Remembering Mary de Saulles 1925-2020

Photo of Mary de Saulles

Both in her professional life and in the causes she supported, Mary de Saulles was a visionary with her feet firmly placed on the ground. Her creative energies were legendary, but her conceptual goals – whether in the fields of architecture and design, or concerning future plans involving the Civic Society, the protection of historic buildings, the rural heritage or the restoration of the Shrewsbury Canal – were never fanciful, but always approached from a practical and feasible point of view.

Mary Harper was born in 1925, the eldest daughter of Curzon and Ivy. Her father was the borough engineer for Barking, Essex; her mother had been a bank teller before her marriage. Being the only child for many years, she benefitted from the undivided attention and hands-on teaching from both her parents, developing skills in dress-making, gardening, knitting and small-scale engineering. Her mother died when she was 10; soon after she was enrolled at St Monica’s, a girls boarding school in Clacton.

At school she discovered an interest in design, which she developed as a student at the South-East Essex Technical College. This was followed by a brief spell articled to the City Surveyor of Hereford, and this led to a 5-year course at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture in London. After further practical experience, she was elected an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects (ARIBA). On the course she met fellow student Patrick de Saulles who, because it was wartime, was soon conscripted into the Royal Navy. With that characteristic Mary persistence, she kept in touch with him, however, and they were married in 1946.

After two posts as assistants to independent architects in London, she was appointed to a position in the Housing Division as an architect with the London County Council (LCC), which at that time was rebuilding schools, hospitals and other public buildings ravaged by the Blitz. Within a year she had been ‘head-hunted’ by the Deputy County Architect, Dr Leslie Martin, to be deputy to John Lunn, who was in charge of a new Special Design Group. This was the ideal environment to develop her joint interests and abilities as a designer and an architect. During this period she was involved in the LCC’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain, devising and designing an, at that time novel, demountable, flexible and versatile set of exhibition display equipment.

Following a spell as Assistant Group Leader in the LCC Architect Department’s Schools Division, Mary applied for the post of Assistant to the Industrial Designer at British European Airways (BEA). After 3 years her boss resigned to set up his own private practice, and she was appointed to his post. As the Industrial Designer she was responsible for the development of the new BEA house style, including the original design of their classic corporate logo and well-known aircraft liveries. The BEA ‘red square’ became part of the visual landscape of 1960s Britain, and in 2019 – the centenary of the first international scheduled air service, between London and Paris, by BEA’s forerunner, Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited (AT&T) – British Airways repainted two of their aircraft in Mary’s 1950s ‘red square’ livery.

During this time Mary was elected as the first female Fellow of the Chartered Society of designers (FCSD) and nominated as Fellow of the Royal Society of Architects (FRSA). In 1961 she was appointed Architect Adviser to the British Council, but within a year she and Patrick decided to ‘make a late start on having a family’, so she resigned this post. Martin was born in 1965, and soon after the family moved to the United States for a year, as Patrick took up a visiting professorship at Columbia University, New York. They returned to London, where their second son Stephen was born. However, disagreements between Patrick and his professional partners necessitated their moving from the capital (the Architect’s Code of Conduct decreed that you were not allowed to set up a new practice in the same area as that from which you had resigned). They chose to move to Shropshire; Mary’s grandparents came from Ludlow, so she knew the county from childhood, and one of her assistants at the London County Council, Geoff Hamlyn, had become the Deputy County Architect.

They moved to No. 8 Belmont in 1967, and set up a private practice, completing commissions from both public councils and private clients. Almost the next day, the first of her many local campaigns involved her and Geoff Hamlyn appearing on local radio defending the town against a proposed speedway track on what is now the West Midland Showground. Patrick worked exclusively for Barnton Investments, the Liverpool developer involved in building housing estates in Wrexham and Ruabon. Apart from being the architect for the Barnton projects, Mary also set up her own private practice. One of their early projects was to convert a semi-ruined derelict warehouse by the old Traitor’s Gate into a pair of houses. All went well for many years – at one stage their office employed 6 staff – until the economic downturn in the ’70s. Barntons suffered grave economic problems; the banks insisted on immediate repayment of loans. The de Saulles’s were on the brink of financial ruin – but they refused to declare themselves bankrupt. All staff had to be dismissed, however, and assets realised: they managed to sell No. 8 Belmont and one of the pair of houses at the bottom of St. Mary’s Water Lane, and moved into the remaining house. They were successful in finding work for the dismissed staff elsewhere, but with two small children, no income and drained of resources they had ‘problems’, in Mary’s understated account! It took them almost two decades to get back into the black. Mary continued with her private practice; Patrick was appointed by Redditch Development Corporation to prepare a report on low-cost housing, and then started helping Mary with her increasing workload. Eventually she ‘took him into partnership’ for a while, until he became unwell. Sadly, shortly after their golden wedding anniversary in 1997 Patrick suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards. They were cheated of their ‘anticipated retirement years together’, but ever the fighter, Mary decided to continue as before, while ‘health and marbles lasted’. Wanting to ‘give something back’, she continued with the business, as well as immersing herself even more in ‘useful work’ with the Civic Society and the Canal Trust.

Her successful involvement as chairman of the Midlands RIBA region’s Festival of Architecture, in the national ‘Festival of Architecture’ in 1984 (which included the floodlighting of buildings from each century in Shrewsbury), resulted in Mary being approached by Barracuda Books to write “The Book of Shrewsbury” in their ‘historic towns’ series (published 1986). Much research went into this project, which Mary updated in her 2012 book “The Story of Shrewsbury” .

Soon after her move to Shrewsbury Mary became heavily involved with the conservation of Shrewsbury’s building heritage, and was for many years a driving force with the Shrewsbury Civic Society, helping to save and restore various historical buildings. More details can be found on their website, .

Mary joined The Trust in 2001 and was very active in engaging with SNCT over a range of matters within the Trust from a very early point in time, particularly through all of her work in those years with the Civic Society.
She and the Civic Society were very active supporters of the Shrewsbury Canal long before SNCT came into existence. The Trust owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude for keeping the canal line free from development by their strenuous responses to a range of planning applications over the years. More recently, as an active member of the Shrewsbury Support Group, Mary was an energetic and most willing volunteer at our stalls at various fetes, regattas and open days.

Her planning and design skills were put to good use in setting up our successful exhibition in the Shrewsbury Museum in 2016. During the preparation period for the exhibition, she was diagnosed as having “sudden death syndrome”, which required the emergency replacement of a heart valve. At the age of 90, she underwent this risky open-heart procedure, never for one moment thinking that she would not come out of it alive. Whilst her sons at her bedside were trying to get her to help them sort things out if the ‘worst case scenario’ occurred, she was far more concerned with making sure her plans for the canal exhibition went ahead smoothly! After a spell in Intensive Care, she spent several weeks recuperating in the Swan Hill Nursing Home. Typically, when I visited her there to discuss the exhibition plans, she expressed far more concern about the health of her fellow inmates, many of whom were a decade or so her junior, than she did about her own recovery. But recover she did, and with unremitting energy and vigour, spent the last 5 years of her life enjoying being as busy and as helpful as ever.

None of us can choose how or when we die. This self-reliant fighter had managed to avoid hospital, care home and even Covid-19! However, after a CT scan indicated that a long-dormant cancer had metastasised to her lungs, within a week Mary had passed away. Her end was, I suspect, just as she would have wished: she died in the house she had designed with Patrick, with her sons at her bedside.

She is survived by sons Martin and Stephen, and grandson Felix.

Peter Cann

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