John Hanson

John Hanson, the well-known local historian, has died at the age of 76. He was an energetic man of many talents; a gifted author and artist he once, whilst a patient in St George’s Hospital (then located at Hyde Park Corner), produced a cartoon of the Duke of Edinburgh shooting squirrels in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. In his youth he was an enthusiastic sportsman being especially keen on cricket and hockey. “In later life”, it was once said, “if it involved a ball he would watch it on TV.” If true, this statement proves beyond doubt that, given his prodigious creative output, he had, before it became fashionable, invented ‘multi tasking’.

It is as an expert local historian that John was probably most widely known to local residents. He was superbly gifted, as well as hard working, and was described by Oxford’s Regius Professor of History (Professor Robert Evans) as the finest amateur historian that he had ever met. Professor Evans was particularly impressed by John’s ability to interpret the facts he unearthed and, in particular, his meticulous distinction between conclusions, which could legitimately be drawn from the evidence, and his own personal opinions.

John, the eldest child of William and Winifred Hanson (née Spiller), was born in Eastbourne on 29th July 1931. John’s father was a stickler for family tradition. Noting that John’s grandfather was named William Robinson Hanson, William insisted that John was also given the name William. Interestingly he subsequently insisted that his second son was given the name Robin. Thus it was that John was christened William John: but the name William was never used. Historical influences started early in the Hanson household.

John’s father was born in Wantage and his mother came from Oxford, where her family lived in the Iffley Road area. Superficially John had all the right genes for a man who spent most of his life in a house that was in the old Berkshire and was subsequently absorbed into Oxfordshire. Sadly, as John would have been the first to point out, one must never jump to conclusions. Neither family was originally from the Oxford area: William’s came from Yorkshire and Winifred’s from Somerset and Wiltshire.

A few years after John’s birth, the Hanson family moved to Bladon and, in due time, he went to Witney Grammar School: making the daily journey by bus. Following his two years of national service, largely spent in Malta, he went to a Teacher Training College in Cheltenham. This experience proved life changing since, whilst there, he met his future wife. She too was training to be a teacher.

John started his working life in Nottingham teaching art. Shortly after their marriage, John and his new wife went to Libya and for 3 years they both taught English. This experience reinforced his great love of the English language and crystallised his insistence that punctuation served a useful purpose and should be correctly used. Returning to England in 1959, they built their house on the Eynsham Road on land that they had purchased previously. They were to live there for nearly 50 years.

John took a teaching post at St Bartholomew’s School in Eynsham, where he was to have a major influence on many of those fortunate enough to be his pupils. He loved music and both he and Pat listened to live and recorded performances. Apparently, he never learnt to play an instrument: though it is said that, whilst at St Bartholomew’s, he learnt enough about the double bass to allow him to support the orchestra in the School’s production of ‘The Mikado’.

If John had solely been a schoolteacher, he would still be remembered for his major contributions. As it was, he began to be recognised for other talents and he was eventually moved to become a personal assistant to Oxfordshire’s then Director of Education. The key feature, that marked him out, was his ability to think problems through and to write about them lucidly. The problems he addressed were always challenging: they included family breakdown, behavioural problems and drug abuse. He found a publisher (Longmans) and over a period of years he published many thoughtful booklets. ‘Critical Thinking’ was the key to his approach. As an encore, he also wrote for Oxfam.

Whilst still working, John started to chronicle life in Cumnor Parish. Once retired, he devoted himself to this task with an enthusiasm that never dimmed. He published this work widely in the local community and also organised local exhibitions, doing most of the work himself: thus bringing the benefits of his scholarship to an even wider audience. Keeping abreast of technology he set up the Cumnor Parish Record: a website that tells us all that we could ever wish to know about Cumnor and, even more impressively, much that one could be forgiven for believing was lost for ever.

As a writer, John was widely respected for the lucidity of his writing and the clarity of his illustrations, many of which he drew himself. He also always met his deadlines: typically, just before he entered hospital for a major operation, John drove up to Cumnor to deliver personally the article that was published in the December CPN.

Conservation was another of John’s passions. He was a ‘hands on’ conservationist and the driving force behind the Cumnor Conservation Group. Proselytising was never his game. He took the view that you could not conserve what you did not understand. He never embarked on a scheme without a thorough study of any available written records and, more importantly, the evidence that existed on the ground. He played a major part in mapping and recording the many ditches, hedgerows and verges in the Parish. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the Parish, as it once was, enabled him to overlay the current detail on the ancient maps. The outcome of much of this work is to be found on the Cumnor Parish Record website.

At the personal level he took the chance, when it arose, to purchase extra land behind his house in order to preserve the ancient trees that were on it. His passion for trees, and it was a passion, was not uncritical. He always favoured the removal of inappropriate trees so that native trees and indeed plants could flourish. He was, for example, the driving force behind the leasing of the Hurst by the Parish so that it could be returned to its native state. Without his enthusiasm, we might well have missed the opportunity. As he once put it “We have to give nature a helping hand from time to time.”

John supplemented his personal contributions by serving for many years on the Parish Council. He was a model ‘can do’ Councillor. If he was asked if he would undertake a task, the answer was always yes. There would then be a pause and quizzical look, whilst John wondered how he was going to do it. Finally he would go away and do it!

John’s most immediately tangible memorial, apart from the knowledge on the Cumnor Parish Record, will be the notice boards displaying copies of his beautiful hand drawn map of the parish. There is currently one in Cumnor Village: two more are to be erected: one in Dean Court and the other in Farmoor.

John married Patricia (Pat) Walker in 1956 and they celebrated their golden wedding last year. They had two daughters (Deione and Melanie) He is survived by his wife, their children and two grandchildren (Jacob and Lucy). Our sympathies are with them all.


Philip Hawtin, 18th January 2008