Obituaries: Dame Diana Reader Harris

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The Independent Online
Diana Reader Harris was not only one of the great headmistresses of her generation, but a leading figure in the history of girls' education. Her success in this field led to an involvement in many other spheres.

Born in 1912 in Hong Kong, she went to Sherborne School for Girls in 1925. Even at the age of 12 she had clear ideas of right and wrong and a genuine concern for others. Those who were at school with her remember a lively girl who appeared innately good, but was never thought of as priggish. She had an inborn ability to persuade people to do things and to make a new idea seem fun.

It was certainly no surprise to anyone that she became Head of School and, in this capacity, she worked with the first two headmistresses, Miss Mulliner and Miss Stuart. She had a fine mind and was offered a place at Newnham College, Cambridge. However, her father decided it would not be appropriate for a girl to go to Cambridge unless she had won a scholarship. Nothing daunted, Diana decided that she would do an external London degree from home and obtained First Class honours in English.

She returned to Sherborne as an assistant mistress in 1934 and became a housemistress in 1938. During the Second World War a number of parents were anxious for their daughters to go to Canada, and Reader Harris seemed the obvious person to take a party to Branksome Hall School, Toronto. She spoke with warmth and gratitude of the hospitality they received, but the success of the venture also owed much to her own personality and leadership.

When she returned to England in 1943 she started to work with the National Association of Girls' Clubs, which became the National Association of Mixed Clubs and Girls' Clubs. Opportunities for girls, both in education and other areas, was a cause dear to her, and this stemmed not only from her own sadness at being unable to go to Cambridge, but also from her experience in youth work.

She was appointed to succeed Miss Stuart as Headmistress of Sherborne School for Girls in January 1950, and served the school, and the world of education, with real distinction until she retired in 1975. She was the first to say that she did not have a creative mind, but she had the ability to order and adapt ideas, to grasp the essentials and to know what would work.

She was a member of the Ministry of Labour's Women's Consultative Committee (1957-77), Dorset Education Committee (1952-70), Executive of the Association of Headmis-tresses (1953-58, and President 1964-66), and of the Schools' Council from 1966 until retiring in 1975. As President of the Association of Headmistresses she led their response when the Plowden Report was published. She was also Headmistress of Sherborne at the time of the Newsom Commission, and not only gave evidence. She was a long-serving governor of several maintained and independent schools.

Although an introvert by nature, she was in no way shy, and had the wonderful gift of making people feel she had waited all her life to meet them. She had a natural facility for names and a retentive memory which she used to effect. She knew every child in the school and carried a store of information about each one. She could meet Old Girls, years after they left, and remember much about them.

Those who were pupils during her headship grew up in an atmosphere in which it was assumed that everyone had something of value to give, a better nature to be appealed to, and a duty to the community in which she lived.

For many, both inside and outside the school, Reader Harris's most memorable characteristic was her charm and that, combined with real physical beauty, enabled her to persuade people to want to work with her, and for her. She loved entertaining; distinguished and interesting people from many fields were attracted to her and their visits to Sherborne enrich-ed the lives of the staff and girls.

As a child she had developed an interest in community work and used to visit the Welcome Club in London during the holidays, persuading other girls to go with her, to discover at first hand the nature of the social service to which the school contributed. She encouraged generations of girls to involve themselves in similar projects. She worked tirelessly for causes close to her heart. Among them was the Royal Society of Arts, of which she was the first woman chairman (1979-81). She was also a member of the Independent Television Authority (1956-60). She was appointed DBE in 1972 for services to education and the Church.

A deeply committed Christian, she was a member of the Archbishop's Council on Evangelism (1966-68) and of the Church Missionary Society from 1953 to 1982, serving as its President from 1969 to 1982. She was also on the Board (1976-83) and Chairman (1978-83) of Christian Aid. These last two commitments brought together her faith and her lifelong interest in the developing world.

In 1983 she moved with her widowed sister-in-law from London to live in the Close in Salisbury and quickly became involved in local affairs and the life of the cathedral. She was made a Lay Canon in 1987 and was for many years a patron of the Salisbury Festival.

Dame Diana Reader Harris inherited the role of President of the Church Missionary Society - the Church of England's largest international mission agency - at a time of great change, writes Diana K. Witts.

By the end of the 1960s, a great many "mission fields" had become self- governing and self-supporting churches in their own right, set within newly independent nations. The CMS, founded in 1799, had been well aware that this day would come, and during the time of Dame Diana's presidency, the aims and structures of the society needed to be reformulated accordingly. In the process there was a need to re-examine relationships with other Anglican voluntary societies, and the wider church.

Many of the traditional avenues for missionary enterprise were closing to the CMS, but there were new opportunities to create understanding between peoples of widely different cultures, to engage in a quest for a more just economic and social order, and to lend support to these new churches.

Dame Diana served a long apprenticeship as a member of the Society's Executive Committee. Her interest in the youth club movement brought her into contact with the newly developing Voluntary Service Overseas. This gave her a special "feel" for how the new relationship between the churches around the world should be expressed.

When she retired from Sherborne in 1975, it freed her to take an even more active role in the society. She began to visit regional associations of the society, rallies, and deanery meetings. Increasingly she became the society's public voice. She was a key player in helping formulate the Church of England's Partnership for World Mission, creating for the first time a link between voluntary agencies and the General Synod. At her urging the society took up advocacy of the Brandt Report on relations between nations of the "North" and "South".

She made an outstanding contribution to the society's work through overseas travel. In 1970, for instance, she represented the CMS at the inauguration of the Church of North India, a union of a number of Christian denominations. Later, with great energy and courage, she visited the Church of Uganda during its time of trial under the dictator Idi Amin which had culminated in the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum. She was a great source of encouragement.

Perhaps more than her predecessors Diana Reader Harris became a "People's President". A former General Secretary, now Bishop of Coventry, the Right Rev Simon Barrington-Ward, said her chairing would be remembered for her "unfailing courtesy, clear, unhurried sense of direction and purpose, and sharp eye for detail."

Dame Diana's sympathetic understanding and encouragement, and her constant affirmation of all those whose lives she touched, sprang from a deeply rooted Christian faith. All her life she steadfastly used her remarkable gifts to strengthen and enrich the lives of others.

Muriel Diana Reader Harris, schoolmistress: born Hong Kong 11 October 1912; Headmistress, Sherborne School for Girls 1950-75; President, Church Missionary Society 1969-72; DBE 1972; died Salisbury 7 October 1996.