Monday, 17 January 2022

Francis Sheppard, September 10, 1921- January 22, 2018

HISTORIAN Francis Henry Wollaston Sheppard, the first general editor of the Survey of London, has died, aged 96.

He lived in Henley where he was very active in civic life, once leading a campaign to save the Catherine Wheel pub in Hart Street, an old coaching inn. As a result, the Henley Society was formed and he was its first secretary.

He also served as a town councillor for 10 years, including a year as Mayor, and wrote a history of Brakspear in 1979.

At his interview with London County Council, which later became the Greater London Council, he agreed to publish a new volume of the Survey of London once a year.   

But only weeks into the job his wife, Pamela Davies, died in childbirth, leaving him with two small children.

Yet between 1954 and his retirement in 1983 Sheppard produced 16 volumes of the Survey.

Previously, the record of London’s buildings had been sporadic and selective but Sheppard set about creating, area by area, rich content that was authoritative and beautifully illustrated.

His model of urban topographical writing is still an unequalled resource for anyone interested in London’s history and architecture.

The Survey of London is now in its 50th volume and its modern form owes much to Sheppard, who has been described as London’s greatest topographical writer since Elizabethan historian John Stow.

Sheppard was modest and disliked fuss. Some mornings he would take the stairs to his office rather than the lift. He would then submerge himself in his work, almost literally, only to rise from within a fan of papers when his next handwritten draft chapter was ready for the typist. At other times he might be found head-deep in a records office or private archive making notes.

Sheppard was born in Cobham, Surrey, and was the son of Leslie Sheppard, an expert on early printed books at the British Museum.

His mother, Dorothy, had been a nurse and translator for the Red Cross during the First World War. He attended Bradfield College, near Reading, before studying history at King’s College, Cambridge.

His first job was in the West Sussex county record office in Chichester, where he garnered an interest in archives and the English townscape.

From 1949 to 1953 he was an assistant keeper at the London Museum, now the Museum of London, which moved into Kensington Palace during his time there. Later he wrote a history of the museum.

The museum director, the archaeologist WF Grimes, suggested that Sheppard should write a doctorate if he wanted to get on and he chose to study the parish records of Marylebone. The result was Local Government in St Marylebone 1688-1835 (1958).

In the Fifties, interest in urban architecture and planning stopped at the Victorian period and Sheppard was aware of the need to go further. He began with the first volume of the reanimated survey of south Lambeth (1956).

He enjoyed a sometimes uneasy relationship with the council’s historic buildings division, which was concerned with the threat to Georgian buildings in the West End, which the Survey could help to defend.

Investigations in the Sixties and Seventies were concentrated on St James’s in Soho, Covent Garden and Mayfair, which conserved swathes of inner London. One of the successes was derailing the council’s own destructive plans for Covent Garden.

Sheppard then focused on Kensington, the area where he had been brought up and worked to bring urban development, architecture and social and economic history together. Northern Kensington (1973) was the first volume to feature this holistic approach and became something of a best-seller.

He also published several other books, The Infernal Wen (1971), A History of the Victorian Metropolis, London 1808-1870 and the broader London: A History (1998).

Sheppard is survived by Rupert and Joanna, the children from his first marriage to Pamela Davies, and by Arabella, the daughter of his marriage to Elizabeth Lees, whom he married in 1957 and who died in 2014.

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