Mr Mac - Volunteer of the Month February 2014

Created on 13/02/2014

David McCarthy MBE, better know as Mr Mac, is a long standing Waterway Recovery Group (WRG) volunteer and one of the first WRG North West (WRG NW) volunteers. He is well known for his Paperchases, where he recruits volunteers to collect waste paper from the Crumpsall district of Manchester, along with second-hand books and bric-a-brac, all of which are sold. Paperchases take place around ten times a year and are the primary source of income for WRG NW. Take a read of the following interview with Mr Mac to find out more about Paperchases, Mr Mac’s involvement in canal restoration and how it was done in the past. If this inspires you to get involved with a Paperchase, take a look at the WRG NW web pages for a list of dates. Finally, we would like to take the opportunity to wish Mr Mac a very happy 90th birthday later this month.

When did you first become involved in canal restoration?
It was really through my son Ian, who is still a volunteer on the canals. He had friends in the local Scout Troop who were also canal enthusiasts and their Scout leaders had bought a narrowboat for troop use. One of the leaders, Harold Gwyther, was Ian’s Sunday school teacher and making the most of his access to the narrowboat took the Sunday school class out on the boat one summer. Following this, Ian convinced us to hire a boat and go out as a family. We loved it and I ended up thinking that it wouldn’t take a lot to put the canals right again. Unfortunately we missed the big clean up at Ashton, the weather was wet and we had a friend staying, but Ian and myself did go along to the later Operation Marple. As we got more involved with canal restoration, my wife then decided if you can’t beat them join them, and my daughter Jane wasn’t far behind.

We became quite involved with the Peak Forest Canal Society, they would ask for volunteers through their magazine. At one time, there were three people in the society who organised the tasks. My son, Ian would weigh up a site, Peter Stockdale was in charge of tools (he was very diligent and moaned for weeks if anything went missing) and the third, Tim Noakes, would recruit volunteers.

Thirty years ago, we would phone people up to see if they would come along and help out. I would look through the newsletters of local canal groups and find the bit that welcomed new members. It usually gave their name and town and if they lived close by I would look them up in the phone book and give them a call to see if I could get them on board with our latest canal project. Cold calling took a bit of courage but they would often have a chat and in the end they might come along and lend a hand.

Everyone had different ways of recruiting volunteers. Dave Wedd from WRG BITM (Bit In The Middle) asked members or interested people for twelve stamped and addressed envelopes. He would then send a newsletter out once a month with details of what the group had done and what they were planning to do over the next few weeks. It worked well for them.

When did you become involved with WRG?
In 1977 WRG NW was formed. The restoration of the Peak Forest Canal was complete and interest in the society was dwindling, membership fell from 750 to 350 in two years. A few of us suggested transferring the whole of the Peak Forest Canal Society over to the Huddersfield Canal Society but the idea wasn’t welcomed, so the younger of us in the society split away and became WRG NW. I was involved with fundraising for the Peak Forest Canal Society so carried on in a similar role for WRG NW. I was responsible for raising funds but always pointed people in the direction of restoration work if they were interested.

And that’s where the WRG NW Paperchase comes in?
Yes, we organise the Paperchases to raise money - at one time we were getting £30 per tonne of waste paper. Through Paperchases, we accidentally stumbled on the money books can bring in. We took the books out of the waste paper we had collected and decided to trial a second-hand bookstall. The parents of our present WRG Chairman, Mike Palmer, organised an outdoor leisure exhibition in Manchester and his father, John Charles Palmer, let us have our first bookstall there. It went well and we still collect books today. They used to be stored, along with other WRG NW equipment, in my garage and cellars but I’ve recently downsized.

WRG NW has such a collection of books that we have our own librarian – John Foley. He goes up to Dumfriesshire in Scotland and takes the books to Wigtown, the book capital of Scotland, to get a good price for them. I don’t know that we will find anyone to take on that role when he retires!

Are Paperchases still going strong?
Yes, we still organise them but we don’t get as much per tonne as we used to, it is still a money-spinner though. At the last Paperchase, we had sixteen people work from about nine until lunchtime, you get a subsidised lunch as a thank you. You see it’s important that you get enough people to do the job. I remember a time when I was at an annual event in Manchester on a Sunday morning and a couple came at eleven o’clock in the morning to help. No one seemed to be turning up to enjoy the event so after a while the couple became disheartened and left. Manchester woke up shortly after with the crowds arriving at around midday, luckily there were enough of us to cope but it was a shame that the couple left early because they felt they had wasted their time. It’s the same with volunteers on the Paperchases, I want to recruit good numbers who arrive first thing, then even if a few arrive later on no on leaves before we get going thinking it’s a waste of time as the numbers are too low. So I’m always chasing Manchester WRGies to get involved and always being accused of over-manning the event, but I’d rather have too many than too few. Too many is a problem easily solved by taking extra breaks! It’s the same for everything, from Paperchases to Festivals – you need a good core group to turn up on time and get things moving.

Have you enjoyed volunteering on the waterways?
Yes, it’s been a happy time.

Volunteers are a great group and it’s a bit embarrassing that you’re talking to me in particular. All volunteers do what they can, I’m just lucky that I've been in a position to raise some money and that I’ve been retired for a while. We’re all in it together and it doesn’t matter how much or little any one of us contributes because in the end something is better than nothing.


Thank you to Mr Mac for this interview.  If Mr Mac's expereinces have inspired you to get involved, take a look at our many volunteer opportunities to find one that suits you.

Tags: Volunteer of the Month