In her first interview since a mega-lottery win, Hartlepool's Frances Connolly talks about how she and her husband have shared their good fortune with charities and community groups in the region

It's almost two years now since Frances and Patrick Connolly discovered they had struck it lucky. Very lucky. The couple, who live in Hartlepool, scooped the £114.9 million jackpot in the New Year’s Day EuroMillions draw on January 1, 2019, making them the UK’s fourth biggest ever lottery winners.

But far from heading off to shop until they dropped, or sailing off in a superyacht, the Connollys determined from the start to share their good fortune, both with family and friends and the wider community. To match their big fortune, they have big hearts, and have already given away half their fortune in the biggest lottery giveaway ever. 

Just hours after winning, they wrote a list of 50 names of friends and family who they wanted to help. "The first list was very easy. We are in our 50s so at a stage in our lives where friends are fixed; they have been in our lives for a long time," says Frances. "Further down the list, it was a little bit more difficult."

The couple have spent most of their adult lives in Hartlepool and consider the North-East their home. "My twins, now 25, were born in the region, and even my eldest girl, who wasn't, has a real North-East accent," says Frances. "The people here are so full of warmth."

They were on the cusp of moving back to the region from Northern Ireland when fortune struck; the previous week they had scooped £2.60, but this was the big one. "We did the publicity, then spent the night in Wynyard Hall," says Frances.

She set her heart on buying a bungalow, but instead estate agents offered her details of a castle, and a 15-bed stately home which came with an entire village. In the end, the Connollys bought a five-bed red brick house near Hartlepool. "It's very nice, with a couple of acres and a tennis court, but it's not a big, fancy stately home," says Frances.

The Northern Echo: Philanthropist Frances Connolly: happy to share her good fortune Philanthropist Frances Connolly: happy to share her good fortune

Extravagance is not in their nature. After their win, Patrick treated Frances to a £2,000 second-hand Jaguar, because it was all she wanted, and when the couple flew to New Zealand last year, but were horrified at the price of First Class tickets, they flew Business Class instead. "We could help a young couple pay their mortgage off with the difference," says Frances.

The need to help others is important to the Connollys. Before the win Frances worked for years at the Aycliffe Young People's Centre, while Patrick ran plastics firm Bishop Auckland Custom Profiles. Then Frances went back to school to do a PGCE, subsequently lecturing on child development at Hartlepool College of Further Education and helping with remedial English and Maths.

After their win, the couple launched two charities, the first being the PFC Trust, to help local people in and around Hartlepool. In Northern Ireland, where they were both born, they founded the Kathleen Graham Trust, in memory of Frances’s mother.
Their emphasis has been helping people to help themselves to develop new skills and gain confidence, so they donated to Hartlepool’s The Poolie Time Exchange, which offers trial job interviews, advice on money management, mindfulness workshops and exchanges of skills and knowledge.

When they discovered HartlePower, a local charity which offers energy advice and affordable business space, didn’t have a lift, they gave £25,000 to have one installed so wheelchair users could access the upstairs offices. Then, this summer, Frances rented two rooms in the HartlePower offices to turn into a charity shop called Jumpers and More (JAM) so that refugees who arrive with no clothes, or local families who lose possessions in fires, can choose new outfits which are hung neatly and folded as in a shop.

Among the individuals they have helped is a young father, crippled in an accident, who could not take his electric power chair on rough terrain for the country walks with his young daughter. The couple paid for adaptations to allow father and daughter to explore fields and lanes together once more. They have also decided to pay for a young refugee boy to be able to travel to the secondary school he loves for the rest of his education.

In Northern Ireland, the Connolly’s bought new sewing machines for charity workers who were making PPE during COVID as well as sending food parcels to many sheltering alone, and £50 thank you vouchers for frontline workers as well as funding a befriending service for those living alone. Vulnerable secondary school pupils received laptops. 

It's a busy life. "I start every morning at 6am with messages and emails," says Frances. "Patrick makes me breakfast and then I might go to the factory, or keep working, with perhaps a break for a swim. I often have meetings until 9pm. The aim was to set up the charity so that others could run it, but during the early days it all came through us. There have been days when I've done 18 hours."

It all sounds a far cry from the luxury life of a lottery winner, and Covid-19 has piled on the pressure. "Patrick bought another business just to make sure people had work," says Frances. He also helped produce visors for frontline NHS workers, while Frances funded a charity group making masks.

Hearing that local pensioners in hospital had no clean clothes, Frances bought hundreds of pairs of pyjamas and sets of toiletries, and has just bought gifts for 1,000 hospitalised pensioners, and the couple paid for hundreds of elderly patients in homes to have iPads to Facetime their families, and for young carers to be able to learn from home.

As for Christmas, Frances has been on a mega-buying spree for presents early this year – one thousand gift sets of sweet-smelling toiletries, 30 computers, 20 laptops and dozens of internet dongles, so far. It’s the sort of extensive shopping list you might expect from a £114.9m jackpot winner. But the purchases are not for her own family; they’re gifts for patients who will be in hospital on Christmas day, the computer equipment for local youngsters who care for loved ones amid grinding poverty.

And for the grandchildren? "Probably some big boxes of Lego," says Frances.