obituaries: Lois Bulley

Peter Brinson
Monday 01 January 1996 00:02

Born into wealth, which she rejected, a member of the Labour Party, Communist Party and Cheshire County Council, a Quaker, a fighter against racism and for social justice and equality, especially for women, a philanthropist with a shrewd business brain, a national benefactor of applied plant biology and horticultural research - Lois Bulley was an exceptional human being.

Her socialist, agnostic father, Arthur Bulley, was a pioneer Fabian and a successful Liverpool cotton broker. He used his wealth to become perhaps the most important patron of British plant collecting this century, creating at Ness in the Wirral a garden which holds today one of the finest plant collections in the British Isles.

Her mother, Agnes, an equally committed socialist, was a devout Anglican whose marriage worked happily in spite of the religious difference. Both Lois and her brother Alfred, however, were deeply affected by these contradictions. Brought up as agnostics so they could choose their own religion when old enough, they spent their early childhood closeted at Ness in a household of older people, and rarely mixed with other children. They were taught by French and German governesses, which gave Lois a German accent which lasted all her life. Overawed by her upbringing and later by boarding school, she was left with permanent difficulty in establishing personal relationships.

The conscience and passionate integrity passed on by her parents troubled Lois Bulley. She felt she had no right to her inherited wealth, but owed a debt to the society which gave it to her. This was her morality and her motivation, which she pursued through charitable and political work.

Charitable action began in the late 1920s with a trust to help the children of poor families achieve a full-scale private education. Political action was nourished by work in the East End of London, where Bulley applied an early training in midwifery and Truby King nutrition. She briefly joined the British Women's Total Abstinence Union; though she rejected its narrow evangelism she remained a lifelong teetotaller.

Joining the Labour Party in 1930, Bulley won a seat on Neston Urban District Council, where she championed low-paid railwaymen. In 1934 she became county councillor for Neston, including Ellesmere Port, lost the seat three years later, then won Bebington including New Ferry in 1938. She served as alderman from 1939 until 1946. One of only two socialists and five women on the council, she campaigned on issues of the unemployed, low levels of public assistance, social deprivation and women's and children's rights.

Dressing simply and never one for fine living, Bulley was well-known for her ability to clarify, explain and win understanding. In Tory-dominated Cheshire in the cruel 1930s this made her a public force for the Left. She saw no contradiction in standing as Labour candidate for Chester in the 1935 general election, then joining the Communist Party in 1936 while remaining a Labour Party member. The pro-Franco attitude of the Tory government in Britain towards the Spanish Civil War shocked her. "Only the Communists," she said, "offer an effective opposition."

The Second World War and its aftermath changed Lois Bulley. Still serving on the County Council, she drove ambulances through the Merseyside blitz, then stood against Selwyn Lloyd as Labour candidate for the Wirral in the 1945 election. Although she did well, pushing a powerful Liberal challenge into third place, she lost her seat on the council the following year. Known for her work on behalf of mental health, she was drawn into the new National Health Service, appointed to Liverpool Regional Hospital Board and the management committees of two hospitals, chairing the board's mental services committee, then the board itself until 1972.

Charitable work replaced political activity as her principal commitment. She began to look beyond Merseyside, especially towards Africa whence came some of her wealth - she often recalled how Liverpool's prosperity was built on the African slave trade. At the same time she experienced a personal conversion to Christianity. Introduced by Labour Party friends to Quakerism and the Society of Friends, she was accepted into membership in 1954.

She travelled to Nigeria to help a Muslim educational trust. In Nairobi in 1956 she established a trust to give back to Africa, she said, the benefit of profits she had inherited through shares in Motor Mart East Africa. Already in 1948 she had given to Liverpool University the great gardens at Ness, the house, the large estate which went with it and an endowment of pounds 75,000. It was the largest bequest the university had received other than its Cohen Library. Yet Bulley refused any university honours.

This was the final disposal of her wealth. Always open to the public as her father would have wished, the Botanic Gardens at Ness are of international distinction. Ness is also the university's environmental and horticultural research station; it continues the work of Arthur Bulley, commemorating his enormous achievements.

The gift and the end of financial giving brought about a further change in Bulley's life. For more than a decade she had worked closely with Friends, especially with Nancy Kershaw, Warden of the Heswall Friends' Meeting House. In 1970 they formed a partnership. Moving to London for some years, they pursued the cultural life of theatre and music which Bulley had rarely had time to experience. It was a kind of liberation.

They travelled several times to Kenya to her trust in Nairobi. The money was divided between water sewage schemes, later adopted by the government, the management of a mixed-race hospital for children, and a scholarship scheme through the National Council of Churches for Kenya. All three projects flourish today. Bulley insisted the scholarships went exclusively to girls, in this way helping to pioneer women's education in Kenya. She insisted, too, that everything she gave or established be administered by Africans, upsetting white colonial prejudice by mixing with Kenyans on equal terms, going to their homes, eating and travelling with them, rejecting a white superority which refused to mix or trust.

Sustained for more than 20 years by Nancy Kershaw, Lois Bulley watched from a small house in Tarvin near Chester the success of her ventures. She attended university events in Liverpool and occasions at Ness, retaining to the end her agile mind and fund of anecdotes.

Peter Brinson

Agnes Lois Bulley, political activist and philanthropist: born Ness, Cheshire 2 December 1901; died Tarvin, Cheshire 27 December 1995.

Peter Brinson died 7 April 1995

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