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Jill Sturdy Obituary

The first Sancton Wood school photograph we still have  - presumably from 1977 or 1978. Benjamin is sitting on Jill Sturdy's knee in the centre of the photograph; Naomi is just in front of them; Joseph is three from the right behind a teacher.

Mrs Jill Sturdy 1935-1998

Jill Sturdy, Headmistress and Founder of Sancton Wood School, Cambridge, died of cancer on August 10 aged 63. She was born on May 30, 1935.

Usually surrounded by cats, dogs, children, books and newspapers, Jill Sturdy might have seemed too modest a figure to be the driving force behind a remarkable family and educational enterprise. The mother of twelve children, nine of whom were adopted, she was also the Headmistress of a small independent school in Cambridge which she founded as a result of her dissatisfaction with the general educational provision for her children.

Jill Evans was born in Aylesbury, the daughter of a Welsh sales manager. Educated at Hitchin Grammar School, she won a place at London University but was persuaded to turn it down in favour of a series of short-term jobs, including copywriting and nursing mentally ill patients. Disillusioned, she joined a Carmelite nunnery and converted to Catholicism. She stayed as a novice for two years and found great happiness and joy, until the debilitating effects of bad migraines persuaded her to return to the outside world. While in hospital she met a newly ordained Anglican priest, John Sturdy. They married in 1961.

Following the birth of two sons, the Sturdy family moved to Cambridge in 1965, where her husband took up the post of Dean of Gonville and Caius College. That same year they made a decision that was to change the rest of their lives when they adopted a young girl from British Guyana. Over the next two years the family began to grow, with the birth of a daughter and the adoption of a Pakistani boy. With five children under the age of five, Jill Sturdy decided to further her education, and began to study for a degree in English at New Hall College, Cambridge, then for a PGCE at Hughes Hall. During her degree course, she adopted two more children, of West African parentage. 

The bullying of her oldest daughter at school led to considerable anxiety about the suitability of the state school system for her multi-racial family. With her husband's support, she decided to open her own school: moral, tolerant, with extremely high standards of education and behaviour, and open to as wide a range of families as possible.

Sancton Wood School was founded in 1976 as a primary school in a Victorian house in Cambridge. It opened its doors to 11 pupils, in two classrooms, taught by Jill Sturdy and a friend; within a term another class was opened. The school has continued to grow since then, to just under 200 pupils, but its philosophy has remained the same: small classes with excellent teaching in a homely atmosphere. The Senior School was opened in 1979, in response to the demands of parents who wished their children to continue with the same high standard of caring education until they were 16. 


Two years after the school opened, a young West Indian boy was welcomed into the family. He was followed by another four children, two of Chinese origin, and two half African. On several occasions John and Jill Sturdy were approached by social workers who believed they could provide a loving home for children from disturbed backgrounds. Nine children in all were adopted, who, with the three "natural" children made up a colourful family, reflecting the true nature of Christian love. Both parents were scornful of policies restricting white families from adopting coloured children.

The last two years of her life were tainted with tragedy. Her husband died from heart failure in 1996, and her youngest daughter lost a courageous battle against bone cancer, almost exactly a year later. Despite great sadness and her own ill health, Jill Sturdy remained a vibrant figure, organising the school play, remonstrating fondly with her more challenging pupils, for whom she had the greatest affection, and presenting end of term prizes. Her final speech spoke of her deep love of children and her passionate desire to ensure their well being. She encouraged children to appreciate the value of reading: a natural reader, she maintained, could never feel truly isolated. She closed by announcing:

"Children, never let your parents walk past Heffers Children's Bookshop. You must always go in."


Jill Sturdy worked right up to her death, painting classrooms and making plans for the future. She leaves a unique gift in her school.

Jill Sturdy was regarded as an inspirational figure by her colleagues who admired her firm commitment to equality in education. A highly respected Headmistress, with an enormous capacity for love, she took particular pleasure in encouraging the development of the most withdrawn children. The happy and confident children who leave Sancton Wood School at 16 are testament to her personality and philosophy - especially those she had proudly watched growing into young adults far taller than she was, who always stood that much straighter when she was around.


She is survived by 11 of her 12 children. 

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