Steve McDowell pays tribute to his friend, Lilias Sheepshanks, mother of former ITFC chairman, David, after her death last week, aged 92


For someone who spent almost her entire adult life giving to others and widely-known for her gentleness and generosity, Lilias Sheepshanks, who has died aged 92, could on occasion deliver forthrightness that could make a sailor blush.

Famously, she once did exactly that.

Among a great many charitable functions she fulfilled, it was as a governor of the Royal Navy’s Royal Hospital School at Holbrook, during a meeting where measures to mitigate the sexual behaviour of young people were discussed.

“You must give all the sixth form condoms,” she said - and on examining the purplish hue of the faces of her fellow governors, some of them admirals, added unabashed: “You cannot deny reality.”

According to RHS’ own archive, Lilias was a governor for 17 years until she retired in 2001 during which time she was instrumental in making the school co-educational, in 1990, and set up pastoral and anti-bullying measures including a confidential help-line for young people.

Whether or not the sixth form was indeed issued with condoms is not recorded.

The welfare of young people was a huge feature in the life of Lilias.

​Perhaps not surprising as a mother of four sons herself: David, CBE, former chairman of Ipswich Town FC and the Football League; Rick, MD of Stokes Sauces in Rendlesham; Andrew, a fine-wine dealer and farm manager and Chris, a former Royal Green Jacket officer and now business mentor.

East Anglian Daily Times: Lilias was the mother of four sons, including former ITFC chairman David SheepshanksLilias was the mother of four sons, including former ITFC chairman David Sheepshanks (Image: Newsquest)

Lilias Mulgrave Noble was born in pre-war London, the daughter of Sir Humphrey Brunel Noble and Celia Weigel.

Sir Humphrey, the fourth baronet Noble, was the great-grandson of Sir Isambard Brunel.

At the time of her death, Lilias, being great, great grand-daughter, was the closest surviving relative to our greatest engineer.

Attending no fewer than five boarding schools in her childhood from the age of five, she spent her wartime years at RAF Uxbridge where 12 Fighter Group, under Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, was based.

She recalled feeling horrified, that having two older brothers and "being a girl", she was not allowed to play in "the interesting places" like gas shelters and gun pits.

She also recalled being spoiled by the otherwise fearsome Leigh-Mallory, for whom her RN-officer father worked.

Very gifted at the piano from early childhood, Lilias acquired a scholarship to Edinburgh University to study the instrument, from which she graduated before her 18th birthday.

This was immediately followed by an open scholarship to the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris to study under the notably hard professors Edwin Fischer and Alfredo Cartot.

East Anglian Daily Times: The piano super-star Left to right: Capt Robin Sheepshanks. Lilias Sheepshanks. Sir Malcolm Sargent. Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams and wife. London c1961The piano super-star Left to right: Capt Robin Sheepshanks. Lilias Sheepshanks. Sir Malcolm Sargent. Sir Ralph Vaughan Williams and wife. London c1961 (Image: Supplied)It was during the beginning of what should have been a startling career as a concert pianist – she was performing in famous London venues such as Wigmore Hall before she was 20 – that she was introduced to a dashing King's Dragoon Guards officer.

She and Captain Robin Sheepshanks married in 1951 and remained so until his death in 2007.

They settled in the family farm in Rendlesham on the Suffolk coast the same year.

Music remained prevalent in her life.

The legendary composer Sir Malcolm Sargent was her godfather and she became great friends with near neighbour Sir Benjamin Britten.

East Anglian Daily Times: Lilias became friends with her near neighbour, Sir Benjamin BrittenLilias became friends with her near neighbour, Sir Benjamin Britten (Image: Newsquest)

She was also instrumental in encouraging Sir William Walton to start composing again after many years of depression and loss of creativity.

While raising four sons; riding and breeding successful Arab eventing horses from Suffolk stock, occasionally returning to the piano for six to eight hours a day and helping to run and build what today is a substantial estate from its original 200 acres, her years of service to many of the county’s charities began.

All of which very nearly came to an end in the late 1960s when she was still in her 30s.

During a routine operation, she was dropped while being taken off the operating table, causing severe spinal trauma.

Two operations to repair the damage were botched and she spent the rest of her life walking with a cane and frequently in considerable pain.

She would never ride again or sit for any length of time at a piano and was all but bed-ridden for more than five years.

She taught herself to drive again (repassing her test a week after her then teenage son Andrew, much to her chagrin) and then began her charity career in earnest.

East Anglian Daily Times: Outside Buckingham Palace as she is invested as OBE, 2001. Left to right. Rick Sheepshanks, Lilias, Robin SheepshanksOutside Buckingham Palace as she is invested as OBE, 2001. Left to right. Rick Sheepshanks, Lilias, Robin Sheepshanks (Image: Supplied)

She was a Samaritan for many years; a bereavement councillor; Deanery Synod member; a governor and mentor at many schools – not just RHS - and, in the mid 1980s, founded ADFAM in Suffolk.

An early adopter of this now nationwide charity, Lilias personally brought to bear her unique gentleness, courage, humour and sheer energy on hundreds of people whose lives had been devastated by a drug-dependent family member who, at that time, were also often exposed to the horrors of AIDS.

She healed those around her everywhere she went and touched a great many lives in Suffolk and far beyond.

She was fiercely proud of being made OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2001 and in retirement remained busy - health permitting - with her seven grandchildren and many more friends.

She loved the company of young people - and a party - to her last day.

Lilias Sheepshanks OBE 13 January 1931 – 23 November 2023