Lady Tess Swann: Organist, viola player and wife of Lord Swann

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The Independent Online

Many readers in Edinburgh will recollect the lovely lady who added to university occasions at which her husband, then Sir Michael Swann FRS, the vice-chancellor, (1965-1973) presided. Even more readers in London and throughout Britain will remember the charming hostess wife of Lord Swann, as he became when he was a hugely respected chairman of the board of governors of the BBC, 1973-1980. But Lady Tess Swann was far from being in her distinguished husband's slipstream. She was a talented musician: a sought-after viola player, and perhaps above all a superb organist, an associate of the Royal College of Organists.

Born Tess Gleadowe, she was the daughter of Reginald Gleadowe, a famous master among the generations he taught at Winchester College; from 1928-1933 he was Slade Professor of Fine Art in Oxford. At Winchester he was an inspiration, among others, to Hugh Gaitskill, Douglas Jay, Christopher Longuet-Higgins and Dick Crossman, with whom he was to go on boating and sailing trips when Crossman was a fellow at New College, Oxford. When we took Crossman, then a cabinet minister, in 1965 to Orms Acre, the Swann home in Barton, Edinburgh, Crossman's first words to his slightly embarrassed hostess and amazed fellow guests was a booming, "You are the beautiful schoolgirl whom I used to know when you were a 15-year-old at St Swithun's School for Girls in Winchester. You were the apple, my friend, your father's eye."

Eric James, a colleague of Gleadowe's on the Winchester staff, later High Master of Manchester Grammar School and vice-chancellor of York University, commented to me with a twinkle that the two luckiest vice-chancellors of the mid-1960s were himself, to have his Cordelia, a first class honours in Greats, and Swann, to have his musical Tess.

From St Swithun's, Gleadowe went to the Royal College of Music and Drama from September 1941 to July 1942, under Kendall Taylor for piano and under Wilson Harris for the organ (for 30 years the organist of St Georges, Windsor, he was one of the great teachers of the organ). Before going off to War work she won the Kenneth Bruce Stuart prize for organ, at that time the princely sum of three guineas. Her War work done, in April 1944 she became an associate of the Royal College of Music and an associate of the Royal College of Organists.

At the age of 20 she married the 22-year-old Michael Swann, whom she had known at Winchester as a schoolboy and who was then immersed in science-related War work. As soon as the War ended, her husband was made a fellow of Caius College and a university demonstrator in zoology. This gave Tess an entrée to Cambridge's vibrant musical life, and she played in concerts organised by Boris Ord, the legendary choirmaster of King's College, and the young David Willcocks, whose wife, Lady Rachel Willcocks, was associated in later years in fund-raising for the Royal College.

On her husband's appointment to the prestigious chair of Natural History in Edinburgh in 1952, the family moved north. Professor Aubrey Manning, Emeritus Professor of Zoology in Edinburgh and well known for his much-watched television programmes on the BBC, recollected, "When I was 26, just out of national service, and newly appointed assistant lecturer in zoology, Michael, as professor, asked me to dinner at Orms Acre. Tess was so relaxing and welcoming to a young and rather shy new member of staff. She was a great encourager."

Swann's period as vice-chancellor, 1965-1973, coincided with world-wide student troubles. He encountered many difficult students, led by a 20-year-old by the name of Gordon Brown, who had got himself elected Rector of Edinburgh University and insisted on his right to chair the University Court, the governing body. Prominent Court members such as the distinguished Judge Lord Cameron went apoplectic at the cheek of this young man. Swann was perplexed and impatient, and truth to tell unsuited to handling revolting students. To my first-hand knowledge, it was Tess Swann who calmed him down and made him rational.

As chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC Swann, appointed by Ted Heath, was in his element. The late Charles Wheeler, the veteran Washington correspondent, told me that Lady Swann was highly regarded by the senior journalists of the BBC, over whom the Swann's took a lot of trouble and to whom they gave hospitality.

Swann's last significant job was as chairman of the Committee on the Education of Ethnic Minority Children. He told me when he came to lunch with me at the House of Commons that Tess had accompanied him on fact-finding visits and had been absolutely invaluable, as she was greatly helpful to the enquiry by being able to talk to the then often rather shy ethnic-minority ladies and mothers in a way that he couldn't.

The militant Felicity Gowling, for a short time chairman of the City of Liverpool Education Committee, told me that contrary to her expectations the Swanns had greatly impressed her. One of the few men in England who tried to patronise Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, Swann was asked to go to Downing Street to discuss the progress of his report. He took Lady Swann with him. Mark (later Lord) Carlisle, the Education Secretary, told me that it was she who saved the day with a Prime Minister who would otherwise have bristled.

After Michael Swann died, she led a quiet life in Gloucestershire, where she played the organ at the medieval churches of Bibury and Coln St Denys.

Tam Dalyell

Teresa Ann Gleadowe, organist and viola player: born Winchester 9 September 1922; married 1942 Michael Swann (died 1990; two sons, two daughters); died London 25 September 2009.