Sheila Manning was a major benefactor of many charities, local and national. Having inherited a fortune on the death of her father in 1966, and another fortune when her mother died in 1974, she devoted much of her life to philanthropic good works. The charity to which she gave her most unstinting support was the National Trust for England, and this was recognised about 10 years ago when she was awarded a special and much-coveted Gold Medal. Other groups to benefit from her support were the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and amenity societies such as the Victorian Society, the Georgian Group, the Twentieth Century Society and the Cinema Theatre Association. Locally, she gave generously to the Potton Bowls Club and the Potton Local Historical Society, which she helped to found.
Beginning in the early 1960s, she was the Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Commonwealth Writers Association and the Writers and Dramatists Club. At the former, she met every British Prime Minister from Harold Macmillan to Gordon Brown. And through her work for the Writers and Dramatists Club she met, at luncheons and dinners at the Garrick Club, major actors of the day such as Lord Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir John Gielgud, Sir John Mills and, her particular favourite, Robert Morley. "He is a bit like you, Ron", she once told a close friend of similar girth.
Sheila Mary Louisa Manning was born in 1924 into a well-off family who lived in a Queen Anne, grade II-listed house in Bedfordshire. Her father was a successful businessman who had made money in a market-gardening business before investing heavily in real estate and shares; in 1903 he became one of the earliest investors in British Associated Tobacco. Right up until her death, Manning still held those shares, along with large holdings in many other "blue chip" companies.
From an early age she took a great interest in films and the theatre. She attended Bedford School for Girls then, during the early years of the Second World War, took a degree at home through a correspondence course. After the war, she went on to London University to study for a postgraduate qualification but left after two terms to become the PA and secretary to the head of the British Film Corporation. She loved her work, which involved attending film premieres in the West End, as well the annual film festivals at Cannes and Venice.
She was married in the early 1950s, but soon divorced, and when her father became unwell in the mid-1960s, she gave up work completely and lived part of the week in Potton with her parents, and the remainder at her small flat near Mornington Crescent in London. Apart from cinema and theatre, she had a great passion for historic buildings and was a keen supporter of many of the various amenity societies.
In 1995, she was very badly mugged near her flat in north London. She put up a tremendously brave fight, but her assailant knocked her to the ground and broke her hip. Although the hip replacement was a success, it marked the start of her long and slow decline. Nevertheless, she had a band of loyal friends to chaperone her on holidays, and she loved her tea, toast and fruit cake at the Farmers' Club, dining at the National Liberal Club, long lunches at the Naval Club and the toasted tea cakes at the Oxford and Cambridge Club. After a heart attack, she was admitted to the nursing home where she died.
Sheila Mary Louisa Manning, philanthropist: born Potton, Bedfordshire 14 March 1924; married; died Potton 6 August 2009.