In Abigail’s Footsteps

Jo Ward at Abigail's bridal salon

Jo Ward at Abigail's bridal salon - Credit: Archant

Out of the devastating loss of a child came the launch of a groundbreaking charity and a wedding empire in memory of a daughter. Kent Life meets Jo Ward

Jo and David Ward were looking forward with great excitement to the birth of their first child in April 2009.

What they didn’t anticipate was Abigail being stillborn at 41 weeks, the day after Jo’s due date and following what had been up to then a “perfect pregnancy.”

Nor that out of the devastating loss of their daughter they would go on to launch a charity focused on stillbirth bereavement – or that Jo would achieve her childhood dream of opening a bridal shop.

We are chatting on an elegant sofa on the first floor of that very shop housed in a Grade II listed building in pretty little Headcorn, rows of colourful bridesmaids’ dresses in the background, the grooms’ room just beyond and downstairs the very private, roomy bridal gown area.

All is calm, serene and very beautiful – but Jo’s emotion is still raw as she tells me her story. “On the day after Abigail was due, a Saturday, I just didn’t feel right and was told she had died. I didn’t deliver until the Wednesday and our experience wasn’t great – we were listening to babies crying all around us, and although the midwives were fantastic, they had no idea how to cope with us,” she says.

“There were no cold cots back to enable us to spend time with her, and my life came to a crashing halt, and I just wanted to swap places with her. It was the darkest point in my life and if it wasn’t for David and my family, I don’t know how I would have got through it. No mother should have to go through that.”

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Although Jo and David, who is md of Ward Security Ltd, have since had two more children, Reuben, four and Betty, three, Abigail is still a very big part of the family and always will be. “We have her picture up at home and she still has her Christmas stocking every year. We’re coping, but not dealing with it – you never recover.”

Jo tells me she then got to a point where she knew she had to do something positive, follow her dreams and open a bridal shop in Abigail’s memory. With a background in HR and no experience in the weddings field at all, the one thing Jo knew after losing Abigail was that she didn’t want to go back to her old job in Dartford.

“I’d been pregnant when I was working there and I couldn’t face going back to my office and my colleagues not knowing how to react. People used to cross the road rather than have to speak to me.

“I had to have a clean break and this shop was my saviour, if I hadn’t had this I would’ve had nothing to focus on. I should have been at home changing nappies, feeding my baby; I had none of that.”

The couple drove over most of Kent looking for suitable premises and fell in love with this characterful former bakery that had been a bridal shop in the past.

“The time I spend here is my time with Abigail. It’s my homage to her,” says Jo, who admits that the shop became her way of coping with her loss.

And their charity, Abigail’s Footsteps, was very much David’s way of dealing with losing his daughter – but neither quite anticipated its phenomenal growth.

“We very quickly realised we had a lot of support behind us as there was nothing out there for parents like us who had lost a child,” explains Jo. “We now have a part-time fundraiser and an administrator, plus regional groups of trustees from Scotland to the south. We have a board of trustees and Lady Astor is our Patron and is simply amazing. It’s quite scary really!”

The aim of the charity is to improve both bereavement training for midwives and the quality of supportive information families receive if they suffer a stillbirth.

Fundraising also supports buying equipment for maternity wards, including cold cots – refrigerated units in the shape of a cot – so families can spend time with their child and build some memories.

They have even created a bereavement awareness training film seen through the eyes of a mother whose child is to be stillborn. The Deafening Silence, which will be used for e-learning for 75,000 midwives this year, has recently won an award at an international film festival in America and the prize money will go to funding the next film the couple want to make.

Not content with winning awards for their charity, in just their fifth year of trading Abigail’s bridal boutique has just won Kent Wedding Retailer of the Year – for the second year in a row.

And Jo herself was named as one of the Women of the Year for 2014 and attended the 60th anniversary lunch in London, where every guest was hand picked in recognition of their contribution to society.

Jo has also opened a second shop, Betty Boo’s in Chatham, last September. A complete contrast with the Headcorn shop, everything there is under £500 and off the peg. Jo now splits her week between the two premises and as Betty’s is closer to Reuben’s school, she gets to pick him up.

Back at Abigail’s, where Jo is assisted by mother and daughter team Tina and Jessica Foreman, on display are stunning bridal gowns by Benjamin Roberts, Ellis Bridal, Ronald Joyce, Sophia Tolli, Victoria Jane and White Rose. Bridesmaids get a choice from one of the largest Dessy stockists in Kent, with more than 100 colours and in a variety of fabrics to choose from, plus a Junior bridesmaid and Flowergirl collection.

The men aren’t forgotten either, with a choice of everything from classic morning suits to Highland wear. There’s even a ‘try before you buy’ service which allows the chaps to order their suit, waistcoat and cravat or tie in their sizes to try in store to make sure they are happy with their choice.

What is striking is the lavish amount of space, particularly for the brides who get a choice of luxurious fitting suites with a private dressing room and viewing gallery. There’s room for guests, so mum and best friend can come too, and no chance of bumping into the groom upstairs either.

Doesn’t it make Jo want to get married all over again? Apparently it does. “What I really want to do now is for David and I to renew our wedding vows – then I can wear one of our dresses,” smiles Jo. n