Obituary: Jean Thompson

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The Independent Online
Jean Helen Thompson, civil servant and demographer, born 2 December 1926, died Adderbury Oxfordshire 28 December 1992.

JEAN THOMPSON worked for nearly 20 years in the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (formerly known as the General Register Office), as Chief Statistician (Civil), where she was in charge of statistics relating to births, marriages, and migration.

After graduating in Statistics from University College London, she joined the Government Statistical Service in 1950. In 1967 she came to the GRO on promotion, and remained there for the rest of her official career until her retirement in 1986, refusing offers of transfer or promotion elsewhere.

One eminent civil servant who began his career in the General Register Office referred to it as the nearest thing to Siberia in the British civil service. Thompson did not find it so. Although in her previous appointments she worked on economic statistics, she quickly acquired an appreciation of demographic problems and of the specialised techniques of population analysis, which she found both interesting and complex.

She was appointed at a time when there was considerable public concern about the dangers of an excessively high rate of population growth following the baby boom of the 1950s and early 1960s. She became a member of the Population Panel, set up by the government in 1971 to 'assess the evidence of population growth for both public affairs and private life in this country at present and in prospect', and made important contributions to its work, although neither she nor the panel foresaw the relatively rapid decline in births of the 1970s.

Thompson represented the United Kingdom on the Population Commission of the United Nations for a period of nearly 20 years. Although representatives from other countries held higher rank in their public services than she did in the British civil service, her influence on the commission's work was considerable and included preparations for two World Population Conferences held in Bucharest in 1974, and in Mexico in 1984. At the commission's 20th session when she was about to retire, delegates from many countries paid tribute to her international work.

Jean Thompson was a woman of strong character and took the unusual step, for a civil servant, of suing the late RHS Crossman for libel when he suggested in his Diaries that there was a 'Fascist nest' in the General Register Office and provided sufficient detail for Thompson to be identified as one who had allegedly knowingly provided statistics, falsified by reasons of political bias, regarding the coloured population of Britain. Crossman had to apologise in open court and admit that there was no justification whatever for his allegations. Jean Thompson was always meticulous in maintaining the civil-service ethic of political impartiality, even when some of the facts to which she had to draw attention were not to the liking of her political masters.

Relationships between the GRO and academic demographers had not always been of the warmest under some of Thompson's predecessors. However, she established cordial contacts with academic colleagues outside the civil service and was always most co-operative in making material available for their researches wherever possible. She became active in the British Society for Population Studies and served as its President for two years.

In 1986 Jean Thompson retired from the civil service and was appointed CBE in recognition of her contributions both to the public service and to population studies. She settled in Steeple Aston, in Oxfordshire, where she was able to shed her civil servant's anonymity and became a public figure in her village as an active campaigner against noise caused by the Upper Heyford air-base.

(Photograph omitted)