Obituary: Lady Chancellor

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Sylvia Chancellor was born in the year Queen Victoria died. She was the eldest child of talented but eccentric parents. Her father, Sir Richard Paget, was among other things a scientist, inventor and musician, but never quite made it in any particular line. Her mother, Lady Muriel (born Finch-Hatton and cousin of Out of Africa Denys), was a Mrs Jellyby on a grand scale, who in 1915 left her young family to run a field hospital in Russia. After the Bolsheviks came to power she escaped across Siberia, but her family always took second place to her international and humanitarian concerns.

At an early age, therefore, responsibility was thrust upon Sylvia. In her teens she found herself more or less in charge of a large country house - Cranmore Hall, her home in Somerset (later sold) - and two of her sisters and brother. Despite the family's shortage of funds, she was educated at Roedean, and after the First World War read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. Throughout her long life she remained addicted to Romantic literature, especially Keats, and she knew a great deal of Shakespeare by heart. She was also musical, like her father, and played the piano well by ear.

At Cambridge she met Christopher Chancellor and they were married in 1926. He soon joined Reuters (of which he was later head) and for most of the 1930s was general manager in the Far East, based on Shanghai. Sylvia was determined not to emulate her mother's irresponsibility, and always put her family first. She was a loyal corporate wife to Christopher, both at Reuters and, later, when he was chairman of Bowaters; and she was an equally devoted mother.

Yet she was not Lady Muriel's daughter for nothing. When the Japanese invaded China, she worked with the Jesuit Father Jacquinot in establishing a safe zone and hospital for the refugees who flooded into Shanghai. She also persuaded Sir Victor Sassoon to pay for a building to house Jewish refugees - showing an ability that she never lost to buttonhole rich people for good causes.

She acquired a smattering of Chinese and Japanese, and the latter came in useful when she was arrested at a frontier post returning on the Trans- Siberian railway, and was taken first to Korea, then to Tokyo. She demanded to be sent to Shanghai at Japanese expense, and her will prevailed. In her dealings with Japanese troops in Shanghai she was always briskly authoritative and got away with it. On one occasion, when some of them burst into her house and demanded tea, she gave them hot water.

Back in England during the Second World War she commuted between a flat near St Paul's Cathedral (which was bombed) and a large house in Hertfordshire, Dane End, which she had inherited from an aunt. She also ran the Czech Institute - another sign of maternal influence, since Czechoslovakia had been one of Lady Muriel's pet subjects. In 1941 she organised the Dvork centenary celebrations.

But her most important achievement was the Prisoners' Wives Service, which she founded in 1965. The idea came to her when a daily arrived one morning in tears, desperate because her husband had been arrested and taken away, and she knew that his wages would be stopped at the end of the week. It seemed to Sylvia that there was a gap in social provision that needed to be filled, and she proceeded to fill it.

Recruiting people she knew to act as visitors, and raising money from the Waites Foundation and other sources to establish a small office, she was soon in a position to bring significant help to the wives and families of prisoners, mainly in the form of prompt advice and moral support. The personal connection thus provided was good not only for those who had previously had to cope on their own when a man was sent to prison, often not knowing where to turn, but also for the prisoners themselves, who were reassured that their families were receiving sympathetic attention.

Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary gave the venture his blessing, and a liaison officer from the Inner London Probation Service was assigned to work with it. In 1973 it received a grant of pounds 500 a year from the Home Office. Before she retired at the end of the decade, Sylvia was awarded the OBE for her pioneering initiative.

The PWS lives on today as the Prisoners' Families and Friends Service (a tactfully inclusive name). Its funding is entirely independent - the Home Office no longer contributes - but instead of the dozen or so visitors who worked with Sylvia at the outset there are now 60 visitors, or "befrienders", active in the Inner London area, and 30 more volunteers helping in other ways. As well as its primary work in London, the service answers enquiries from all over the country.

When Dane End was sold the Chancellors moved to Somerset, the part of England she loved best. First at Hunstrete House near Bath, then at the even larger Ditcheat Priory, she indulged her taste for doing up houses and gardening (which gave him pleasure) and for animals (which he disliked). When he died, in 1989, she moved to a small cottage in Oxfordshire, near one of her daughters, where she spent her last years.

Anyone who met the Chancellors casually might have thought him a person of steely intellect and character, while she seemed vague, absent-minded and even at times, in a charming way, slightly dotty. But in her case appearances were very deceptive. In reality she always knew what she was about, and her feet were firmly on the ground. She and Christopher were both tough, but of the two she was probably the tougher.

She was a very humorous woman, and her humour could take an inconsequential form. But her mind was always shrewd and penetrating. She was a churchgoing Anglican, with a special fondness for hymns, but this was quite consistent with being essentially a free spirit. Her attitude to life was liberal, with a distinctly Whiggish tinge. In her, the temperament and outlook of an Edwardian grande dame survived almost to the end of our century.

John Grigg

Sylvia Mary Paget, philanthropist: born London 1 July 1901; OBE 1976; married 1926 Christopher Chancellor (knighted 1951; died 1989; two sons, two daughters and one daughter deceased); died Shellingford, Oxfordshire 26 October 1996.