By 1985, three years since the first handful of diagnoses in Britain, the issue of HIV/AIDS had hit the mainstream.

Celebrities, such as actor Rock Hudson and musician Ricky Wilson of The B-52s, had fallen victim to the disease and subsequently passed away. The arts were starting to explore the subject, with Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart debuting in New York, to be followed by a UK production at The Royal Court Theatre in London only a year later. The political establishment was also beginning to wake up to the bourgeoning epidemic, with more money being funnelled into education and treatment by the Thatcher government.

Nonetheless, prejudice continued to dominate the discussion. ‘The Gay Plague’ was routine shorthand in much of Britain’s press, and many religious groups were keen to characterise AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuality. It was against this backdrop that Lieutenant Richard Crowe, of the Salvation Army’s Wandsworth chapter, accepted a request to conduct the funeral of a local motorbike enthusiast who had died due to AIDS.

The experience made Crowe acutely aware of AIDS’ threat to public health in Britain, and lead to his involvement in organising a special Christmas carol service at the Army Corps in Wandsworth the following December, raising money for the development of AIDS patient services at St. George’s Hospital in Tooting.

Ignorance and inaccuracy around the nature of the virus were rife in the early-mid 1980s, with many believing you could catch AIDS by shaking hands with, or using the same toilet seat as, an infected individual. The tide began to turn, however, in April 1987 after Princess Diana’s widely publicised visit to Britain’s first purpose-built HIV/AIDS ward, at London’s Middlesex Hospital. During this, she was filmed and photographed shaking hands with staff, plus the one patient who agreed to be photographed (most refused to participate due to the media’s portrayal of the issue up to that point).

It was also the same year that the Department of Health launched the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign, which in addition to its striking TV advert voiced by actor John Hurt, utilised billboards, leaflets and print media to inform people about the spread of the disease. Notably, the campaign made abundantly clear that AIDS was not confined to the gay community. One billboard ad read, “AIDS does not discriminate. It can kill anyone.”

These events inspired Wandsworth resident Patrick Lethaby to get in touch with Crowe and propose some practical ways in which the Salvation Army could further help those suffering with AIDS. Throughout the next couple of years, they would become more and more active with regards to raising awareness, fundraising, hospital visits, counselling and multiple other endeavours, eventually leading to the establishment of the Wandsworth Oasis AIDS Care Centre, based at the Wandsworth Corps.

Opening on June 30th 1989, the very first incarnation of Wandsworth Oasis functioned as a drop-in centre from 10:30am to 5:30pm every Saturday, though it later shifted its hours more towards the evening. This service greatly strengthened the support network for those living with HIV/AIDS in south London, and solidified the Salvation Army’s progressive reputation when it came to helping those affected by the virus.


The public’s gradual enlightenment with regards to HIV/AIDS, that had been hard won through the latter half of the previous decade, suffered an unexpected wobble in June 1990 when Channel 4 broadcast The AIDS Catch as part of its long-running Dispatches documentary series.

The content of the programme largely hinged on the widely discredited views of Peter Duesberg, then a professor of molecular biology at the University of California. He argued that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, just a harmless passenger virus, and that the actual cause derived from the use of recreational and pharmaceutical drugs. Fortunately, the response of the scientific community and much of the press was overwhelmingly negative, pointing to a multitude of factual inaccuracies and the general cherry-picking of evidence. AIDS denialism, though enthusiastically espoused by a number of dissenting pseudo-scientists (even to this day), in the end failed to exert much influence in Britain.

Meanwhile in Wandsworth, the Salvation Army reinforced its ties with Oasis. In its national magazine, The War Cry, a lengthy feature was published detailing the work of the AIDS Care Centre, which concluded, “The question mark over the congregation accepting people living with AIDS was soon answered. It is the Army’s business to make strangers feel accepted and people in need welcome.”

1991 saw events that were both encouraging and devastating to the HIV-positive community in their own ways. In January, BBC soap opera Eastenders featured a storyline in which the character Mark Fowler was diagnosed with HIV. Subsequently, a huge spike in people asking to be tested for the virus occurred, allowing many to be diagnosed and receive treatment who would have otherwise gone undetected. Then, in November, AIDS dealt another blow to the arts with the death of Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who had confirmed he had the disease just a day earlier. He was only 45.

Though the increase in people getting tested was no bad thing in itself, it revealed the extent to which the virus had travelled in the UK. In 1992, new statistics pointed to around 18,500 infected individuals, with 6,500 of these having been diagnosed with an AIDS-related illness.

However, this was also the year that Wandsworth Oasis added a substantial string to its bow, by making its first foray into the retail sector. In September, the very first ‘Sharing is Caring’ shop opened on Battersea Park Road, dealing in second-hand clothing, books, music and furniture donated by local residents. This venture very much set the template for Oasis’ future as a retail-focused charity, though at the time it continued with its AIDS Care Centre, while also using the shop’s upper floor as a meeting space and gym for its HIV-positive customers. By the end of the year, the outreach and support program had expanded to providing drop-in sessions six days a week across the Wandsworth Corps and Battersea Park Road premises.

The mid-late 1990s saw Wandsworth Oasis continue to expand alongside an HIV/AIDS epidemic in full swing, with related deaths in 1995 totalling 1,723 for that year alone in the UK. New diagnoses of HIV continued to rise after this point, but from 1996 onwards deaths began to decrease rapidly due to the introduction of effective antiretroviral medications. While the number remained high in 1996, at 1,481, it almost halved to 746 the following year, and has remained well below that ever since.

Wandsworth Oasis celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1999 with the opening of a new shop in Earlsfield, at 416 Garratt Lane. This effectively served as the charity’s third ever retail outlet after the second on Anerley Road in Crystal Palace, which had closed the previous year after opening in 1996, failed to take off. With the new millennium looming, Oasis had much to be optimistic about as well as challenges to overcome.


The landscape of HIV/AIDS in Britain was changing rapidly as the world entered the 21st century. As testing and treatment became more advanced and accessible, the need for the sort of support that Oasis had founded itself to provide was diminishing. This caused ructions between the charity and the Salvation Army, who felt that the space used for the AIDS Care Centre at the Wandsworth Corps should be repurposed as a result.

Fortunately, as the shops continued to pull in a healthy turnover, with a new location opening in Tooting towards the end of 2000, funding for the Care Centre remained readily available until November 2001. By this point, the views of the Oasis Trading Company had more-or-less aligned with those of the Salvation Army, and it was felt that the money being funnelled into the AIDS Care Centre could be better used by other HIV-related projects and organisations. This was in essence the beginning of the grant-giving function of Wandsworth Oasis.

By October the following year, a fourth shop had opened in Furzedown and almost a fifth of Oasis’ revenue was being put aside for grants. Among the earliest recipients of funding were the Mildmay Mission Hospital and The Food Chain, both of whom we still work with today.

With HIV on the rise in London during the early 2000s, Oasis found itself growing and adapting to meet the needs of its HIV-positive customers, with refurbishments and improvements being made to all four of its shops in 2003. Among these were significant changes to the upper level of the Battersea premises, including the installation of whiteboards and a projector to make it more suitable for meetings, training sessions and other gatherings.

Revenue from most shops remained steady over the following couple of years. Unfortunately, Earlsfield proved to be an exception to this and closed in January 2006. A sad event on the surface, but cutting the failing shop loose (along with its associated costs) meant a significant improvement in overall profits was realised in 2007. By this time, Oasis was also giving grants to more organisations, including Children With AIDS and the Salvation Army’s Community AIDS fund.

In 2009, Wandsworth Oasis celebrated its 20th anniversary with the opening of a brand new charity bookshop in Tooting, just opposite the existing shop on Trinity Road. The shop was officially opened on May 15th with then local MP Sadiq Kahn (now the Mayor of London) in attendance to cut the red ribbon. It was also the same year that Oasis successfully registered as a ‘charitable company’ with the Charity Commission, revitalising its purpose as it entered the next decade.