Irene was always known as ‘Renie’. She was born in Bromley, Kent, the third of four children to Edward Owens, who owned a printing business and Louisa Varcoe.
She went to Beckenham County School for Girls and then trained as a telephone operator, working at the New Cross Exchange.
Her older sister Ethel had gone to Oxford University. She was very much involved in the Oxford Group, which became the Moral Re-Armament Movement (MRA). Ethel introduced Renie to the movement.
At the telephone exchange, Renie had developed a habit of listening in on conversations (common amongst the girls). With her newly found moral compass she decided eavesdropping was unacceptable and stopped. Word spread around the exchange – “Owens has got religion.”
During the Second World War, Renie trained as a nursery nurse at Hampstead College. This was attached to Swiss Cottage children’s hospital. In order to protect her charges, Renie volunteered to become an air-raid warden.
After the war she provided nursery care for the children of the MRA, all of whom remembered her fondly.
In 1960 she went to secretarial school and qualified in typing and book-keeping. She was then employed for the rest of her working career by the Inland Revenue.
When she retired, she took up dressmaking, cooking and cake decorating for weddings. She continued to be active with the MRA.
It was in that capacity that she visited the newly independent Zimbabwe for a conference, in 1980.
She realised that the white ruling elite of the former Rhodesia had fled, taking as much of the country’s resources with them as they could carry. Consequently, Zimbabwe was suffering extreme poverty and was struggling to find it’s feet.
Upon her return to London, Renie wrote to Sally Mugabe, the wife of the President, asking how the MRA could help.
She got a personal response from the President’s wife. Sally said that poor women who wanted to set up co-operatives, needed sewing machines.
Renie started raising money to buy the machines and returned to Zimbabwe in 1981 to personally deliver the machines.
And that was the start of her new project. She bought over 500 sewing machines as well as knitting machines, typewriters and other vital equipment, countless children’s books and raised money to afford thousands of urgently needed vaccinations.
When the Mugabes came to Great Britain for their first state visit, Sally made a point of coming to visit Renie in her tiny Dulwich flat.
In 1990, Sally sent Renie a first-class air ticket so that she could be a guest of honour at Zimbabwe’s tenth anniversary celebrations.
There, Renie was interviewed on state television.
She is still remembered warmly in Zimbabwe.
RIP – Restocking (for) Independence (with) President’swife