Lord Sandford: Naval officer who took holy orders and served as a whip at Westminster

Commander The Reverend John Cyril Edmondson DSC, 2nd Baron Sandford, was, as his style and title implies, a man of many parts. Following a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, he took holy orders, and then, on succeeding to his father’s title in 1959, he took the Conservative whip in the House of Lords, serving as a junior minister in Edward Heath’s government from 1970 to 1974. Subsequently he devoted his life to a wide range of causes including local government, the Church, education, conservation and heritage.

The eldest son of the 1st Lord Sandford, John was born into a family dedicated to public service. His father had been Member of Parliament for Banbury for 23 years and Deputy Chief Whip in the coalition Government from 1942 to 1945. John went to Eton, where his charm and sporting abilities were rewarded with election to Pop. He then, somewhat unusually, decided to join the Royal Navy and completed his education at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, from whence he went to sea and to war.

He spent the war mainly in destroyers in the Mediterranean and home waters. He was awarded the DSC as gunnery officer of HMS Eskimo and wounded twice. After the war he sat the Long Signal Course at the naval signal school, HMS Mercury, where he met his wife, Catharine, who was a Second Officer in the WRNS. Various prestigious appointments followed until ill-health intervened and he retired as a commander to train for the ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge.

His first appointment on ordination was as curate at St Nicholas’s Church in Harpenden, which was followed by the executive chaplaincy to the Bishop of St Albans. Having by now succeeded to his father’s title, his hopes of a parish in Greenwich were dashed by Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, who felt his peerage put him at a disadvantage in a parish “full of dockers”.

Disappointed and hurt by this rejection, Sandford turned his attention increasingly to the House of Lords, where he became a Tory whip. Then in 1970, Edward Heath made him a junior minister in what became the Department of the Environment, an appointment in which he was able to develop his lifelong interest in conservation and the environment.

Probably his most satisfying achievement in this field was the review of the National Parks of England. His committee was concerned with the effect that changes in agriculture, forestry, and more particularly the development of recreational access were having on the conservation of the landscape and wildlife. They came down firmly of the view that where conflict arose priority should be given to conservation. This became known as the “Sandford principle”.

After a brief spell in the Department of Education and Science, Sandford found himself on the Opposition back benches in 1973 but this enhanced rather than diminished his output. His interest in the environment and National Parks continued, supplemented by a range of appointments: for example, president of the Standing Conference of London and South East Planning Authorities, president of the Council for Environmental Education, president of the Association of District Councils, Church Commissioner; the list is long.

One of his initiatives which was to have lasting benefits was the introduction of the Sandford Award for historic properties achieving a standard of excellence in the provision of educational facilities. Founded in 1978, it brought educationalists and historic property administration together to improve standards of provision under the Heritage Education Trust, of which he was the first chairman.

In 1988 Lord Sandford suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair in that agonising state of being mentally extremely active but unable to make himself understood. For anyone this would be a crushing disaster. For someone so active as John Sandford it was doubly so, and yet he always managed to have a smile on his face. The fact that he lived for a further 20 years as full a life as his condition allowed is a tribute to his courage and to the love and devotion of his wife, Catharine, and their family.

Michael Saunders Watson

John Cyril Edmondson, naval officer, curate and chaplain, politician: born 22 December 1920; Royal Navy 1939-56, Staff Commander-in-Chief Far East, 1953–55; ordained in Church of England, 1958; succeeded 1959 as 2nd Baron Sandford; Executive Chaplain to Bishop of St Albans, 1965–68; Conservative Peer in House of Lords, 1959–99; Opposition Whip, 1966–70; Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Local Government, 1970; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Environment, 1970–73, Department of Education and Science, 1973–74; chairman, Committee to review the condition and future of National Parks in England and Wales, 1971; founder, Sandford Award for Heritage Education, 1978; chairman, Standing Conference of London and South-East Regional Planning Authorities, 1981–89; a Church Commissioner, 1982–89; chairman, Community Task Force, 1975–82; president, Association of District Councils, 1980–86; married 1947 Catharine Mary Hunt (two sons, two daughters); died 13 January 2009.

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