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14 March 2007

Professor Paul Foster writes:
FOR precisely 40 years from 1941, Beatrice Mary Balmer, who died on 9 February, aged 92, was secretary to successive Bishops of Chichester. Appointed by George Bell, to whom she became devoted, she was probably the first woman educated at Oxford University to meet the secretarial needs of any bishop.

Bell, who always had an eye to invigorating offices in his gift by the appointment of challenging individuals, recognised in Mary Balmer someone of commitment and authority. After reading Modern Languages at the then St Anne’s Society, training at Pitman’s, and holding several posts in London (notably at the Anglo-Indian Church Society), Mary joined, in coming to Chichester, a well-established pattern of work; for Bell himself had been Bishop since 1929.

With Bell’s opposition to the policy of the blanket-bombing of Germany, however, Mary soon discovered that the job was more taxing than it had been described. As she wrote in a contribution to a volume of essays, Bell of Chichester (2004): “I was not able to conceal

. . . from him [the violent letters of protest], but I was able to intercept most of the vituperative telephone calls.”

On Bell’s retirement in 1958, both his successors, first Roger Wilson, then Eric Kemp, retained Mary as secretary, but in 1981, at 67, she retired — to discover a new office, as wife to William Joice, a former electrical engineer. Married at St Mary’s, Goring-by-Sea, in April 1982, they had 16, as Mary put it, “terribly happy” years, much of it spent touring Europe.

More recently, restricted to the house, her tenacity was tested to the full, although she complained only of visitors’ regaling her with accounts of their holidays, and of the deprivation and emptiness from being able to receive holy communion at monthly intervals only.

Her steadfast faith and loyalty to the Church were undiminished to the end, and she spoke movingly of looking forward to discussions in the foothills of heaven (as C. S. Lewis, following Dante, might have put it) with some of the lesser saints — and she mentioned St Richard of Chichester, about whom she had written a hymn for the celebrations held in 1953 to mark the 700th anniversary of his death.

It was this same Christian integrity that had been recognised much earlier by George Bell, who, in his will, bequeathed her the bronze figure by Richard Garbe RA, The Dancer, that Bell had purchased at the Royal Academy in summer 1947. In due course, this same figure will join other Bell memorabilia in the Treasury at Chichester Cathedral, as “a gift from Mary Joice, née Balmer”.

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