Obituary: Lady Joan Reid, academic not afraid to pitch in and make things happen

Lady Joan Mary Oram Reid, Born: 18 October 1932. Died: 10 November 2017.

Lady Joan Reid
Lady Joan Reid

Lady Joan Reid (nee Oram) was a ­woman of ­considerable achievement over a wide range of ­interests, an educationist and historian whose four decades of ­travels, especially in Africa and Asia, prompted an enduring ­interest in societies and ­people.

Joan Mary Oram was born in 1932 in Calcutta. Her mother, Katherine Blackstock, was one of the early ­women ­doctors. Her family came from Skye and later Dumbarton. Joan’s father was John Oram, a financial executive from ­Dundee. She made the first of many journeys at the age of three, by sea from ­Calcutta to Britain with the war imminent.

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Joan’s parents sent her to Cheltenham Ladies ­College, where she made lasting friendships and significant sporting achievements, playing lacrosse internationally and tennis at Junior Wimbledon. The intellectual discipline and challenge at Cheltenham also suited her, preparing her for university at St Andrews and postgraduate work.

Within a year of arriving at St Andrews she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Sweet Briar University in ­Virginia. A delightful backwater, it brought her face to face with ­segregation. This was a major force in the formation of her social conscience and abhorrence of racial prejudice.

On her return to St Andrews, Joan became president of the Women’s Union. Singing in choirs and madrigal groups became regular ­pastimes, but her primary concern was her academic work. Her love of history and historical inquiry took root at this time. In ­economics, she wrote an outstanding thesis on ­congestion and pollution in Manchester, and this ­contributed to her appointment as a lecturer.

At St Andrews, Joan met Bob Reid, a fellow student. With a first class honours degree, she put a promising academic career on hold, sailing to ­Singapore in 1957 to marry Bob, by then a young oil company executive. Their ­marriage of more than 60 years, with three sons and ­seven grandchildren, was the central pillar of Joan’s life.

Seria in Brunei was her first marital home and it was not long before the couple had their first child. Joan also enjoyed a teaching assignment, shared with a close friend. Learning to live in a cosmopolitan community in a Muslim country was all about tolerance and an open mind.

Three years later the family moved to Nigeria. Teaching at a local school, Joan began work with a Nigerian friend, Eunice Nwankwo, to write a Nigerian history text book. But this was disrupted as Nigeria’s political situation moved from the euphoria of independence to the tragedy of civil war.

Joan – Jo to family and friends – was deeply ­concerned about the health of the growing number of unmarried mothers and their children in the slums of the oil boom town of Port Harcourt. Her concept of a Babies Home took root, ­managed by Nigerians and expatriates, to give a supportive start to children. Financing came from many sources – even from the local ‘madam’, who saw Joan as a saint ready to ­forgive her sins as long as she paid up.

So huge were Nigeria’s social problems that it would have been easy to walk away. But the dedication of Joan’s mother in wartime Britain was bred into her and it was only the imminent danger of civil war that forced her to leave.

After three years in Kenya and the arrival of the Reids’ third son, the second having been born in Port Harcourt, the ­family returned to Nigeria, to the capital, Lagos. Rebuilding the country after the 1967-1970 ­civil war was a formidable task, and Joan threw ­herself into work in familiar fields – education and support for women and families. Creating women’s support groups was as much about building confidence across tribal groups as it was about the programmes. The hands-on leadership which produced the Babies Home had moulded Joan as a creative builder of bridges and ­reconciler of conflicts.

The Reids were soon on the move again. Told that a posting to Thailand was to be the reward for living through 12 years of tension in Nigeria, she asked, “Aren’t there real wars going on there?”

The war, with Thailand a US ally, was in nearby Vietnam. The Reids left for Bangkok with Joan’s enthusiasm undimmed. “I studied history and now after 12 dramatic years in Nigeria living it, I am going to go on in the front row,” she told herself.

Joan relished the opportunity to gain insight into the amalgam of forces which created the country and its successful economy. She was fascinated by the Buddhist ­culture of the villages and King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s personal ­commitment in spending 10 years as a ­Buddhist priest, which won public acceptability that underpinned control of the wilder forces at work in the economy and politics.

After four years studying the origins of Thailand’s economic success and political stability, Joan returned to London for two years before her next adventure, to Australia.

While settling in and getting her golf handicap down on the country’s most challenging course, Royal Melbourne, she was invited by friends to help them fill envelopes for the Liberal Party. She ended up being asked to draft a ­policy on abortion.

Joan moved into high intellectual gear on a complex issue with which she was then unfamiliar and prepared a document which was later adopted with little amendment. When the Reids finally returned to Britain in 1983, Joan was already recognised as a person of substance, experience and intellect.

When the Royal Society of Arts wanted the Benjamin Franklin House established on a well-organised basis, she was put in charge. Her selection of Dr Márcia Balisciano as director was a stroke of ­genius and within a few years the house and its educational and historical programmes were up and running. Joan’s spell as a ­student in the US had introduced her to ­Franklin and she expanded her knowledge as the house historian.

She also became a director of the Urban Learning Foundation, preparing trainee teachers in east London. This involved partnerships with higher education institutions, including Canterbury Christ Church University ­College, which invited her to be a ­governor in 1991 and vice-chairman of the governing body eight years later.

These were spectacular years for Canterbury, which won the power to grant degrees in 1995. The ­college consolidated its position in health education and the campus expanded in 1999. With the achievements of 10 dynamic years behind her, she was awarded an Honorary ­Fellowship in 2001.

Despite her full agenda, Joan pursued her interest in dyslexia. Becoming chair of the ­Unicorn School for dyslexic children in Abingdon gave her the opportunity to prove her thesis that the condition was avoidable. Of all her ­educational work, this was closest to her heart.

In later life, Joan the historian became involved in the Past Overseers of the Poor, who had administered poor relief in England. She built a database of the community, creating a picture of life and social problems in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that prompted the Poor Law and a body of overseers to implement it. Her first book was a fascinating catalogue. At her death, she was working on a second book to draw lessons and parallels for our society today.

With her grandson, Joan was also looking at the A-Level history syllabus. A new intellectual journey had begun. She died, as she lived, with her mind engaged and her love of adventure undiminished.