Obituary: Joan Lancaster Lewis
Wednesday 13 January 1993
JOAN LANCASTER LEWIS was an archivist of great distinction whose career spanned a crucial period in the development of archive administration from the Second World War onwards.
A deceptively quiet and private person, she possessed exceptional qualities of mental application, lucidity and tenacity which carried her forward and outward into areas of increasing responsibility and achievement culminating in her period as Director of the India Office Library and Records, in London from 1972 to 1978. The axioms of her professional credo were simple, deep and universal. A sense of history gave understanding and balance to human affairs. Above all, history rested on the study of archives and manuscripts. These must therefore be preserved and cherished wherever they survived, in Leicester or London, Karachi or Calcutta.
Joan Lancaster was born in 1918, the second daughter of Cyril Cadogan Lancaster, a London pharmacist, and Mary Ann Lancaster. Her education at a South London School and at Westfield College first turned her mind towards medieval England and church history, encouraged by her tutors, Norman Sykes and Rosalind Hill.
After graduating in 1940 she went to work at Leicester Record Office with Eleanor Cottrill - a warm-hearted and vigorous woman who provided in some sense a role model, and gave her an excellent grounding in the basic principles and practices of archive work. By 1943 she had acquired an MA in palaeography and an ALA - an unusual distinction which made her almost equally at home in the management of archives and books.
War-time service in the ATS interrupted her career, and it was not until 1946 that she held her first independent post as archivist at the City of Coventry. Although her tenure was brief, her involvement was intense, for it was here that she developed an expert capacity to carry out historical research and write up the results with clarity and precision.
The results indeed were steadily manifest throughout her life, notably in her Guide to St Mary's Hall, Coventry (1949), her study of Godiva (1967), and her contribution to the Coventry sections of the Victoria County History (1969).
Joan Lancaster's period as Assistant Librarian at the London Institute of Historical Research (1948-60) may in retrospect be seen partly as a bridge between her work with local archives and her later career in the India Office Library and Records. Among other opportunities, it provided her with ample experience in preparing historical bibliographies and the daily management of an academic library. She was also energetic enough to combine it with personal work for the British Records Association (BRA) as Reviews Editor and later Editor of the journal Archives (1951-63), and membership of the BRA Council and its Records Preservation Committee.
This brought valuable insight into the formation of British archival policy, plus the advice and the friendship of distinguished archivists such as Sir Hilary Jenkinson, Sir Robert Somerville and Roger Ellis.
Joan Lancaster's work at the India Office Library and Records (1960-78), where she rose from Assistant Keeper of the Records to Director of the combined department, gave her a unique opportunity to use her experience and develop talents as a creative administrator. When she entered the Records in Whitehall in 1960 she found a small, run-down section, with no trained personnel, no conservation facilities, no publications and a vast accumulation of unknown archives dating back to the 17th century. By 1968 she had established an efficient staff of trained archivists plus an expert conservation unit; had supervised the arrangement and listing of several miles of records; written several key reports and articles; launched a full publications programme, including the definitive edition of the Indian Transfer of Power documents; and also played a leading part in designing and equipping the new repository in Blackfriars Road, to which the whole IOLR moved in 1967. From then until 1972 she shared with the late Stanley Sutton the credit for establishing the IOLR in its new home as a world centre for South Asian and related studies.
Between 1972 and 1978 Joan Lancaster directed the entire IOLR operations, launching new initiatives for recording the memoirs and collecting the papers of civil servants in India and Burma. It was also under her guidance that the IOLR forged close links with archives and libraries in south Asia, through training programmes and the exchange of microfilms - the results of her fruitful visit to the Subcontinent in 1974. She retired in 1978 and was appointed CBE.
Of course, in assessing Joan Lancaster's contribution it has to be realised that she was fortunate to accomplish her plans before government economies put a brake on such institutional expansion, it also has to be said that for some during her later years, she seemed less flexible and approachable than before. None the less the abiding image must be of a tiny, white-haired, indomitable woman, working very hard and long in a big room, but somehow finding the time to help anyone who genuinely sought her advice and support.
She was a complex person: forceful and realistic yet shy and innocent. She was an accomplished musician, playing the organ at several churches. To everyone's surprise she got married in 1983, to Kenneth Lewis, and this relationship brought to her life a final phase of deeper personal happiness.
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