Jack Birch

Dedicated servant of York
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The Independent Online

Jack Penty Birch, builder, philanthropist and public servant: born York 23 January 1911; member, York City Council 1949-87; JP 1953-81; member, North Yorkshire County Council 1974-93; Lord Mayor of York 1975; Honorary Alderman, York 1987-2003 and North Yorkshire 1993-2003; OBE 1992; married 1942 Eileen Gardiner (one son, four daughters); died York 15 April 2003.

Jack Birch was the most energetic and dedicated citizen York had seen since the Second World War. He was probably known to more York people than any other local person, thanks to the importance and prestige of his family construction firm, William Birch & Sons, his long service in local government and on the Bench, and the astonishing range of good causes which he supported. He remained amazingly active until the end of his life, having been reappointed when he was 90 as Honorary Surveyor to the Company of Merchant Adventurers for a further four years.

In 1927 Jack Birch joined his father's building firm as an apprentice plasterer at eight shillings and ninepence a week. He was not, however, satisfied that the firm should simply remain builders and, after qualifying as a member of the Institute of Builders, he went on at his own request to become a civil engineer, for a time in the late 1930s working for other firms elsewhere in Britain. He became a director of the firm in 1941, later succeeding his elder brother Arnold as chairman.

The name of Birch became synonymous with building and restoration work of the highest standard. But it also became known because of Jack Birch's involvement with local government. He was initially elected as an independent for the notoriously poor ward of Walmgate, which had been represented by his father, in 1949, later moving to another ward as a Conservative. He quickly became recognised as a man who could get things done, and over the next 30 years he served on most of the major committees.

In 1975 he was Lord Mayor, returning to live for his year of office in the magnificent Mansion House (which pre-dates the one in the City of London) where he had lived as a lad when his father had been Lord Mayor in the early Twenties. With the reorganisation of local government in 1974 he spent more time on the affairs of North Yorkshire County Council, though he remained on some of the city's committees, notably that of social services. He was also an active member, for 55 years, of the Ouse and Derwent Drainage Board. He had a personal attachment to the river, being an accomplished skuller who went out nearly every day; he continued to row until last year though, when he was in his late eighties, his family finally prevailed on him to take a companion.

Birch's membership of the York social services committee reflected his concern at the poor social conditions in much of the city, which he also saw from the Bench, on which he served for 28 years. He did much through membership of such bodies as the Round Table, the Rotary Club and the Merchant Adventurers, but he learned that it was as an individual that he could be of maximum help with the minimum waste of time.

He was in his time a governor of eight York schools: the last memory of Jack Birch which one deputy head has is of a William Birch van sweeping up to his school last year and Jack Birch springing out to hand over a cheque. Although Birch had left school at 16, his interest in education was not confined to secondary education. He was one of the members of the York Academic Trust set up in the Fifties to establish research institutes as the prelude to a university and, eventually, after the university was set up in the Sixties, he became a member of Court. He was founder Chairman in 1987 of York against Cancer, which set up the Jack Birch Research Unit.

How did he do it? Allied to enormous energy - he was at his desk at seven - was the tradition of service closely allied to his Methodist convictions; there was also the constant support of his wife, Eileen, and, not least, there was the sheer force of personality which encouraged others by example and enthusiasm. Even if our bureaucratic local government structures no longer welcome people who take personal initiatives, at least Jack Birch's selfless devotion to his city remains a valuable lesson in showing what one determined individual can do.

David Alexander