby food banks and churches. 

Thornton’s work has caught the attention of outside eyes before, earning the Freedom of the City of London and appearing on Songs of Praise in 2016. Friends and colleagues at the market, on the other hand, have assured, ‘if you think we’re bowing to you you’ve got another effin thing coming’.

Justin Byam Shaw

Justin Byam Shaw, who runs Poplar-based The Felix Project, was awarded an OBE in the King’s New Year Honours for his charity’s services across London. Since 2016 the Felix Project has been rescuing fresh surplus food from the food industry, and redistributing it to 1,000 front-line charities, primary schools and holiday programmes in London.

Poplar is home to one of The Felix Project’s four depots and Felix’s Kitchen – the first of its kind operating on this scale in London which opened in the summer of 2021 and has distributed 2.8 million meals to those in need. 

‘I know it is customary to say this sort of thing, but the truth is that this honour reflects the work of our staff and 1,500 volunteers who feed 400,000 Londoners in need every week,’ Shaw said to The Independent. 

The honour is the charity’s second OBE award as Mr Byam Shaw’s wife, Jane Byam Shaw, was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list in June 2022.

Christine Joyce Lewis

Former head of Children’s House Nursery School in Bow, Christine Lewis was awarded an MBE for her services to education. Throughout her long teaching career, Lewis has specialised in working with hearing-impaired children and those with special educational needs. 

During her time as headteacher of Children’s House Nursery from 2007 – 2021, the school was recognised as ‘outstanding’ in its last three Ofsted inspections. In a recent blog post by Children’s House Nursery School, Lewis was described as ‘much loved’ and always being ‘a wonderful advocate for all children.’

Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien

Furniture designers Nipa Doshi and Jonathan Levien both received an MBE for their work confronting standardised modes of design and reimagining how culture combines with design to construct items used in our everyday lives. 

Found in a former 19th-century furniture workshop on Columbia Road, studio Doshi Levien is reframing notions of what is ‘functional’ to fit within diverse contemporary societies shaped by globalisation and the exchange of cross-cultural ideas. 

Reflective of their design approach, Doshi and Levien’s Columbia Road abode exists as both studio – and above – their home, symbolising the complexities and coalescences of our wider community. The studio can be found at 49 Columbia Road, E2 7RG.

If you enjoyed reading this piece, you might also like our photoessay of East End street parties.

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