Nancy Tennant

Music organiser for the Women's Institutes
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The Independent Online

Agnes Dalrymple Tennant, voluntary worker: born Broxbourne, Hertfordshire 27 May 1897; died Harlow, Essex 13 March 2003.

Nancy Tennant played a prominent part in the life of Women's Institutes in the 1940s, and was active in the development of their musical life. She also helped to create two notable 20th-century gardens, in Essex and France.

Born Agnes Dalrymple Tennant in 1897, to a wealthy Liberal family, she lived all her life in Essex, spending almost a century in Ugley. Her father, William Augustus Tennant, travelled every day to London to work for the family firm, Charles Tennant & Sons. (His father, William, was a third cousin of the great industrialist, art collector and MP Sir Charles Tennant Bt, father of the Glenconner line.) Family life was disrupted by the First World War, when one brother and a host of relations and friends were killed, while she worked in savage conditions in a transit camp for Anzac troops on Salisbury Plain.

After the war Nancy devoted herself to music and to the Women's Institute, a new organisation which provided skills and opportunities for women. Her love of music inspired many to enjoy it as she did. As Music Organiser from 1938 of the Federation of Women's Institutes, her enthusiasm led to the creation of WI choirs all round the country.

At home she was much involved in musical life, conducting the Ugley Women's Institute choir (a joke interminably repeated) and arranging a performance by the local choral society of Bach's St Matthew Passion featuring a friend, Peter Pears, as First Evangelist. Her diary records: "We paid him three pounds."

During the 1930s, as Chairman of the International Committee of Women's Institutes, Tennant was involved in the initiative to extend the movement all over Europe, and in this capacity she travelled widely both then and after the Second World War, chairing committee meetings in European capitals and in 1934 speaking at a peace rally in Brussels. In 1940 she was elected Vice-Chairman of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, and during the war travelled Britain on their business, staying in dukes' houses and miners' cottages.

Her public musical life continued after 1945. She advised and judged choirs around the country, conducting the massed WI choirs in the Albert Hall in 1946, singing Parry's hymn "Jerusalem". In 1950, partly at her instigation, the WI choirs performed Songs for All Seasons, a specially commissioned work by Vaughan Williams based on British folk songs, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Over 50 years later, in June 2001, at the age of 104, she was delighted to be invited as a guest of honour to the 125th Royal Gala performance of the Bach Choir at the Royal Opera House.

In 1934 Nancy Tennant's life was transformed when she met the artist Humphrey Waterfield. They embarked on a loving Platonic friendship. Waterfield was a passionate gardener, and she gave up many of her own interests to help him at Hill Pasture, the garden he created in Essex, and at Le Clos du Peyronnet, his (surviving) garden at Menton. Unusual as this relationship was, it brought her much happiness.

On Waterfield's death in a car accident in 1971, she thought her life was over. Not so. Old age for her meant having the time to keep abreast. She kept her faculties alert, reading political biographies, exercising her hearing and her back, speaking at schools about her early life. She wrote memoirs, a history of the village of Ugley, and a treatise on old age. And she entertained, enjoying old and new friends and the four younger generations of her family.

A Quaker, Nancy Tennant found in Friends' meetings the ability to search for a still centre in oneself. Severe with her own self, she was tender to others, though she did not hold back acerbic comments about those she found pretentious, bossy or dull. She loved elegant clothes.

She provided a model of how to grow old. While she had the advantages of financial security and her family, the pleasure she found in life was not achieved without much effort. Many people cared for her; what was remarkable was how much she contributed to their lives. In receiving, she gave.

Giles Waterfield