Joan Patricia Schwitzer Ph.D.

1925 - 2009

Obituary, by Jane Howells
published in Local History News, number 94, Winter 2010
Magazine of the British Association for Local History (  

It was with great sadness that we heard of the death of Dr Joan Schwitzer, just a few months after being delighted that she had come to receive her award in person on Local History Day in June. Despite this difficult time for her family, Joan's husband Mat has been most helpful in preparing the profile, and I have probably learnt more about her than this remarkable but modest lady would have willingly permitted.

Joan was born in the Thames valley and spent her youth in the Home Counties, attending Guildford Grammar School for Girls before reading history at Bedford College, London University. Evacuated to Cambridge, which Joan enjoyed hugely, the college returned to London before she graduated in 1945 with the highest marks in history for the whole university. She married Mat in 1947, became assistant lecturer in modern history at Bedford College, and worked on her PhD 'The British Attitude towards French Colonisation 1875-1887' which she presented in July 1954, a few days after the birth of her second child. Motherhood and family life took over from what could have been an outstanding academic career. Mat and Joan were married for 62 years, and had four children and six grandchildren. They were way ahead of their time in urban composting, and recycling, and Joan's favourite method of transport was her bicycle.

We all gained immensely from her change of direction to local history. Joan Schwitzer was a founder member of Hornsey Historical Society which was inaugurated in 1971. She served as chairman from 1974 to 1985 during which time she used her abilities, enthusiasm and energy to make the society an active force in the borough and in local history circles. As one of her referees has written, Joan had the vision to see that in order for the Society to play a significant role it needed to have both a regular publication and its own premises. Another comment labels the latter as 'her greatest achievement'. In the face of considerable opposition, she used her negotiating skills and her diplomacy to seize the opportunity to lease (at a peppercorn rent) from the local council a small redundant nineteenth century school building, then serving as a bus shelter. After organising and encouraging other members to fund-raise and volunteer in other ways, the Old Schoolhouse in Tottenham Lane has become a centre for the Society, for housing exhibitions, archives, publications storage, a shop, local history evening classes and oral history sessions.

In the very early days of oral history as a technique Joan Schwitzer was a pioneer, leading reminiscence sessions in her area and building a considerable bank of recorded interviews that form a valuable resource for historians today. It is part of the society's archive collection at the Old Schoolhouse, another innovation from Joan that is widely used by others.

Joan headed the Society's publications committee for many years; she was instrumental in putting their annual Bulletin on a firm footing, and in encouraging others to undertake research and to publish their findings. She set high standards, and her academic training and experience helped other people to achievements they would not otherwise have considered possible. Joan's own work resulted in scholarly articles, booklets, edited books, and numerous other publications. Of particular note, as it brings together her interests in local history and in education, is Model for London, Victorian Farm School to Modern Primary (2002) written to mark the 150th anniversary of St Michael's School, Highgate, and in the process examining the development of English education over two centuries.

She led by example, and shared her enthusiasms, never imposing her opinions, though her determination was put to good use when necessary. Joan served as President of Hornsey Historical Society from 1992 to 2002, and although poor health precluded her taking such an active role in recent years, it is a tribute to her that the society continues to flourish and that so many people have come to enjoy local history as a result of her contributions.

With thanks to Mat Schwitzer, William Schwitzer, Ken Gay, Bridget Cherry, Peter Barber

Article from the Hampstead & Highgate Express, 24th September 2009
The age in the title is incorrect (newspapers!), she was 84
Click on the article for a readable copy in a new window

Article from the Hampstead & Highgate Express, 24th September 2009.  Click for enlarged copy.

See also Lynne Featherstone's Oration to Joan, given on the occasion of
the planting of a Wild Cherry Tree on Saturday 27th November 2010 at St. Mary's Churchyard.
See also the Invitation to the Planting Ceremony and the Design of the Inscription for Joan's Wild Cherry Tree.