Obituary:Dame Penelope Jessel

Few of the thousands of people who came into contact with Penelope Jessel in her varied political, educational and charitable activities knew much about her personally, other than that she was elegant, amusing and seemingly possessed a boundless energy. She was far too passionate about issues and other people to waste time talking about herself. Yet her life was the stuff of fiction, part Anthony Trollope, part Evelyn Waugh.

Her social and political concerns took her to many places where there was deprivation or conflict, be it the East End of London during the Second World War, or the West Bank at the time of the Palestinian intifada. In her sixties and early seventies, when most ladies in possession of a chocolate- box cottage in an English country village would have chosen to stay put there, she was still relentlessly travelling, sleeping out under the stars with the Polisario women of the western Sahara, or sitting in a mud hut in a remote part of south-east Angola, while Jonas Savimbi's rebel commanders tried to persuade her that they were really Liberal Democrats at heart.

Penelope was the third of the five children of the fine but extremely difficult Oxford bookseller and publisher Sir Basil Blackwell. As a girl, Penny would have no major stake in the family business, though having an elder brother at the Dragon School in Oxford meant that she was able go there. Following a spell at St Leonard's girls' boarding school in St Andrews she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, to read Greats; academically brilliant and beautiful, she seemed doubly blessed.

The Second World War broke out, and she joined the ATS. Then in 1940, at the age of 20, she married Robert Jessel whom she had met at Oxford. There was bitter opposition from her father, partly because the Jessels were of Manchester Jewish immigrant stock - though in fact Robert's father, a doctor, had married out of and abandoned his faith.

Bobbie Jessel went on to become Defence Correspondent of the Times. But the couple's happiness was relatively short-lived. He died of leukaemia in 1954, leaving Penelope a young widow with two young sons to care for - Stephen and David, both later journalists. She responded to the challenge by acquiring qualifications that enabled her to become an adult education lecturer in social administration and social work, notably at Plater College in Oxford.

Unlike many professionals in those fields, she did not become an ardent Labour supporter. Instead, inspired by Jo Grimond's vision of a Liberal revival, she joined the Liberal Party and carried its banner in half a dozen parliamentary elections in the 1960s and early 1970s, in various hopeless seats.

She fought the May 1965 by-election in Birmingham Hall Green, operating out of a poky caravan. The contest was uninspiring and low-key, but Penelope added colour to it, the Times reported, by looking "like a jolly and elder sister of Pussy Galore". The young Peter Preston, writing in the Guardian, declared that she was "one of the most adroit and charming canvassers extant". It was all to no avail; the Conservative cruised comfortably to victory, though Penny Jessel did avoid the classic third party squeeze.

Denied the opportunity of serving in the House of Commons, she devoted herself to working both inside and outside the Liberal Party on women's issues and international affairs. From 1985 to 1988 she was the party's International Officer (unpaid), having already become a familiar figure at Liberal International Congresses. She was hurt by the way she was eased out of that position, to make way for a younger (paid) person. But she had the consolation of being made a Dame in 1987, to mark the centenary of the Women's Liberal Federation. Had the Liberals had a more generous allocation of peerages, she would have had a strong claim to one of those.

Jessel listed among her recreations looking at churches and gardens. The reality behind those innocent-sounding occupations was years of fierce campaigning on conservation matters, especially in Oxfordshire; she was a tenacious fighter and a ferocious letter-writer when the subject was dear to her heart.

She was also a chain-smoker of formidable proportions. Eating in restaurants with her became a battle of wits to see if one could eat slowly enough to prevent her lighting up between all the courses. She usually won.

She bore the cancer that killed her with immense dignity and carried on her voluntary work, mainly for the Liberal think-tank the John Stuart Mill Institute, right up until her death.

Jonathan Fryer

Penelope Blackwell, political activist and lecturer: born Oxford 2 January 1920; President, Women's Liberal Federation 1970-72; International Officer, Liberal Party 1985-88; DBE 1987; married 1940 Robert Jessel (died 1954; two sons); died Cassington, Oxfordshire 2 December 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture