An Oxfordshire woman who raised more than £1m for a worldwide children's charity died just days after finding out she would receive an OBE.

Alison Richards, who knew she was getting the award made in the New Year Honours list, published today, was diagnosed with cancer a year ago.

When she was told she was to be honoured for her services to Unicef she was excited at the prospect of receiving the award from the Queen.

Ms Richards founded homeware chain The Pier, which over 10 years raised funds for Unicef through Christmas cards and customer donations.

Yesterday colleagues at the company's headquarters at Milton Park, near Didcot, paid tribute to her.

Brand director Fiona Strang said: "When she died just before Christmas we were heartbroken. She meant so much to all of us.

"She was so excited about being awarded the OBE, but of course she couldn't tell anyone about it until it was formally announced. At least she knew she had been recognised for all that she did."

Ms Richards, who was 53 and lived in Longworth, near Abingdon, stepped down as managing director in 2006 when the firm was bought by Icelandic investors Lagerinn.

John Higgins, the current managing director, said: "She's a great loss to the world of retail and particularly to all of us at The Pier, who knew her as a friend."

Ms Richards grew up in Eastbourne, in Sussex. During her business career she was appointed UK buying director of Habitat at the age of 29. She started The Pier in 1989. She was interested in the developing world and became a major figure in raising funds for Unicef.

Anita Tiessen, the organisation's deputy executive director of communications, today paid tribute to Ms Richards, who was a vice chairman of the Unicef board.

She said: "Alison was a great champion for Unicef for many years, first supporting the organisation when The Pier started selling cards in 1993.

"She looked for new opportunities to support our work, from initiating emergency fundraising in The Pier stores to introducing Unicef to new major donors.

"When she celebrated her 50th birthday she did so in aid of Unicef. Her energy and commitment to us were unflagging and she will be missed by her many close colleagues."