Remembering founder of Sheffield shop with a sense of social justice

Grace Vincent offfers vegetarian products from New Roots;  at the Sheffield Green fair at St Mary's Community centre, Bramall Lane.
Grace Vincent offfers vegetarian products from New Roots; at the Sheffield Green fair at St Mary's Community centre, Bramall Lane.

A church minister and former teacher who opened a popular Sheffield grocery shop with a campaigning agenda has died aged 83.

Grace Vincent launched New Roots, on Glossop Road, 30 years ago, with the aim of selling ethically-sourced and fair trade fruit and vegetables, as well as speaking out on global issues including poverty, inequality and climate change.

In its early days the shop was a rare outlet for vegan, vegetarian and organic foods in Sheffield, and the place also acts as a hub for activists, providing space for meetings and workshops, and has an unusual edge.

Stock is interspersed with displays of leaflets, petitions are regularly kept on the counter and messages about hard-hitting problems such as landmines are commonplace in the front window.

Grace’s widower John Vincent founded the Ashram Community, a small nationwide radical Christian group, and for many years the pair ran the Urban Theology Unit, an organisation that seeks a more relevant role for the church in a modern city.

“She had an enormous influence on people - getting them into voluntary work and into social or community concerns,” said John.

“She was an inspirational character, even to me. We used to do everything together.”

Grace was born in Kodikanal, South India, in 1934, when the country was under British rule, and was schooled there before travelling in 1948 to Belfast, where she attended Methodist college and Queen’s University, before moving to Manchester.

She met John in 1958, and the couple married the same year.

“We did our courting through the campaign for nuclear disarmament, which I was the North West president of, and she became one of the leaders,” said John.

“We’ve always been fighting causes.”

Grace had three children with John - Christopher, Helen and James - before they came to Sheffield in 1970. By this time she had started working as a teacher of English as a second language, tutoring at Byron Wood Middle School and, later, Earl Marshal Secondary.

After a spell leading an alternative church in Grimesthorpe, based in a corner shop, she opened New Roots. The wider Glossop Road building is owned by the Ashram Community, but the shop itself, a not-for-profit venture, is rented out to volunteers on special terms.

Upstairs at New Roots there is a flat where 27 people - in twos and threes - have lived over the past three decades while working for the shop.

John said: “I think the striking thing is, really, her effect on generations of undergraduates who became volunteers in the shop.”

In 2001 the couple founded the Burngreave Ashram, a complex of shops and community spaces on Spital Hill, before Grace stepped back from her day-to-day involvement in New Roots in 2013.

“It’s totally run by students now,” John added.

Grace died of pancreatic cancer, having only been diagnosed with the condition in May. A celebration of her life was held at Pitsmoor Methodist Church, where more than 150 people attended.

John said she ‘refused to allow anything of religion, God, or an afterlife’ to be spoken of at the funeral.

“That was not what being a Christian meant for her - it was the idea of heaven in the present, on Earth.”