Obituary: Monica Dance

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The Independent Culture
MONICA DANCE was Secretary of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings for 30 years during the critical post-war period which saw the growth of effective public interest in protecting the built environment.

Not only did she serve her own members in the spirit of the Manifesto of its founder, William Morris, but she acted as midwife to many other organisations concerned with the preservation of buildings and the conservation of our towns and cities.

Now that the preservation of the historic environment has become so fashionable that not only the Royal Family but television producers take an interest in our past, it is difficult to realise what an uphill struggle it could be even in the 1960s. William Morris had founded the SPAB in that brief late Victorian period which saw the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882 and the foundation of the National Trust in 1895, but neither Edwardian affluence nor the post-First World War depression made it easy to carry on his work.

Under Dance, membership rose from 300 to 6,000, stimulated by programmes of lectures and visits to country houses, and the Technical Panel was set up to advise owners. Many of the initiatives which have spawned organisations of their own began under the aegis of the SPAB. Thus the society's Report published in 1947 (when Dance had been Acting Secretary for five years), lists a whole series of concerns which we now take for granted: it could report that it had advised various councils in England as to how to restore their towns and cities appropriately, that it was in correspondence with historic and conservation societies as far afield as Brazil and South Africa, and had advised the Soviet Academy of Architecture in 1944 on the repair of damaged buildings. It could welcome the Town and Country Planning Act of 1944, and the incipient listed buildings acts on which it had been asked to advise.

The list of threatened buildings cases was unusual in that many had been damaged by enemy action, rather than merely neglected or vandalised by indigenous owners, but the society's awareness of the real dangers was shown by its concern over threatened buildings in towns, where it identified the rent acts, slum clearance and traffic as the greatest threats.

Dance was born Winifred Monica Soppitt in Barnsley in 1913, and went to work in 1931 as secretary to the architects John Macgregor and A.R. Powys. The latter was Secretary to the society, and, on his death in 1936, she became increasingly involved in its administration. During the Second World War, she became Acting Secretary, both to the Society and to its offshoot, the Georgian Group. She became Secretary in 1949, the first non-architect and the first woman to hold the post.

The Second World War gave her, as it did many women, the opportunity to make her mark, and she was fortunate too, in her husband, Harry Dance, whom she married in 1942, who supported her in her work. They lived "over the shop" at 55 Great Ormond Street until she retired in 1978.

Monica Dance was a persistent and dogged campaigner - she wrote more than 280 letters over 20 years to save one important timber-framed building in Hertfordshire, and she continued to save individual buildings after retiring to Norfolk. She started the publication of lists of threatened buildings in 1955, and in 1965 became the first Secretary of the British branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.

She was generous in helping new bodies and new people coming into the field - the society gave the newly formed Victorian Society a base until it was ready to stand on its own feet, and was the cornerstone of the Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies, which has become the regular forum for the discussion of matters of common concern between the many voluntary organisations and civil servants charged with preserving historic buildings.

Possibly her greatest contribution was the revival of the SPAB scholarship scheme which trained young architects in the proper repair of old buildings, at a period when this was not part of the regular architectural syllabus. The first post-war course was held in 1951. She and Harry had no children, and the scholars became part of an extended family. It was fitting that in 1988, the former scholars - many of whom now care for major monuments - set up the Dance Scholarship Trust to ensure the continuation of the scheme.

Monica Dance worked with passion for the SPAB for over 50 years, and played a truly historic role as Secretary, writes the Duke of Grafton.

I can speak with intimate knowledge because I actually worked with her in the office at Great Ormond Street for some years before becoming chairman of the executive committee. I am not exaggerating when I say that Monica Dance taught me everything I now know about ancient buildings.

Her extraordinary energy and determination inspired people to do the impossible. She was never known to say "No" to a request for help, and she would be working, often with her husband Harry, till the early hours of the morning before starting one of her courses.

Her achievement in recreating the Lethaby Scholarship scheme for young architects has led to the training of a whole team now dealing with some of the most important buildings in the country, including Windsor Castle. I like to think of her small figure clambering over church roofs, ever cheerful.

Winifred Monica Soppitt, conservationist: born Barnsley, South Yorkshire 24 November 1913; Secretary, Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings 1949-78; MBE 1957, OBE 1979; married 1942 Harry Dance; died King's Lynn, Norfolk 22 July 1998.