Barry George Albin-Dyer said he was ‘conceived a funeral director’ when he was born into the family profession.
His father, George Dyer, was working as a funeral director with Frederick Albin when Barry was raised above their shop in Old Jamaica Road – continuing a lineage of burying the people of Bermondsey for over 200 years.
Although Barry was never bothered by death being a part of daily life in his home, his school friends rarely came over to play. “I grew up there with coffins in the corner,” Barry told the News last year, adding that some children would knock on the door and shout, ‘Got any empty boxes?’ before running away.
It was a family affair, with his mother Mary, dad, brother, uncle and granddad all pitching in ‘the Albin way’ to get the job done right. From the age of seven, Barry’s first tasks every day were to clean out the fire grate and polish the brass plaque on the front door bearing the firm’s name.
“There was a fantastic family atmosphere. My dad was very clever – he never closed any doors so I could go anywhere – so I wasn’t afraid of it,” Barry said of those early days.
Under the guidance of his father and great-uncles, Barry learnt every aspect of the trade and by eleven he was regularly acting as a bearer at funerals.
At seventeen, Barry’s world fell apart when his dear mother died of cancer. He since said that this was the worst thing she ever did to him and the best gift she could have given him. In suffering the dreadful pain of losing someone so special to him, Barry would forever understand the grief of those he served.
The memory of Father McManus and the Sisters of Mercy at Dockhead caring for his dying mother was instrumental in Barry’s later decision to convert to Catholicism.
Sons Jon and Simon recalled that Sister Finbar was the only one to ever make their father quake in his boots. “She used to tell him off,” said Simon. “She was only tiny but he was really frightened – it’s the only time I’ve seen fear in his eyes.”
At 22 Barry married Janet Burnett and they raised two sons, Jon and Simon, above Albin’s, then in Culling Road. History repeated itself as the boys started polishing the same brass plaque at seven-years-old and had free rein over the funeral home below.
When Barry first took over the family firm from his father and Fred Albin in 1986, he described it as receiving the baton – taking his turn to be the guardian of the Albin name. When the historic firm was awarded the Southwark Blue Plaque last year, Barry was “over the moon,” according to Jon. While feeling the weighty responsibility of protecting the strong local reputation his forefathers had built up over generations, he also saw the need to move the business forward.
Over his thirty years in the driving seat, Barry led the business into unchartered territory – from being the go-to place for Iranian funerals to offering cryonics (you can now be frozen and stored in a capsule in Michigan in the hope of being brought back to life in the future) – he remained open to the changing world around him, while sticking fast to the traditions he held dear. The Albin motto ‘the answer is yes, now ask me the question’ was how Barry brought the past and the future together.
One of the biggest changes Barry oversaw was taking Albin’s international. In 2010 he bought leading repatriation firm, Kenyon’s, at some considerable financial risk, and within four years turned it into a profitable enterprise.
From the Shah of Iran’s daughter to the film star Donald Pleasence, Barry, with Jon and Simon, have been responsible for reuniting some high profile figures with their loved ones.
But for Barry, ‘the Albin way’ is that everyone is equal – royalty or a bin man, you got the same service. As a patriotic man, though, he could not help but feel a special pride at being awarded the contract from the Ministry of Defence to bring British troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq when they had been killed in action.
The precision and attention to detail which Barry drummed into his team on a daily basis (even checking the exhaust pipes on the cars were clean before they were allowed to leave the yard) made Albin’s a perfect fit for military funerals.
When Walworth-born Lee O’Callaghan was one of the first British troops to be killed in Iraq, Barry gave him the send-off he deserved in the full glare of the media spotlight. Lee’s mum Shirley and brother Danny went on to join the Albin ‘family’, with Shirley now running their Walworth branch.
The quiet dignity and excellence with which Barry carried out his duties bringing our boys and girls home led to a knock on the door from an RAF group captain in 2010. He asked Barry to gather his troops in the meeting room at Albin’s HQ before he told them that as of that day, their fair leader would be known as ‘Barry Albin-Dyer, Officer of the Order of the British Empire’.
Son Simon embraced his stunned father and said: “Dad there can’t be a better man in the world who deserves this….you deserve it for what you have done for the people of Bermondsey,” while Jon, who was on a funeral at the time, shouted ‘Yeeeeesss!!” down the phone.
Two years later Barry was asked to be the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of London – an honorary role which entails greeting visiting members of the Royal family, as well as being given the Freedom of Southwark Borough in 2011.
Having a medal pinned on your chest by the Queen would be right up there in most people’s greatest achievements, but for Barry, who loved Bermondsey over all else, it was the memorial garden he created with Jon and Simon which took pride of place . (Although, daughter-in-law Jane Dyer said on his death bed Barry changed his mind and said his greatest achievement was “my two boys”).
Barry fought through acres of red tape to get a place where local people could be laid to rest. Even more importantly, thanks to Barry, parents of babies who died before they reached full term now have a place where they can visit their lost children.
Astonishingly, it used to be common practice that hospitals would bury numerous nameless babies in unmarked graves. When a woman came to Barry one day to ask for his help in tracking down where her baby might be buried, he could not help her, and that would not do. He set about creating a space where parents going through such a terrible loss at local hospitals could lay their precious babies to rest free of charge.
Jon told the News that just hours after Barry died, a “young kid in a hoodie” came to Albin’s with flowers. When his estranged girlfriend had a miscarriage years ago, they had come to Barry for help. “He told me that Dad had sat them down and given them a place in the garden and he’d never forgotten him,” said Jon. “It’s things like that that just really get you.”
The memorial service held in the garden every December attracts thousands of local people to come together for one night and remember their lost loved ones. When Princess Anne came along in 2009, three thousand people attended and had to spill out into Southwark Park.
For Barry, this was nothing to do with business, it was all about giving something back. “A company doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of its local community,” he once wrote. “And I believe it has a responsibility to contribute in some way to making that community a better place to live in.”
Despite being a savvy businessman, who knew how to take a chance without “risking the crown jewels” (as he often told Jon and Simon), Barry had a soft spot for the people of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe.
“He saw the good in people and he always tried to help,” said Simon. “And he was like that as a dad, if he knew there was something you needed,” added Jon.
In addition to Barry’s own Albin-Dyer Foundation and the charities he publicly supported, Jon and Simon have been inundated in recent days with tales of how their generous father helped countless people in smaller but no less significant ways – like when he taught an Albin’s chauffeur to read before he started work every day.
Jon recalled when Barry took him out of school one day to help on a funeral. On their way through Nunhead, Barry saw a homeless man lying in the road who looked like he had been hit by a car. While passers-by ignored him, Barry stopped the fleet of Albin cars to call an ambulance, wrapped up the man’s bloodied face and stayed with him until help arrived.
“Dad always said ‘It’s nice to be important but it’s much more important to be nice’,” Jon recalled.
In his final hours, Barry was constantly surrounded by his family and friends. Jon, Simon and Barry’s partner of eighteen years, Jackie, made sure he was never left alone. In those final moments, Jackie whispered that she loved him and the grandfather-of-nine squeezed her hand before he passed away.
“I had the most amazing life with him. He was the kindest most loving man you could ever meet,” said Jackie. “We were very happy together and I know he loved me.”
Even when he was very ill, Jon and Simon were both impressed by their father’s constant thought for others and courtesy to the nurses looking after him.
“He was a true gentleman,” said Simon, echoing the sentiments of the many messages of support they have received.
“He always backed people, even if he knew it wouldn’t be the best thing for him,” added Jon.
In one of Barry’s books, Square Pegs in Round Holes, he made a revelation even more startling than the fact he had flown a MIG fighter jet or that the Dalai Lama sent him a letter days before he died.
He wrote: “This might surprise you, but I’ve never thought of myself as a nice person. When I’ve sat in churches and listened to eulogies and heard someone say that so and so was a nice man, I’ve thought that I’d love to have people say that about me,” he added, concerned that his determination in business had sometimes been mis-interpreted as ruthlessness.
Let us put it down in black and white. Barry, you were a nice man. You were more than a nice man – you were a true gentleman and the best of Bermondsey.
Bringing our fallen heroes home
PC Jarra Brown, MBE, met Barry in 2007 , escorting Albin fleets of fallen soldiers from RAF Lyneham, through Wootton Bassett to the M4.
He described watching Barry conduct a service bringing eight of our heroes home.
“I saw Barry get out of the front hearse. With his immaculate presence he stood in top hat and tails and a cane in his hand, like an image from a generation that I had thought had long since gone.
“He wouldn’t be rushed, everything was precise and with so much grace he turned to face the eight heroes he was about to page to the war memorial, where ten thousand waited.
“One final salute by doffing his top hat and he slowly took his first step; slowly, methodically, almost in unison with the sounding of the tenor bell.
“The fallen followed in Union flag-draped coffins.
“This was not like any funeral, but a rawness of grief displayed, so many in total despair as the heartbroken families crumbled in devastation.
“Thousands of eyes looked in his direction and millions more at home saw TV images of each step he took as he was paged slowly towards an emotion that many lesser men with that responsibility may have feared.
The stop at the memorial is solemn and brief, yet as he leads the fallen away from their families, he bows his head and sends a message, that he really did care.”
When Bermondsey-born reality TV star Jade Goody died from cancer in 2009 aged just 27, her mother Jacqui Budden turned to FA Albin’s to arrange her final goodbye.
It turned out to be one of the most high-profile funeral in the firm’s history and the most broadcast funeral ever, with even more coverage than Princess Diana, according to Jon Dyer.
Thousands lined the route from Southwark to her final resting place in Essex, with Barry stopping the procession to release a dove in The Blue.
Jacqui paid tribute to Barry after she received the sad news of his passing, saying: “He was a wonderful man who did so much for us as a family at such an extremely difficult time. I can’t thank him enough for the way he handled it all.
“Nothing was too much for him. He was a true professional and a lovely man, who will be sorely missed by so many people whose lives he touched. Our thoughts are with his family.”
Giving something back
Barry believed in putting something back into the community where he lived, loved and worked day and night.
To be sure he could help a local person who came to him in need, he set up the Albin-Dyer Foundation. It was purely funded by a percentage of Barry’s income every year and decisions about where the money went were made by a committee of one. The foundation has paid for a young girl to study fashion at college, sick people to travel to Lourdes and bought minibuses for churches and charities in the area, to name just a few examples. Barry was proud to say the foundation never had a penny left in the pot because he spent it all doing what he felt was right.
Barry also regularly supported several local charities including the Evelina Children’s Hospital and the Bede House Trust. He was instrumental in founding Rotherhithe-based Homes4Heroes, for which he became a patron. He also sponsored the Rotherhithe Swimming Club and ploughed both time and money into keeping Fisher FC afloat.
In 2007 and again in 2009 Barry, John Donovan and the News put on a Party in the Park for hundreds of Bermondsey pensioners – just to celebrate a generation he felt made the area what it was.
In the way he ran his business he always kept the welfare of his clients in mind. He offered a free will-making service and allowed people who were hard up to come in and pay it off when they could.
‘Giving something back’ was far more than a box to tick for Barry – it was a way of life.
Flowers should be sent to the main office on the morning of the funeral. Donations welcomed for the Albin-Dyer Foundation at the office and online.
To read moving tributes paid to Barry click here
To read your tributes to Barry click here
To read about how Barry saved the Southwark News click here
To read about the funeral details click here