Rachel Waterhouse

Rachel Waterhouse

We are touched by many lives that enrich, challenge and enlarge us. My own time in Birmingham (1990 through to 2008) with the privilege of ministries across the conurbation brought me into contact with many and varied people.

Rachel Waterhouse was a towering spirit – a person of substance, learning and an independence of spirit. She was a faithful Anglican. I got to know both her and husband John in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital where he was being cared for after a stroke. As Chaplain there I administered the sacrament to them. Their fortitude and faith were just wonderful.

She died last month and I wanted to mark her life here with this obituary which appeared in the University of Birmingham website. It opens up an extraordinary life for which I am glad to have had a chance to connect with. I shall miss her cards, advice and encouragement.

Rachel was born in 1923, before there was universal suffrage for women and in an age when few women had careers. She went to King Edward’s High School for Girls (KEHS), winning a Foundation Scholarship. After graduating from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 1944, Rachel returned to Birmingham, married John Waterhouse in 1947 and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham in 1950.

While bringing up four children, she wrote centenary histories of several key Birmingham institutions:

  • The Birmingham and Midland Institute 1854 – 1954 (1954)
  • A Hundred Years of Engineering Craftsmanship – Tangye’s Limited (1957)
  • Children in Hospital – a hundred years of child care in Birmingham (1962)
  • How Birmingham became a Great City (1976)
  • King Edward VI High School for Girls 1883 – 1983 (1983)

Her love of history stayed with her for her whole life. 

In the early 1960s she joined the Birmingham Consumers’ Group (BCG), a decision which changed her life completely.  From being secretary of the Birmingham Group in 1964, she became a member of the Consumers’ Association’s Council (publishers of Which? magazine) two years later and in 1982 became Chairman of CA Council, a position she held for eight years.

From the mid-1960s the consumer movement rapidly gained recognition, including within Government. It was here that Rachel’s skills really came to the fore, as she was appointed to almost 20 public bodies as the consumers’ representative. These varied from the Potato Marketing Board to the National Economic Development Council (chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and from the Duke of Edinburgh’s Inquiry into Social Housing to the Office of the Banking Ombudsman.  She was as comfortable discussing financial securities and investments as the microbiological safety of food; one day she might be visiting a farm, another an offshore oil rig (with the Health and Safety Commission).

Yet despite the almost daily commuting to London she remained firmly grounded in Birmingham. She took on many influential roles within her home city, including being a founder member and first Chairman of Birmingham’s reconstituted Lunar Society (1990-96), Chairman of the Birmingham branch of the Victorian Society (1966-67 & 1972-74), President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute (1992), Provost of Selly Oak Colleges (1997-2000), and a member of University of Birmingham’s Court of Governors (1992-2003). In the 1990s she was appointed a Trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and she was a leading member of the Church of England’s Affirming Catholicism movement.

She was made a CBE in 1980 and a DBE in 1990.

She received an honorary degree – DSocSc – from the University of Birmingham in 1990. She also received honorary degrees from Aston University and Loughborough University. 

Dame Rachel was the first recipient of the Lunar Medal in 2006 – a prestigious award reflecting outstanding contribution to the aims of the Lunar Society and the furtherance of social and economic life in the West Midlands. She died peacefully, following a stroke, at the age of 97, leaving four children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She is sorely missed by all who knew her.

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