Obituary - Madeline Stiles (1950-2010)

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

In an organisation of historians, Madeline Stiles was not one. Responsible for teachers and academics, she was neither. Her interest in education was purely professional: she was much happier studying architecture and art.

But, in a career spanning three decades, she successfully transformed the Historical Association, taking it from cumbersome anachronism to a vibrant resource for history teachers.

Born in London in 1950, Madeline Stiles was the daughter of working-class Irish parents. From an early age, she demonstrated keen academic ability, along with a limitless appetite for books. Nonetheless, she left grammar school immediately after her O-levels. Girls from her background were not expected to stay at school beyond 16: O-levels were all that was needed to secure a job as a secretary or librarian.

Teenage Madeline, however, was not academically satisfied, so she worked as a librarian in Westminster during the day, studying for A-levels at night. Library work was a natural choice: her childhood love of books had grown into a deep and abiding interest in literature. She was particularly fond of French novels and poetry: Baudelaire was a long-standing favourite.

In 1978, she was appointed membership secretary of the Historical Association, the subject association for history teachers and academics. Once again, working life served as compensation for her academic frustration. She enjoyed reading history books, and thought the job might offer a chance to pursue this interest.

By the mid-1980s, she had become association secretary. She brought to the role a financial and business acumen lacking in her predecessors. She also brought personality: with her loud voice and commanding presence, she was not to be ignored. This was true even outside her organisation, as she successfully convinced the chief executives of several subject associations to share ideas and practice.

The Historical Association was an unwieldy organisation, still operating on roughly the same principles as it had when founded in 1906. And so Mrs Stiles began a large-scale restructuring project. In place of existing clerical staff, she appointed education and marketing professionals. And she created a CEO position, for which she successfully applied.

But she executed her business-like practicality on a smaller scale, too. When a colleague's mother was diagnosed with cancer, she sent her a detailed list of questions for the oncologist. "You'll be panicked and not thinking straight," she said. "These might help."

People mattered to her. When the death of a trustee's father coincided with the London bombings on July 7 2005, she continued to talk to him over the phone, comforting him even as she was evacuated from King's Cross station.

She was similarly concerned about her members. She regularly held office open days, inviting members to meet association staff. This helped dissipate ongoing tensions between members interested in teaching history, and those purely concerned with the subject itself.

Mrs Stiles fell firmly into the latter camp. She preferred the history of architecture to the history of education, and loved to wander the streets with her camera, photographing the architecture of daily life. She also painted, and enjoyed playing with form and shape, creating abstract images.

But reading remained her first love. It was in a library that she met her bookseller husband, Jerry. Every summer, she would rent a flat in Glastonbury, and send down boxes of books, and jazz and soul CDs. She would then spend the month of August listening to music and working her way through the tomes.

In latter years, however, this peace was marred by cancer. The first diagnosis came in 1998; she responded by volunteering for an ovarian cancer charity. Later, she became patient advocate at St George's hospital in south London, sitting on its board.

She planned to do more such work after retirement. The Historical Association often demanded 13-hour days and working weekends, and she was looking forward to a change of focus and pace.

But it was not to be. The cancer returned in 2006; after chemotherapy and a liver operation, Mrs Stiles died in February this year. She is survived by her husband and several godchildren.

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