New Cross bus driver Trevor
Trevor, one of the drivers at New Cross, gave the masks his thumbs-up

A forgotten bag full of colourful fabrics inspired a designer and a team of volunteers to create thousands of facemasks for “extraordinary” people who have continued working during the lockdown in south east London.

Corinne McManus, a studio owner who runs Atom Designs in New Cross, and her partner Ben Roberts launched their sewing collective in early April and more than 1,000 bus drivers serving Lewisham, Greenwich and Camberwell have now received the hand-made masks.

McManus has rallied a team of 60 volunteers for the Masks for Extraordinary People campaign, who continue to sew and deliver masks to frontline workers.

She said: “After lockdown started, I ended up in the studio cleaning and found a big bag of old designs which were misprinted or the client hadn’t picked up and I started making masks. I initially made some for the volunteers at the local food bank.”

But demand for the masks – which feature pockets for filters – surged after just a few days.

Corinne McManus and Ben Roberts
Corinne McManus and Ben Roberts have brought together scores of volunteers

“My friend Trevor is a bus driver. I heard about the nine bus drivers who have died from the virus and I wanted to do something. I gave 20 masks to him to take down to New Cross bus garage. About half an hour later I got his union rep calling me. I thought he was going to tell me off but he told me he wanted to order 700 masks. I was looking at my machine thinking I could do that in six days, but it was crazy,” she said.

Finding herself inundated with further orders, McManus used social media to recruit other volunteers to help her.

“We now have a whole community sewing together, some of them are doing social media and deliveries. Our little group isn’t so little now. Everybody has been so kind and amazing and so wanting to help. Everyone’s been saying it’s therapy for them to keep their minds off what’s happening and whether they will have jobs [at the end of lockdown],” she added.

Her studio has been transformed into a mask-making factory with piles of fabric piled on every surface waiting to be converted into masks.

Carolyn Pelling from New Cross bus garage collecting some masks for her colleagues
Carolyn Pelling from New Cross bus garage has been collecting masks for her colleagues

Carolyn Pelling, a bus driver for more than 40 years usually found behind the wheel of the 453 to Deptford Bridge, said the masks are a boost for drivers.

“It sounds like a little thing, but the fact that there is a little bit of colour in the masks, rather than being a surgical mask, gives the drivers a lift and shows off the individuality they’ve all got,” she said. She explained that the masks came to New Cross bus garage at a time when “there was a lot of insecurity” among the drivers.

“It was before the front doors were sealed off and prior to the screens being covered. It was at a time when drivers felt very vulnerable. When we got the first delivery of masks, they flew out of the door like hot cakes. They were all so grateful. The drivers are still asking for them and have every intention to keep wearing them,” she added.

Fabrics in the studio
Fabrics are piled up in the studio, waiting to be turned into masks

Pelling, who wears a sparkly yellow mask, praised the group’s use of the word “extraordinary” to describe frontline workers.

“It’s a great word to use instead of key workers. All these people are all out there: postmen, road sweepers, supermarket workers, teachers. Some of them are making huge sacrifices and it’s not just those in the NHS,” she said.

Jim Clitheroe, who drives the number 21 to Lewisham and is a Unite representative, said: “I’m grateful for what Corinne and her volunteers have done and it’s bringing the community together.”

Last month, drivers working from New Cross bus garage – while all wearing donated masks – made a video to pay tribute to the bus drivers and other frontline workers who have died after contracting Covid-19.

Volunteer mask maker Fin Forbes Gower, who usually works as a costume designer at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, said: “I can sew and I wanted to get involved in doing some good for the local community. I’ve been helping with cutting, delivering for three weeks. I’m unemployed now and I needed to be doing something that was physical. With this, I have the skills to do it.”

Volunteer mask maker Fin Forbes Gower
Volunteer mask maker Fin Forbes Gower usually works for a north London theatre

Forbes Gower has taught herself how to skateboard during the lockdown. “Yesterday was fun, I skated over to St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham with a delivery of masks. They found it quite funny that I arrived on a skateboard, I think it brightened their day. We’ve already had a request for more masks from the hospice,” she said.

The government has recently started advising people to wear face masks on public transport and in other enclosed spaces.

Masks for Extraordinary People has raised more than £3,500 to buy fabric supplies on its Justgiving page and is still looking for volunteers to sew and deliver the masks. You can contribute to the appeal at and get in touch with the group via

EMILY FINCH is a former reporter for the Islington Tribune. We have been able to commission her to write for us because of the generosity of people who fund 853 with monthly memberships. Thank you to all who have helped.

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