Aelfthryth Gittings 1939-2012


SCPR 1978-2000

The Guardian,    27 January 2013

1980: en route to Seix, French Pyrenees

My wife, Aelfthryth Gittings, who has died aged 73, did not hesitate when it was suggested that she might "go private" after her cancer returned last year. "I have lived by the NHS," she replied, "and I shall die by the NHS."

Aelfthryth became committed to radical causes such as CND at Oxford University, where she read history (1958-61) and we met. Her commitment was never divorced from reality: she translated it, pleasantly but firmly, into everyday life and work. Living in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, she was an unusual expat mum who refused to have a resident amah (maidservant). Her notable travels with two very young children included exploring the Andean plateau and crossing the Soviet Union by the Trans-Siberian railway.

Aelfthryth was a strong supporter of state education and the comprehensive system, but she was not taken in by rhetoric. A school manager at William Tyndale junior school in Islington, north London, she opposed the chaotic progressive experiment there in 1974 which led to an official inquiry.

A colleague at the Social and Community Planning Research, the non-profit social research organisation now known as NatCen, where she worked as an interviewer and later as a training manager (1978-2000), recalls how she flatly refused to sign the Official Secrets Act for the Government Social Survey.

Throughout her life Aelfthryth had to deal with the inquiry "Is your name Welsh?" It is actually Anglo-Saxon. Her diplomat father – a language enthusiast – had chosen it, while her Jewish mother from prewar Poland had no idea it was not a common name when Aelfthryth was born in London.

Joining me in Shanghai for two years from 2001, Aelfthryth taught business English at Jiao Tong University and did volunteer work at the Children's Welfare Institute, the city's largest orphanage. When I travelled without official permission for the Guardian, she was skilled at spotting police informers and helping me to get away before I was arrested.

After we retired to Shipton under Wychwood, in Oxfordshire, Aelfthryth became an enthusiastic campaigner for the Labour party. She helped form the Burford (later Oxfordshire) Probate Group which, working for the Victoria County History, transcribed local wills. Later she was active with the Wychwood Probate Group.

Aelfthryth is remembered as a lively colleague with an infectious laugh, as a deeply caring mother, and as a constant loving partner. She continued to travel widely with me, visiting much-loved grandchildren in East Cork and Hong Kong, and delighting most recently in the Cathar castles of south-west France.

I survive her, along with our sons, Danny, Tom, Joe and Max.

John Gittings