Neighbourhood Watch celebrates 50 years of crime prevention

Colleen Atkins (centre) started the first Neighbourhood Watch in Bedford.
Colleen Atkins (centre) started the first Neighbourhood Watch in Bedford.

National crime prevention group Neighbourhood Watch - which changed one woman’s life here in Bedford - is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

The scheme was propelled into the national spotlight after it was trialled in Bedford 32 years ago, thanks to one local community-minded person Colleen Atkins, who now also serves as a Bedford Borough Councillor.

The initiative started in America half a century ago following the rape and murder of a teenage girl at her home in New York in March 1964 - with no neighbours noticing any suspicious activity in the area.

It wasn’t until 18 years later that it reached the UK.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary, Colleen has spoken to the Times & Citizen about how she helped to launch the scheme in Bedford, and took it to a national level.

She has been involved locally and nationally ever since - despite battling cancer twice.

She said: “Neighbourhood Watch has helped to reduce crime and has brought communities together.

“To think that three small groups in the UK, one being Chaucer Road in Bedford, went on to become the largest voluntary organisation in the country is incredible.

“It certainly changed my life and has given me so many opportunities.

“I’m very proud of Bedford Neighbourhood Watch and I’m pleased with the way Hazel and the new trustees are taking it forward and making a difference to help prevent people becoming victims of crime.”

In 1982, thieves managed to empty a big Victorian, detached house on Chaucer Road - a few doors down from Colleen.

Despite the burglars using a large removal van to empty the property, nobody noticed anything.

Colleen quickly arranged a residents’ meeting and a neighbour recalled seeing a TV programme about an initiative in America, where neighbours got together to look out for crime and for each other. It was called Neighbourhood Watch.

This resulted in the Chaucer Road Neighbourhood Home Watch being launched.

It was one of the first three Neighbourhood Watch schemes in the whole country, along with the village of Mollington in Cheshire and a group in South Wales.

Colleen added: “The scheme was an immediate success, crime fell drastically and the Poets area was transformed into a much sought after area of Bedford.”

She was then invited to travel throughout the UK to promote Neighbourhood Watch and became a regular speaker at national conferences sharing the platform with Home Secretaries.

In 1988, Colleen was elected as a borough councillor for Harpur ward but continued with her Neighbourhood Watch activities.

But her health took a turn for the worse the following year when she was diagnosed with cancer and had to have a kidney removed.

However, she returned to her duties and the next year was awarded the title of the first national UK Neighbourhood Watch Co-ordinator of the Year.

She was flown to Florida to meet her US Neighbourhood Watch counterpart and was presented with the honorary citizenship of Orlando by the city’s mayor.

Colleen continued her voluntary Neighbourhood Watch work locally and nationally. Sadly five years later she found out the cancer had spread to her remaining kidney but she won her battle and, again, resumed her Neighbourhood Watch activities.

By 1994 Neighbourhood Watch had grown rapidly and was recognised as the largest voluntary organisation in the country with 10million members.

But she did not stop here, she helped to found the National Neighbourhood Watch Association, and was elected as the first national chair that year, a position she held for eight years.

She has also been awarded an MBE for her work.

Her involvement in Neighbourhood Watch has continued and now 32 years old, Colleen is still involved at local, regional and national levels.

She is the national representative and chair of the eastern region Neighbourhood Watch, but last year she handed the reigns of Bedford & District Neighbourhood Watch to Hazel Snowball, an area co-ordinator from Milton Ernest.