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Ellie Maxwell – 2009


Written by Sarah Anderson and publishing in the Independent on 21/05/09

Ellie Maxwell, who has died from cancer aged 32, was multi-talented, with an ability to engage in a wide variety of projects with an infectious generosity and enthusiasm. When she was 21 and at Edinburgh University she went to Bosnia to visit her father Peter who was working for Terre des Hommes in Mostar. While she was there she had to dodge bullets while helping to carry water over Mostar bridge and it made her realise that there was a great need for a safe haven for children from all ethnic and social backgrounds to meet together; this evolved into her charity, Firefly International.

Initially based in a shed in Brcko on the north-east plains of Bosnia, Firefly Bosnia (now known as Svitac) soon expanded and has been handed over to local management. Money was first raised on the streets of Edinburgh – pub-goers initially being the most generous – and in 1999 the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund gave them a grant. Firefly’s core belief is that it is vital for marginalised and vulnerable groups to become less isolated, more confident and to be given opportunities to play a greater part in society as a whole. Firefly International now has a much wider brief, with publishing and art projects in both Bosnia and with Forest Arts in Edinburgh. Forest has gallery facilities for artists to practice and make art, an arts and gallery space available to everyone; staffed by volunteers, it is funded by its not-for-profit vegetarian café.

In London in 2007 Maxwell helped put on an exhibition of photographs called Framing Gaza, highlighting 40 years of the Palestinian people living under occupation and, due to her initiative, a series of events associated with Palestinian students is to be held this summer in Edinburgh, with funding from the European Union.

Eleanor Margaret Constable Maxwell was brought up at Alresford House in Hampshire where her family opened their house to the public and ran a pick-your-own.

She was educated at St Mary’s School, Ascot before going on to read English and Philosophy at Edinburgh. She won fellowships for future leaders from the Clore Leadership Program and the Bertelsmann Foundation which allowed her to travel widely in Europe and North America and to practice the many languages she spoke. She was awarded Young Achiever of the Year, given by the Queen at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and was also named as Catholic Woman of the Year.

In 2005 Maxwell married Ben Courtney, an American graphic designer who is now working for the BBC and who was a tremendous support to her.

As well as being an exceedingly generous and thoughtful person, Maxwell had the most wonderful sense of humour – she was no dour do-gooder. She seemed to recover from her first bout of colon cancer, diagnosed in 2005, but in October last year was told that lung cancer had been detected. She fought bravely until the very end – there was still so much that she wanted to do. Her death is not only a great personal loss for her family, but also a major loss to the wider community. She will be greatly missed.

Sarah Anderson

Eleanor Margaret Constable Maxwell, charity worker: born Winchester, Hampshire 8 March 1977; married 2005 Ben Courtney; died Weissenburg, Germany 6 April 2009.