Jean Sanderson obituary

Jean Sanderson 1937 - 2009 An appreciation

In the early evening, not long after tea, the phone would ring, and the voice would say ‘Hello John, Jean.’ Of these, the last word was superfluous, as I would have recognised the voice anywhere. Then would follow a long talk, normally at least an hour, rather convoluted, about matters of mutual interest, in which the subject of the call would eventually be broached. Spanning nearly a quarter of a century, in recent years circumstances had changed and so the calls had become less in number. With her recent death they will be no more, the end of a chapter, but I take the opportunity to write an appreciation, which gives me greater scope, rather than a formal obituary.

Jean was born in January 1937, and lived with her parents in Norton, near Letchworth, Herts. After leaving school in 1955 she joined the county library service, and then in 1958 became a librarian at ICT. After her father died, she and her mother moved to Melbourn, and she worked for Heffers, the well-known booksellers in Cambridge. In 1970 she joined the University Library and finished her career as librarian of the Astronomical Institute. When her mother died she moved to Haslingfield, where she joined the church choir and the ringers, and she lived there until infirmity necessitated a move into a nursing home in Cambridge.

Jean learnt to ring at Norton in 1951, and also living close and ringing there at the time were Michael Orme and Andrew Mayes. In 1953 Jean became tower secretary, a post which she held for a number of years, and she was also a very young member of the PCC. Her first peal (Grandsire Triples on the tenor at Norton) was rung for the coronation of the present Queen in 1953. She joined the Ely D.A. as a non-resident life member in 1955, and became a resident member in 1964, after the move to Melbourn. Naturally she joined John Gipson’s band that rang at Melbourn and Meldreth, which led to involvement with the Meldreth peal factory, where she rang at least 320 peals, and even after her move to Haslingfield in 1985 she continued to ring peals at Meldreth. Although she could ring the standard eight Surprise Major, most of these peals were on the treble, and it was from this bell that she called her only peal as conductor, Cambridge S. Major on Friday, 13th June 1975. It was also the last bell that she rang to a peal, on 13th October 1992: she had problems with her wrists, and also standing for the length of time, so called it a day. Her overall total was at least 423 (I found three in a quick scan of the Hertford C.A. reports, and there are 420 on PealBase), and of these 371 were for the Ely D.A.

In view of her working career, it is not in the least surprising that she was a book collector. Over the years she assembled a remarkable collection of books on bells and ringing, as well as others such as modern first editions, about which I have no knowledge. The books on bells I do know about, and as a private general collection in extent it was second to none. These were kept in apparent disarray in her front room at Haslingfield, but she knew where everything was within that room. During her time at Heffers she made contacts with many booksellers who dealt in material in which she was interested, and she used these contacts in building up her collection. Essentially, however, this was an archive, and not a working collection.

I first met Jean in 1985, at a preliminary meeting about the proposed Ringing History Project. This took place at Chris Pickford’s house in Bedford, and also present were Cyril Wratten and Bill Cook. It was decided that this would go ahead, but sadly Chris decided he would not have the time to take part. Over the next few years this group met regularly, normally at the Wilby’s house in Towcester – where we were well looked after. Jean, of course, had experience in publishing, and indeed then and for many years afterwards was an active and valued member of the Central Council Publications Committee, and acted as a convener for the group, although she had no input into the text. Naturally she saw the books through the press, dealt with the design and printing etc. However, I remember when in some excitement she produced the first copies of the first volume from the boot of her car in the car park of the Saracen’s Head in Towcester, when Cyril looked at a copy, and then glanced at me and surreptitiously indicated the outer cover, where to our surprise (and, I have to say, disappointment) Jean’s name alone appeared on the front cover and spine and there was no mention of the authors. This was rectified to some extent with the authors’ names appearing on the front covers for the next two volumes, but was not satisfactory.

After Bill’s death in 1992 the third volume, to which he had contributed, was still in preparation, and when it appeared it was to some extent a memorial to him. After that, things gradually unravelled, the project became dormant and I am now the only member of the group left. While there are memories of the meetings we had – often lengthy as Jean could double the duration of a meeting without even trying! – my abiding memory of this period is of the journeys to and from project meetings in company with Cyril Wratten in which we had wide-ranging discussions on all aspects of ringing history, discussions that I would like to think that he enjoyed as well.

With her interest in books, it was no surprise that when a Library Committee to help the CCCBR Librarian was set up in the 1970s, Jean was one of the first members. Bill Cook, who took over after Fred Sharpe’s death in 1976, died in early 1992 and there was no successor lined up. Jean got in touch with me and suggested that I might like to come forward and offer to take it over. I had briefly toyed with this idea after I heard of Bill’s death, but with the spur from Jean, I wrote formally to the Central Council and made the offer to look after the library on a temporary basis. All this was easier since I was already an Honorary Member of the Central Council. This was accepted at the CC meeting, and at that meeting Jean was elected chairman of the Library Committee pro tem, in which capacity she organised the move of the library from Sidcup to Ullingswick. Naturally the next step was for me to become officially Librarian, but I had reservations about this. At that time the librarian was an officer of the Central Council, was ex officio chairman of the Library Committee, sat on the podium at the meetings, and as an officer had to attend the Admin Committee. Now that did not appeal to me at all, and so the rules were changed, and the post even became that of a Steward (although everyone refers to me as Librarian). Jean, of course, became chairman of the revamped committee, which, in my view, has the function to support the librarian in his/her work and to take some of the basic admin off his/her shoulders. All this has worked well, and my stand, although misunderstood by some at the time, has been justified. Jean, of course, revelled in her role as chairman, and took on the special role of dealing with the Friends of the Library scheme. She even liked going to the Admin Committee! Also, from a suggestion by Bill Butler, Bill Cook’s newsletter for the Friends of the Library was revamped as an annual report, with a lead article from the chairman of the committee, which Jean very much liked! Over this period I had much to do with her, and regular calls as mentioned above. Our mutual interest in bibliographic matters was a source of many long discussions, and she always encouraged me in the research work that I have undertaken over the years, and helping me wherever she could. Bill Butler took over as chairman of the Library Committee in 1999, although Jean continued to be an active member.

Jean travelled large distances in pursuit of her interests, which was not always that easy for her. On several occasions she said to me, with a twinkle in her eye, ‘I was always plump as a child’. And it is said that the child is father to the man, (or in this case, I suppose, mother to the woman!) It is also true to say that Jean appreciated good food, and a number of stories are told about this. On one ringing history project meeting we had lunch at the Saracen’s Head in Towcester, and when it came to the sweet trolley, both Jean and I chose Black Forest gateaux. Jean complained because my slice was larger than hers! She was not self-conscious about her weight, and it was said that any infringers of the rules at the Astronomical Library were threatened with being sat on, the ultimate deterrent. In a humorous way, this was also threatened to Friends of the Library who did not pay their subs, and at Central Council meetings she was remarkably effective in doing this! She also took great delight in ringing in the first peal of Six Mile Bottom Surprise Major, at Meldreth on 28th January 1972: the footnote to the peal says that it was ‘A birthday compliment of Miss Jean Sanderson.’

Sadly, in 2004 she was taken seriously ill, and rushed to Addenbrooke’s, where her life was saved but what limited mobility she had was lost in the crisis. The first I knew of this was when she phoned me from the hospital after she had come round, and such was the impact of the crisis that I did not recognise her voice. The need to go into a nursing home meant that her home had to be broken up, including her cherished collection. The work carried out by kind friends on her behalf was much appreciated. What was also appreciated was that a number of close friends were allowed to choose a book from her collection, and I have mine by me as I write. The Central Council Library and other collections also benefited, although in circumstances that are much regretted.

Jean was very frustrated by the change in her life style, and found it difficult to come to terms with her confinement, but she did make the best of it. She continued to look after the Friends of the CC Library, and through this kept in touch with the wider world beyond the nursing home walls. I am sure that she was something of a leading light in the nursing home, and know that she led poetry reading sessions, that being one of her other interests. She also got about in a motorised wheelchair, until there were technical problems. From the nursing home she was also leading a team which was writing the history of the Ely D.A., and when that is published it will, I am sure, be a memorial to her.

There are many aspects of Jean’s varied life of which I know little, and leave it to others to fill in the details. For instance, she was a member of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths: she was a keen handbell ringer, the first Archivist of the Handbell Ringers of Great Britain, and editor of their periodical Reverberations from 1982 to 1986: she was also a member of several different carillon societies both here and abroad: and she was deeply interested in music. She was also prominent in the affairs of the Ladies’ Guild, and served as an officer of the Ely Diocesan Association, over the years teaching many ringers.

For me, Jean was a good friend over many years. Early on in our friendship she discovered the date of my birthday, and always wrote and sent a card. This year the card was the last thing I heard from her, the writing shaky, but still the same Jean. While distressed to hear of her death, I know that for her it would have been a relief from her frustrations. The esteem in which she was held resulted in a large congregation at the memorial service held after the private funeral, with a number of us travelling long distances, a congregation much larger than expected. It almost goes without saying that the format for the service had been decided and arranged by her!

May she rest in peace.


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I was saddened to learn of the death of Jean Sanderson. It was Jean who introduced me to ringing fifty years ago at Norton in Hertfordshire, and who, three months later, took me on my first ringing outing. Jean’s knowledge of books in general and books on ringing in particular was extensive and over the years she gave me a lot of help and advice on the administration of the library belonging to the Suffolk Guild of Ringers.

Jean was kind and jolly, and a good friend. She will be much missed.


Woodbridge, Suffolk

This appreciation was first published in The Ringing World (to subscribe see: and is reproduced here with permission of the Editor.