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Francis Sheppard 1921-2018: A Henley Historian

A number of our members will remember Francis Sheppard, who died peacefully at Tower House, Shiplake, on 22nd January, at the age of 96. You may even have a copy of his book about Brakspear’s Brewery on your shelf, but may be unaware of the extent of his achievements as a historical scholar. 

Francis studied at King’s College, Cambridge, and developed an enduring passion for local history. In 1954, he chose Henley as the ideal place to build a house and commute to work, initially to the Museum of London. After the tragic death of his first wife, he remarried happily to Elizabeth, his family grew to include three children, and he became closely involved with the life of the town. Francis was a founder member of the Henley Society, leading the campaign to save the Catherine Wheel in 1964. He was a town councillor for 10 years and became Mayor in 1970. He was also a founder member of the Henley/Falaise Twinning Association. 

Although he was very active in local affairs, his working life was devoted to the history of our capital city. In 1964, he was appointed by the London County Council as general editor of the Survey of London, which gives a detailed account of the London boroughs, providing a general history of each one, with descriptions of notable streets and individual buildings, based on primary sources. By 2017, this had run to 52 volumes. Francis was editor of 16 of these, published between 1956 and 1983. John Betjeman greeted the publication of the first volume “Lambeth: Southern Area” with the words “This great work” in a review. The Survey acquired a worldwide reputation, and was noted for its accuracy and interesting style. 

In the 1990s, Francis and the biographer and historian Christopher Hibbert became neighbours in Albion Place, West Street. They shared a keen interest in the history of London, both being biographers of the city, and walked the length of the Thames together. “London: A History”, Francis Sheppard’s book for the general reader was published by Oxford University Press in 2000 and he was celebrated by the author Roy Porter as “the great authority to whom we all look up . . . I suspect there’s no one in the world with so full a knowledge as he of sources, physical fabric and all manner of details”. 

Obituaries of Francis Sheppard can be found on the websites of The Guardian, dated 12 February 2018, (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/12/francis-sheppard-obituary)and The Telegraph, dated 16 February. The Survey of London can be accessed online at: http: www.british-history.ac.uk

Jackie Fortey