Obituary: Thelma Smith MBE, Fundraiser, teacher and legendary provider of cricket teas

Thelma Smith MBE
Thelma Smith MBE
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Thelma Smith MBE, fundraiser. Born: 17 July 1929 in Edinburgh. Died: 8 October 2018 in Edinburgh, aged 89.

Thelma Smith became Chair of the Edinburgh Fundraising Committee for Cancer Research in 1975, having been a founding member of the Committee in 1964. When she retired as Chair in 2009 her committee had raised more than £2.2 million for Cancer Research. Her 45 years of continuous service to Cancer Research in Edinburgh, 34 of them as Chair of the Committee, is an astonishing record of commitment, dedication and leadership. She spent a large part of her adult life raising money for a charity which leads the fight against a disease which had touched her own life at an early age.

Thelma Moncrieff was born in the Trinity area of Edinburgh in 1929. Her brother, Jimmy, was born three years later. Their father, James Moncrieff, ran the family business, Barrie and Moncrieff; their mother, Margaret, died from cancer when Thelma was only eight. Thelma’s own life, therefore, had been affected by cancer as a young girl. She and her brother were brought up during the war years by their housekeeper, Jean Elder, who later became their stepmother. The Moncrieffs became a very close and happy family.

Thelma was educated at Edinburgh Ladies’ College, known then as “Queen Street”, better known today as Mary Erskine. Training to become a primary school teacher followed in Moray House College, where she also completed an additional year to gain her Froebel qualification in Early Years Education. After a short spell in the local authority in 1954 she was offered a post at George Watson’s College, a school that was to define most of her future life.

It was at Watson’s that she met Jim, whom she married in 1955. It was a happy marriage from which the school benefited enormously. Thelma and Jim were devoted to George Watson’s, both in the classroom and in extracurricular activities. Jim became the much loved and respected headmaster of the Junior School, as well as running the school’s 1st X1 Cricket team. Thelma became a legendary provider of what have rightly become known as the best cricket teas ever provided for a school. Meanwhile, she continued to be an effective classroom teacher as well as becoming the headmaster’s wife “par excellence”. She took her role as a headmaster’s wife very seriously, leading by example. Teachers, and especially the young teachers who were being welcomed to the Junior School, still talk about the marvellous hospitality which was provided for them when they were invited to the Smiths’ home at Braid Farm Road.

Jim’s sudden and untimely death in 1979, aged only 58, was a huge blow but Thelma was not one to complain or retreat from the world. By this time she was heavily involved in raising funds for Cancer Research. Not only was she Chair of the main Committee, she was also the Chair of the Shop Committee and of the Art Committee. It was this Art Committee that began what soon became a great Edinburgh institution – the Annual Cancer Research Art Exhibition held every November. Until very recently it was always held at Adam House in Chambers Street and it became the prototype for the similar fundraising events which have become common since then. It was not common in 1968 and Thelma was enormously proud of what it achieved over the years. The very first exhibition in 1968 raised £400. The exhibition held in 2009, just after she retired as Chair, raised £20,000.

Her Committee presided over the development of Cancer Research charity shops throughout the city. These were raising between £50,000 and £70,000 each year. She organised many fundraising activities at various major events held in the city. Yet, despite the success of these ventures, the Art Exhibition was her pride and joy. She always talked with pride about the number of people who had been introduced to original paintings and to the many artists who, over the years, had contributed to the success of the exhibition. Sadly, she did not live to attend the 50th Anniversary Exhibition to be held this month.

These achievements were acknowledged both locally and nationally. Thelma was a member of the National Committee on Fundraising in London. In 1986 she was awarded the MBE for her services to charity. In 1991 a presentation was made to her by the then Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Eleanor McLaughlin, “in recognition of the £1m raised under her direction of the Edinburgh Fundraising Committee of the Cancer Research Committee”. These honours and recognition were richly deserved. Thelma had a focus and a vision which she articulated clearly and forcefully. In the world of raising money for charity she was a veritable force for good. As Mrs Jane Brunton, her successor and present Chair of the Edinburgh Fundraising Committee, said “Thelma was a born leader who always inspired and galvanised. We were all aware that, in raising money, we would help as many people as possible as they begin their cancer journey”.

Thelma had other interests. After Jim’s death she continued to teach at St. Margaret’s School in Newington until she retired from teaching in 1988. But she never really retired. She set up her own highly successful cake-making business, a venture which surprised no one – her baking skills were exceptional. Not only young cricketers enjoyed her baking, so did Thelma’s friends. Hundreds of customers, including many former pupils, also bought her celebration cakes. No wonder she was sometimes called the Cake Lady.

She was interested in politics. Her knowledge of the modern political system was deep. A long serving member of the Edinburgh Pentlands and Edinburgh South Conservative Associations’ Committees, she knew what she believed and was happy to discuss any political issues. Her daughter, Liz, inherited that love of politics and Thelma was very proud of Liz’s achievements as an MSP. She worked hard to help Liz in her Perth and Kinross constituency and was delighted when Liz was given the Conservative Education Portfolio. Liz’s political career was followed with parental pride.

Thelma Smith was an elegant, modern lady with a wide circle of friends who knew that they had her unconditional love and loyalty. She knew what public service was and understood its demands and responsibilities. She used her considerable leadership skills to great effect to meet these challenges. She was quite simply a woman of strong principle who gave much of her life to public service.

She is survived by her daughter, Liz, and brother, Jimmy.

MM MacIver