The SMSA chats to Henry Johnson, founding member of Garnock Valley Men’s Shed (GVMS) and Chairman since its inception in 2018.
At 77 years young, Henry recently announced that—after four years at the helm—he plans to step down as Chair at the next AGM.
Henry said: “I have three sons and three grandsons in Australia and, pre-Covid, I visited them at least every two years. It was there, in rural Victoria, that I first heard about Men’s Sheds—not knowing at that time that some had already popped up across Scotland.
“Well, I thought that Men’s Sheds were an amazing concept and would be in high demand in my community back home. At the time, I was a trustee of Project Kilbirnie—aimed at revitalising one of the three small towns in the Garnock Valley—and I put the notion to my fellow trustees on my return. They were excited by the idea and we very quickly got to work to follow it through.
“Unlike many developing Sheds, we found premises first before calling a public meeting. We were extremely fortunate that North Ayrshire Council offered us use of a semi-derelict building in our local park to get us up and running.
“As the first Shed to start-up in the area, we have always had, and continue to have, an excellent relationship with the council—largely through our local Community Development Officer, Stewart Beck. We have deliberately cultivated and maintained good relationships with all of our local politicians at all levels and of all parties and none, kept them informed and invited them to get involved in our work. This has been key to our success.
“There was a great buzz at the inaugural meeting, held in the rundown building we had been offered for use. There were around a dozen enthusiastic men in attendance including David Gardner who was so taken by the potential of Sheds that he is now Chairman of the SMSA. We quickly got a committee together and obtained charitable status in May 2018.
“We soon discovered that there were other Sheds up and running across the country. We got a grant from the Scottish Community Alliance’s Learning Exchange Programme and used it to visit Sheds in Barrhead (our nearest neighbour), the Wee County, Westhill and Inverurie to ‘steal’ ideas from them. After all, there is no point in reinventing wheels when a tried and tested model works well. We remain grateful to these other Sheds. In the course of these visits, we found out about the SMSA and joined as a subscribing Shed member. We have received splendid support and guidance there.
“We were overwhelmed by very generous support from local people and businesses and we successfully approached national funders. We’ve raised around £80,000 in total since we set up and used it to vastly improve the interior and exterior of our building and to kit it out for our member-led activities. There was a lot to do. We had resident rodents, the internal walls were black with damp, the roof leaked and we had no water supply or toilet facilities. But for us, ‘the Shed’ was not so much about a building as about a group of men getting together and working towards a shared vision. Seeing these guys transform a ‘hovel’ into a much-valued community asset was a brilliant project to be a part of.
“Our building is situated in a public park and is at risk of vandalism – or worse. So, an early priority was to make it secure by installing alarm systems, security fencing and anti-climb paint. We even have security cameras that not only record external activity but are linked to my own and David’s phones so that we can check on the building at any time.
“I am not your stereotypical Shedder. I’m legally responsible for health and safety so I’ve never dared to use any of the machinery in the workshop. My only useful ‘tool’ has been my laptop keyboard. I was a mid-ranking civil servant before I retired and I have used skills developed then by completing many a funding application, writing many a begging letter and composing, with pleasure, the occasional letter of thanks.
“I was thoroughly bored at times after I retired. I’d suffered, as many retirees do, a huge loss of mental stimulation. My Shed activities have certainly filled this gap. I go to the Shed for a while most Tuesdays and Thursdays if only to have a blether with the guys. Thanks to the Shed, I now have a much wider group of friends. Friends for life.
“The Shed has given me a renewed sense of purpose and fulfilment. I enjoy watching previously isolated men—some unemployed, redundant, retired, divorced, bereaved and in recovery – blossom into active Shedders. One of the many highlights for me was watching a group of GVMS Shedders help improve a community garden in the local village of Barrmill. Seeing these guys working together as a team to create a gorgeous shrubbery out of nothing is something I’ll always remember.
“The lengthy COVID closure of the Shed was not only a setback to our progress but tragically, we also lost one of our trustees to the virus. We kept in touch with as many Shedders as we could including via Zoom and through several remotely organised events but it wasn’t the same as running an active Shed. Our immediate priorities, now that we have reopened, are to attract members back and to extend a warm invitation for new members to join us. The pace of returning to active shedding is however slow. Some vulnerable members are understandably still hesitant but we will be there when they are ready.
“We have accumulated funds during lockdown to make further improvements to the Shed building, including installing heating and insulation. We will work on this in readiness for next winter and then develop a chunk of space which we use only for storage at the moment. Something SMSA’s Jason Schroeder said at a training day he held for us early on has always stuck with me – ‘A Men’s Shed is not just a workshop’. For some men, a workshop area can actually be unwelcoming. So, with that in mind, I envisage creating a cosy social area with comfy seats and tables for games to attract members who only want to sit and banter and have a cup of tea or a game of dominoes.
“It has been fantastic being a part of this journey over the last four years. It’s been challenging at times with many highs and occasional lows but I am immensely proud of what our Shedders have achieved and it is only going to continue. It has also been a privilege to support other emerging Sheds in our part of the country, to help set up the Ayrshire Men’s Shed Network and to encourage the growth of the Men’s Shed movement. We are close to finalising our 25-year Community Asset Transfer lease of our restored building which has been much delayed by Covid. We should reach that landmark soon so that GVMS can be around for the generation after mine.
“When I step down later this year, I’ll be very wary to avoid boredom reappearing. I will of course still be involved with the Shed in some way or another. The guys might even let me stay on as a trustee. But I think the time is right for me to take a back seat—I’ve got two continents still to visit and a lot left on my bucket list.”