Elizabeth Bryan (née Paul, YG 1953)
24 December 2023
Old Scholars will be saddened to hear of the death of Elizabeth Bryan (née Paul, YG 1953). Elizabeth was at Friends’ School from 1946-1953. I spoke to her husband Bernard Bryan about her. His account of her life is included below. She died quite suddenly of a heart attack in June 2023. Bernard said that the evening before she had been in her usual spirits, discussing one of her favourite subjects, the conservation of historic buildings, and specifically speaking about the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the 52 churches Christopher Wren was responsible for building. She is buried in the churchyard in Horning overlooking the Bure river, on which she spent many years sailing as the captain of Crystal, a river cruiser. Elizabeth won races as captain of Crystal much to the chagrin of many of the male boat racers, the boat club being a place of residual chauvinism.

My conversation with Bernard gave me a sense, not only of how impressive Elizabeth was, but of how she was a part of an impressive Year Group of Friends' School students, many of whom went onto leave a positive mark on the world. The year group included: Tim Whitmore (1936-2002), the prolific writer on tropical plants; John Veit-Wilson (née Hanno Simon, 1936-2020), the co-founder of the Child Poverty Action Group; Nigel Watt, Chair of Volunteer Action for Peace and Elizabeth herself, who, after studying at the London School of Economics (LSE) went on to teach in higher education and then work as a conservationist for Historic England. 

Bernard explained that going to LSE itself was notable, as it was much less common for women to go to university then, as is also alluded to in the account written by Judith Foster (YG 1953) below. Bernard said that Elizabeth always showed fierce independence: driving at 16, studying economics at 6th Form and then also at university where she continued to show her independence by wearing trousers. In her work life she was often the only woman on Diocesan Advisory Committees (DACs), as the representative from Historic England, and continued working into her 70s.

Elizabeth went to Friends' in 1946 on a scholarship, and she enjoyed her time at school immensely, especially during 6th Form where she appreciated her talented cohort and the high quality of teaching being provided. She swam very well and so appreciated the swimming pool at Friends'. She was sporty in general and went onto play hockey at university also. Her younger sister, Marigold Paul (YG 1958) also went to Friends', and Bernard and Elizabeth sent two of their four boys to the school, Simon (YG 1980) and Justin Bryan (YG 1983)

As mentioned above, I have imcluded two accounts of Judith's life below. The first of these is provided by another impressive member of the 1953 Year Group, Judith Foster her school friend of over 80 years.

“I’ve known Elizabeth longer than anyone else except Marigold. From the age of eleven, at school, she and Jackie and I were friends until we left, seven years later. We met sometimes in London, where we were at different institutions of the University, and after a long space of time, we met again at a school reunion, just before Giles was born, and irregularly since then. There was always the same relationship, which we dropped into like a bowl of cream.

Some of our school interests were shared: Senior Choir under the admirable Richard Sturge; winter hockey, where I played left half behind her left inner; Senior Lit, about which I remember very little. Others diverged. She monitored the anemometer and the Stevenson’s Screen for the Natural History Society. Jackie did that too, for she became a meteorologist. I did drama. We all three went to Guide Camp five years running. I loved it; I suppose she did too.

She and Jackie came to my house for Sunday tea as often as I could get the other parties, school and parents, to agree – my mother did fabulous cheese on toast. Cycle outings to wonderful Vendela’s house were highlights.I went to stay at the Thatched Cottage in Henny, and camped with her family on the Dunwich cliffs. I made a conventional choice in further education, and was goggle-eyed that she went to the LSE.

At school, she was as she always would be, utterly reliable, organised, direct, and I didn’t recognise what she might become.

How did she strike me as I grew up? Nothing about her was ordinary, in spite of her straightforward Anglo-Saxon appearance. Outside, she looked so placid. Inside, she was all fire and energy. She was ruggedly flamboyant in a huffy sort of way. She used her singular voice in an unexaggerated way to tell exaggerated stories. She wore bright colours as though they were the stuff of everybody’s life. She teased me all my life for being a swot (which I was not), and my short skirts.

From my bourgeois heart I envied her her gorgeous, inconvenient house, and her Swedish sports cars. I admired her enormously and am honoured to have been her friend. I loved her always for her niceness. And I love her still. She’s not gone away, you know. She’ll be there as long as we are.”

The following account was provided by Bernard Bryan, her husband of 67 years:

"We met at the London School of Economics in the 50s. Liz was well-known – startlingly beautiful in yellow sweater and black trousers with long blond hair. Unfortunately for me, she was generally surrounded by admirers (“Helen of Troy” they called her), and well out of my league. Nevertheless, I was determined to ask her for a date. The conversation went something like this.

Me: Would you like to go to the theatre?
Elizabeth: Maybe. What have you got in mind?
Me: Er, “The Mousetrap”?
Elizabeth: That is for Women’s Institute parties.
Me: How about "The King and I”?
Elizabeth: That’s a sentimental musical. Anyway, I’ve seen it.
Me: What about “Sailor Beware”. It’s supposed to be very funny.
Elizabeth: It’s a crude, saucy attack on marriage and mothers-in-law.
Me: But you are interested in the theatre?
Elizabeth: Of course, I am.

Then I remembered a serious play The Mission, about the colonisation of Brazil.
Elizabeth eyes twinkled.

Elizabeth: Yes, I’d love to see that but I’m only free tomorrow-night.
Me: Ok, I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 6.
(As I obviously didn’t yet have any tickets, I scurried to join the queue for returns) …

The next week Elizabeth suggested we turn our backs on the West End theatreland and go to the East End to Joan Littlewood’s experimental work in Stratford. In the interval in the crowded bar a huge, gilded mirror fell off the wall and smashed down onto her head. Shaking off the shards she accepted the apologies of the bar staff and drank the proffered brandy while quipping – pointing at me – “you’d better give him one too!”.  All of which was typical of her. She had a deep commitment to the positives of life while at the same time refusing to make a fuss about anything negative.

Elizabeth was difficult to catch up with. Her Economic History degree and personal study trips to the centres of Britain’s powerful 18/19th century expansion consumed her weekends, while vacations were similarly varied and unique. After the summer terms finished, she drove the college drama group around American Army Camps in Europe in an antiquated Greenline bus borrowed from London Transport. So, aside from Elizabeth’s distinctly distracting beauty, it was her independence, her sense of self as an important and capable individual, focused on improving the world through study and hard work, that caught my undivided attention.

Other students who had been out with Elizabeth asked how it was that we managed to get on! I recall one of Elizabeth's fellow students offered to be her divorce lawyer since he was sure any marriage would not last long. I, of course, by then, was completely smitten.  And that divorce lawyer is still awaiting his brief.

We had a small wedding at Ely Place in London, Elizabeth having made her dress the day before. Her sister Marigold was her bridesmaid. In the 1950s wives obeying their husbands was a significant part of the marriage vows. You will not be surprised to hear that the word obey was not included in our wedding ceremony!

On return from Honeymoon, since neither of us wanted to teach in England’s divisive secondary education system (at that time it was dominated by the 11+). We took teaching posts in Nigeria. Before we left for Africa, both of our parents' last words were, “Wait till you return home before having a baby.” Too late!  Elizabeth was already three months pregnant, and despite contacting malaria twice, we dashed 90 miles down bumpy jungle roads. Julian was born with minimal fuss. Typical Elizabeth.

Two years later, back in England, our other sons were born: Simon by candlelight in Elizabeth’s mother’s thatched cottage in Little Henny, Essex; Justin in our first home near Eye, Suffolk (a suitably ancient oak-framed 16th century farmhouse), and thence to Scalford, a village near Melton Mowbray where Giles was born.
Elizabeth was a towering figure in the home, providing love, care, and sustenance for our four sons and their many many friends who came to the Manor and our boats on The Broads. Since then, we have welcomed four wonderful daughters in-law to our family, and thirteen much-loved grandchildren. Our marriage was a haven of love and communion.

At the same time, Elizabeth lectured in higher education for 20 years. She took her students to places where things happened – to Grimes Caves, to Castles, to Canal Basins, to Railway Yards, to early factories, workers' houses and significantly down the sewers of London. From 50 to retiring at 70 she worked as a historic building conservationist. She managed to find millions of pounds to create 15 conservation villages, restore and revive numerous ancient buildings, including Oakham Castle, for useful and public purposes. At 70, as she was still clambering into lofts and scaling high scaffolding; she was forced to retire because no one would insure her. Elizabeth said, “Stuff and nonsense.  I don’t need insurance.”

In retirement she was head-hunted by English Heritage to be a member of three Diocesan Advisory Committees (DACs). These DACs are responsible for the care and change of use of many hundreds of churches from the Humber to the Thames. For nearly all the 57 years we lived in Scalford where she was a member of, or the chair of, her local school committee and the parish council. 

So far, I haven’t mentioned sailing, which brought further joy and fun to our family life. As a true public servant, she was reliable, calm, assured and knowledgeable. If her colleagues were pondering over some decision, they would think to themselves “What would Elizabeth say?”.  

I had the extremely good fortune to spend with Elizabeth a long, fulfilled, and happy life, for which I am eternally grateful. Thank you, Elizabeth."

Images: the photos were provided by Charlie Bryan. The group photo is taken at Friends of the Railway Club. Elizabeth is standing back left.
Quick Links
Social Media
InTouch-Online (v supplied by InTouch Software