20 February 2008

The Revd Professor David Brown writes:

:PHYLLIS MARY, née Parkhouse, widow of Alan Richardson, Dean of York (1964-75), died in her 98th year on 28 January. Alan and Phyllis first met in Liverpool, where he had studied philosophy and subsequently became a curate. Phyllis read English, and had embarked on a further degree in social science, but left that uncompleted when she married Alan in 1933.

Alan was appointed Canon Residentiary of Durham in 1943, where the pair renewed their friendship with Michael Ramsey, whom they had first met in Liverpool. Under Dean Alington, Durham was at that time a very formal place, and both sought to make the life of the Cathedral more accessible. Phyllis in particular embroiled herself in the wider life of the city. She took a special interest in the creation of new public housing and in planning, and served for two years on the City Council. She was also on the initial steering committee that led to the establishment of St Cuthbert’s Hospice.

A decade later, Alan became Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University, where Phyllis used the large Victorian house that they acquired in the Park to entertain students and academics alike. It is from this period that her capacity to help others troubled by changes in theology seems to date, and which eventually led her to found various trusts at Durham and Nottingham in Alan’s honour, concerned with the exposition and defence of the Christian faith.

The offer of York Minster in 1964 came as a mixed blessing. Alan loved teaching, and Phyllis debated right up to her last days whether she had been right to urge him to accept. Although he had been assured that the Minster was financially sound, almost immediately the tower was discovered to be in danger of collapse, and, not long after, Alan suffered the first of a number of heart attacks.


Phyllis sought to lessen the burden of the post in whatever way she could. For example, she took the initiative in establishing a cathedral bookshop (only the third in the country), and organised volunteers to open parts of the precincts hitherto inaccessible to the general public. A three-day flower festival was organised, and two national embroidery exhibitions, from the second of which emerged the Minster Broderers’ Guild, which is still flourishing some 41 years later.

Her interest in housing also continued. She took Alan’s place on the board of two almshouses, both in a parlous state. Phyllis cajoled and borrowed until the means were there to transform Wandesford (which had been founded in 1726 for “11 poor spinsters”), while another 12 flats were created in John Saville Court.

In 1975, a retirement home in South Street, Durham, had already been negotiated with the Dean and Chapter of Durham when Alan died at York during the course of a Sunday evensong. Phyllis, however, kept to their original plan, and became not only a stalwart of the Durham Cathedral congregation, but also repeated some of the innovations she had introduced at York.

Most important was the founding of the Broderers, with Dorothy Watson as their tutor, and the top storey of Phyllis’s house as their first working place. Leonard Childs and Malcolm Lockhead acted as designers. A close relationship was formed with the former in particular, who once complimented the team on the way in which under Phyllis they treated their work as “a real spiritual exercise”.

Generous in her gifts to academic trusts and to the two cathedrals, Phyllis was also an open and warm-hearted person at a more personal level. An excellent correspondent, she was good at maintaining friendships across the years. Most notable was her friendship with Jenny Platten, her housekeeper for 50 years (1945-2005). It came as no surprise, therefore, that, when Phyllis had to move to sheltered housing in Sherburn Hospital (where she had once been Governor), not only did she ask Jenny to join her, but gave her first choice of which flat she was to occupy. Jenny died while they were both listening to Songs of Praise.

It is typical of Phyllis’s deep faith that she thought long and hard about which prayers might most appropriately mark her own ending.

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