Mana Sedgwick: Distinguished public servant

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The Independent Online

Mana Sedgwick had a distinguished career in public service dedicated to women's education and to the improvement of the conditions of disadvantaged women. Herself a woman of great resource and intelligence, she became the natural head of a series of voluntary associations and other bodies.

The job she most treasured was the chairmanship of the Board of Visitors of Holloway Prison from 1970. The board had a statutory remit, as an independent body of outsiders, to supervise the working of the prison. Sedgwick was committed in supporting the women prisoners there, many of whom had deep feelings of worthlessness. She was also closely involved in the setting up of a women's bail hostel and chaired an after-care hostel, the Griffins. She always regretted that she had less success in a campaign to change the legislation on prostitutes. She was appointed OBE in 1973 for her work at Holloway.

Her father, Thomas Hodson, had been a member of the Indian Civil Service. In 1903, the year he married Kathleen Manly, he had left the ICS, allegedly after a disagreement with the Viceroy, Lord Curzon. While in India, he had worked amongst the Naga tribe of Manipur. His fascination with what he observed of the life and customs of the tribe led to his becoming part of a group developing social anthropology as a subject, and subsequently to his appointment as the first Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge. The third of four children, Mana Hodson was brought up in Highgate, north London.

In 1926 she won an exhibition to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English. This left her with a lifelong love of English poetry, much of it learnt by heart. She also met her future husband, the historian Romney Sedgwick, 15 years her senior, in her final year. In the interim Mana worked first as "Rab" Butler's private secretary, and then joint head of the Economics Departmet, 1936-38, at the Bank of New South Wales where, it was said, she was the highest paid woman in the City.

The need to support his widowed mother led Romney to join the diplomatic service. After their marriage in 1936, this took them to Australia in 1938, New Zealand in 1941 and South Africa in 1946. Mana was excellent as a diplomatic wife and made many enduring friendships during these years. One of her favourite sayings was, "Keep your friendships in repair." Two children, Adam and Sophia, were born.

Returning to England in 1949, the family settled in Hampstead, moving after five years to an elegant Georgian house in Flask Walk. Romney retired in 1954, as Assistant Under Secretary of State, at the age of 60. This allowed him to return to history, and Mana then found time for her own career. From activities such as running fund-raising dances at Hampstead parish church, her abilities were soon recognised, and she was recruited as a magistrate, sidestepping the then usual political nomination. She subsequently became the chairman of the Hampstead Bench and the chairman of the Inner London Magistrates Association.

Women's education was another focus of her commitment. She became a council member of Westfield College, set up with the specific object of "furthering the education of women". After acting as treasurer for nine years, in 1971 she was appointed an Honorary Fellow. She became chair of the Associates of Newnham College, a group of distinguished alumnae which supports the college and undergraduates there. She was also an active early member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women.

Romney Sedgwick died in 1972, leaving Mana a widow for what proved nearly 36 years, longer than her married life. Five years later she moved to a fine house in Suffolk, listed Grade II* after she uncovered carved medieval beams. She plunged energetically into village life, becoming treasurer of the parochial church council and was amused in this capacity to receive letters from the bank addressed to St Mary the Virgin, Downs House, Stoke by Nayland.

Finally, she moved to Barley in Hertfordshire in 1994 to be near her daughter. The rigorous self-control and strong Christian belief that had all her life underpinned her charm and tact helped her deal successfully with the problems of increasing age and frailty. She kept up her social and intellectual life to the end, always reading the monthly set books of the two literary groups to which she belonged.

Her last public engagement was at the Mercers Company, of which her father, brothers and nephews were, or had been, members. She was asked to address the lunch in Mercers Hall marking the admission of women members. This she did, aged 93, electrifying her listeners for eight minutes, speaking without hesitation or notes. As she said afterwards, "It's much easier without notes. That's what I learnt from acting at Cambridge."

Martin Sheppard

Mana St David Hodson, public servant: born London 1 March 1909; OBE 1973; married 1936 Romney Sedgwick (died 1972; one son, one daughter); died Barley, Hertfordshire 11 December 2007.