Joan Stevens

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Joan Stevens


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This obituary of Joan Stevens, written by Richard Falle, appeared in the 1986 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


With the death of Joan Stevens the island has lost a great Jerseywoman; the Société Jersiaise a distinguished historian; the community at large one of its best loved educators; many in Jersey and elsewhere a loyal friend; and her children a devoted mother.

Born Joan Charity Collas in Lichfield, where her father was in the South Staffordshire Regiment, she spent her childhood in Plymouth, Ireland and Germany, wherever her father was posted. Joan's father, Colonel Collas, was a Jurat, then Senator and a President of the Société Jersiaise. Her mother, Winifred Loftus-Jones, came from a distinguished naval family. Joan was proud of that service background and was also often pleased to remind us that her ancestor Gratien had settled in St Martin's Parish fleeing France after the battle of St Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488.

In 1924 her parents settled at L'Espine, St Lawrence, and for the next three years Joan was a day pupil at the Jersey Ladies College travelling to school by the Jersey Railway. After school she spent some time studying French in Lausanne, where she gained her fluency in a tongue which she was often pleased to speak. In 1931, and for the next three years when she was assistant secretary, Joan began her 55-year association with the Société Jersiaise.

Northern Rhodesia

Also in 1931 Joan became engaged to Charles Stevens, who was then serving in the Colonial Service in Northern Rhodesia. They were married in St Helier's Church by Dean Samuel Falle and thereafter lived successively in Rhodesia, London and Richmond. Joan brought up her family of one daughter and three sons in Africa, in conditions which the Jersey of the 1970s and '80s would regard as austere. They lived at first in Mongu, which she did not like, Kasama, and from 1947 to 1949 in Abercon (now Mbala), which with its lake nearby offered a cooler atmosphere under the African sun. In 1949 Charles Stevens retired from the Colonial Service and the family came to live at La Grange, Saint Mary. It was to become a much loved family home, where they farmed the land, growing potatoes and tending a small herd of cattle and, until recently, Joan, despite all her other interests and activities, herself kept and milked a single cow.

The period of Joan Stevens' life which was to bring her such wide renown began in 1960, and extended right up to the time of her death. Her children had now left school and she turned to historical research. The first fruit of her labour was an article on the cross and font at St Martin's House, her family's home until about 1850. Thereafter she developed her lifetime interest in the vernacular architecture of this island, visiting almost every Jersey house built before 1700 and taking voluminous notes and photographs. In 1965 she produced the first volume of Old Jersey Houses. This book, illustrated by her husband Charles and their sons Philip and Richard, has found a place in most Jersey homes and is regarded rightly as a classic of the island's literature.

There followed from her fluent pen a series of substantial books. One thinks principally of Victorian Voices, that splendid survey of the Victorian world in Jersey, published in 1969. The second volume of Old Jersey Houses appeared in 1977 and in 1981, in collaboration with Marguerite Syvret, a substantial revision and enlargement of Balleine's A History of the Island of Jersy. Articles, pamphlets, papers and talks for special occasions flowed from her tireless pen and she was as happy discussing the minutest piece of evidence as in tracing the broader outlines of our history. More than 20 years ago, Joan with her husband and Jean Arthur, began the mammoth task of collecting the place names of Jersey from the various scattered sources in the island, quizzing farmers and landowners for their field names, and checking contracts, ancient documents and maps. Only days before her death she was busy choosing the leather for the binding of this work. It is sad indeed that she did not live to enjoy the occasion of its publication, a monument to her industry. It is always a joy to read Joan's books. Her writing was a model of clarity and above all conveyed that attractive infectious enthusiasm which was the essence of her personality. Read aloud her prose has all the best qualities of the spoken word.

Charles Stevens and Joan Collas at their wedding in 1934

Société roles

Joan Stevens was for many years very active on the Executive, Publications and Section Committees of the Société and as a member of the Council of the National Trust for Jersey. Those who have sat on these committees with her over the years will best know her contribution to their deliberations. She would never bore with her preoccupations. She never spoke too long, was always constructive and brought a decided vitality to the discussion. Her good counsel, high integrity and unfailing industry will be sadly missed in those institutions so central to our island life.

Joan never refused an invitation to talk about Jersey and her work. She spoke on the radio, on television and to a great variety of local institutions not only in this island but abroad. She was perhaps our best ambassador to Guernsey, London and France, and when parties of learned visitors came to the island, the Societe could always rely upon her to meet and talk to them. Her graciousness, dignity and unfailing ability to find le mot juste were invaluable. In February 1967 Joan was invited to speak on her researches to the Society of Antiquaries in London and shortly after was elected a Fellow of that Society, the first Jerseywoman to be so honoured. In 1971 she was elected President of the Societe Jersiaise and presided over the centenary celebrations in 1973. She was subsequently made a Membre d'Honneur, an honour not lightly given. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1973 and her work for the island's heritage was recognised in 1977 when she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

In her dealings with people of every station Joan showed the same face. Although she was brought up in a society where hierarchy and position were keenly observed and understood, and although she had a great interest in the historical process which had created differences in society and particularly in our community, Joan had that kind of self-confidence characteristic of the best in Jersey life being sycophantic to none whatever his rank or power and never patronising to those with simpler backgrounds and less education than herself. One of her great heroes was Sir John Le Couteur, the 19th century diarist and the main character in her book Victorian Voices. Sir John managed in his lifetime to combine military service, active farming, research into agriculture, being ADC to Queen Victoria with personally ministering to the needs of the sick servants in his household. Joan saw such diversity of social involvement and personal commitment to all parts of the social structure as typical of the best in the Jerseyman and she was herself the very embodiment of that tradition.

Joan had that virtue of yesteryear of never wasting time. To the end, like a good Jerseywoman, she knitted in every spare moment. Later in life her time was taken up with research and correspondence. She worked like a Trojan, in her time picking potatoes, milking cows, doing her housework, decorating, never letting up. Again she embodied an heroic Jersey ideal.

The gravestone for Mrs Stevens and her husband in St Mary's Church cemetery

Candid and forthright

Joan Stevens was incapable of telling a lie. Her friends and family knew her candour. She was never devious, could be easily hurt by a slighting word but would never flinch from expressing her views, sometimes uncomfortable, honestly and with force. Despite all the issues in which she was involved over many years in the world of the Société and the National Trust, one never saw Joan lose her temper, show petulance, become involved in small-minded exchanges or lose her moral authority. Many people reserve their less attractive moments for their families but her family declare that Joan brought her generosity of spirit, warmth, candour and large-mindedness into the home.

The writer counts it a great privilege to have been one of Joan's friends. To be in her company was always a great pleasure. She had the art of paying a compliment in a way that was specific and personal and which never descended to flattery. Conversation never flagged when Joan was present. She was gregarious, loved talking in English and French and was never at a loss for something to say. While her great interests were her family, friends and her historical research, she was happy to talk about almost any subject under the sun and was particularly interested in the art of the Renaissance.

For all her enthusiasm and love of life Joan was utterly selfless and had that protestant strain in her which disdains luxury, self-indulgence or the admission of weakness. Her self-discipline made her a superb correspondent; letters never went unanswered and over the years all her friends will have received scores of letters of various length warming them on a personal note or enriching their knowledge with some interesting snippet of history, concerning perhaps themselves, their families or their land.

To her family Joan was devoted and they a source of great happiness to her. To the children not in the island she wrote a long letter every Sunday without fail and took vast pleasure in the birth of her four grand-children. It was perhaps typical of her selflessness and lack of personal vanity that, despite her interest in the social life of the last century, she did not dwell on her own personal history. The story of her family was another matter, however, and she knew as personal friends those faces which gazed from family portraits on the walls of her house.

Those who knew Joan Stevens as a young woman when she went to help the formidable elders at the Museum recall her striking good looks and her high spirits, and how she brought sunshine and laughter to deliberations which were at times perhaps over solemn. Joan brought enthusiasm to her researches in local history and architecture and in an extraordinary way was able to animate the subject itself. The discovery of a piece of historical evidence was for her an emotional event. Jean Arthur recalls once having told Joan of having spotted a stone bearing the date 1588, then the earliest dated stone recorded outside the castles and Joan was so excited at the news that she hugged her friend. It was such enthusiasm that made Joan probably the best and most loved educator in the island. She never failed to hold her audience and the many who have heard her on radio, television, at the Societe and elsewhere will recall that alert enthusiastic voice full of life and energy infecting her listeners with enthusiasm for matters which many may well have previously thought of no consequence. The island at large owes no small debt to Mrs Stevens for the insight and knowledge she gave to many owners of ancient properties instilling in them a love for their qualities and a wish to conserve them.

Although well endowed with the typically Jersey family treasures of silver, portraits and books, Joan was in no sense a wealthy woman; yet she was generous in material things and quite uninterested in personal gain. She always gave to her beloved Société Jersiaise the fees and royalties from her books and talks, or divided them among her children. Her instinct was always to give.

As she was throughout her life, so in her last, mercifully short, illness she was brave and uncomplaining about hardships and difficulties. Until the very last weeks of her life she was busy thinking about the future and its challenges with undiminished enthusiasm. Her children were all present when she died at her home, Le Petit Mourier, Saint John, on Friday, 21 March 1986.
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