Jennifer Thornely (Honorary OS, Staff 1975-1991) 1934-2021

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The OS Club is sad to announce that Jennifer Thornely, wife of former Headmaster Michael Thornely from 1954-1975, passed away peacefully at home on 5th September 2021, aged 87. During her husband’s years as School House Housemaster and later Headmaster, Jennifer played host at both official and informal school functions. After Michael’s retirement Jennifer joined the staff officially as a music teacher and continued in the role for 16 years. She continued to live in Sedbergh until her final days, and will be greatly missed.


A service of thanksgiving was held at St Andrew’s Church, Sedbergh, on Friday 17th September.
A recording of the service can be viewed in full here. (Password: Sedbergh)

If you would like to get in touch with the family, please contact [email protected].


Please see below a eulogy from her son, Richard Thornely.

Jennifer Thornely 1934-2021

Jennifer was born in 1934 not far from Sedbergh, at Bentham. Her grandfather was the local vicar and her parents, both of good Yorkshire stock, made the journey North from their home in London, so that if the expected child turned out to be a boy he would be eligible to play for Yorkshire. On the two occasions they observed this ritual the baby turned out to be a girl and the one time they did not, they had a little boy. However it was not entirely an act of fancy on their part – they had clearly assessed their genetic potential well when one considers the the number of cricketers amongst their progeny, including one who actually did play a good deal of first-class cricket.

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World War II broke out soon after Jennifer’s 5th birthday. London in the early days of the war was no place for a nice young girl and she was evacuated to Bentham. She also spent a lot of her time under the wing of her aunt Betty and her uncle Darnton in Shadwell near Leeds. This marked the beginning of a close lifelong connection with their daughter, Susan, who happily is here today, a wonderful cousinship which endured for over eighty years. The two girls were clearly soulmates and seemingly had a rather idyllic time during the war. They spent a lot of time crouching behind the high wall that separated their garden from the village street. They were on the look out for German spies. Whenever anyone walked down the street, Susan and Jennifer would write down what they said, and keep the bits of paper in their little berets. The fact that most of the conversations they picked up were about ‘the butter ration’ and such like in no way deterred our brave girls. These German spies were obviously speaking in code and had furthermore mastered the local dialect. 

There was a flowery wallpaper in her bedroom at Shadwell and one day Aunty Betty found, to her displeasure, that Jennifer had drawn little faces in the centre of each flower. Terrible behaviour indeed. I suspect this was the naughtiest thing she did in her entire life, possibly rivalling Theresa May’s admission that she used to run around in the cornfields.  

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Jennifer (pictured back centre) was captain of the Lacrosse team at Queen’s Gate

After the war, Jennifer returned to the family residence in Kensington and became a pupil at Queen’s Gate School. She did well academically, excelled in music and lacrosse and became Head Girl. The Lacrosse team played their matches in Kensington Gardens and it was Jennifer’s responsibility to make sure that the public were cleared from the pitch before every game. The pitch was a popular spot for courting couples but Jennifer’s powers of persuasion were up to the task of moving them to some other part of the Gardens and ensuring that the flow of the game was not compromised.  

Jennifer progressed to the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied the piano and also sang enthusiastically in choral works, Brahms’ German Requiem being a particular favourite. However her time at the Academy was somewhat curtailed as a result of a chance encounter which took place whilst she was visiting her brother Charles at Sedbergh School. The encounter was with an assistant teacher of modern languages at the School who just happened to be on the touchline at Riverside as Charles was playing a rugby match. It was not long before Jennifer and this young assistant master discovered a mutual interest in playing piano duets. This pursuit is of course full of romantic possibility. Not only can two young souls with a mutual attraction make sweet music together but at times one player is actually obliged to move their hand surreptitiously under that of the other player. It was not very long before Jennifer announced to her slightly surprised parents, in words that could be straight from the novels of Jane Austen, which she loved so much: 

“Mr Thornely asked me to marry him….and I said Yes!”  

I think that line was worthy of Elizabeth Bennett and Jennifer was never allowed to forget it.

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Jennifer and Michael were wed on April 5th 1954

The young assistant master was having a rather transformative year as he was shortly afterwards appointed as Headmaster of the school and he and Jennifer were married in Holy Trinity, Brompton in April 1954. Jennifer was suddenly catapulted into a new life as Headmaster’s wife at the tender age of 19. Fortunately, she had always had a wise head on young shoulders and she slipped easily into the role of entertaining top military brass, archbishops, concert pianists, politicians and the many other panjandrums who would visit the school, as well as managing the domestic staff at School House in the days when the Headmaster’s duties extended to being a housemaster.

Jennifer, being a war child who could not bear to see anything go to waste, determined that the boys of School House should be fed copious amounts of rhubarb as the garden had an inexhaustible supply. All went well. Delicious rhubarb crumbles and pies were served daily until, one day, one of the prefects sitting next to her sighed as he eyed yet another rhubarb creation and said,

“Mrs Thornely, have you ever thought of rhubarb on toast for breakfast?” 

Jennifer was, without question, an invaluable and unswerving support to my Dad in discharging his responsibilities as headmaster and it is inconceivable that he could have done the job as well as he did for 21 years without her by his side.

Somehow, Jennifer managed to combine all this with, in the words of the psalm, being a fruitful vine in the inner part of the house with us four children being the olive shoots around the table. She was truly the hub of family life and the glue that has held us together. I think we were generally a harmonious sextet but if Jennifer ever felt that those family harmonies were modulating in a excessively modernist or discordant direction, she would avail herself of all the techniques that she had committed to heart at the Royal Academy of Music, in ensuring that the loose ends were brought together again, swiftly and skilfully, so that each day would end in a resounding perfect cadence.  

Jennifer spent in all, 68 years of her life, living in or around Sedbergh. She loved the School, the town and the landscape. She was always keen on exploring the little single track roads and the ones with a strip of grass growing in the middle will always be known in the family as ‘Jennifer roads”.

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She took part in many theatrical productions for both town and gown. She excelled in Gilbert and Sullivan and took the parts of Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance and Katisha in The Mikado. These are very contrasting roles requiring distinctly different vocal registers and the fact that she sung them both with aplomb goes to show just what a good singer she was, despite having little formal tuition. In addition to performing on stage, Jennifer turned her talents into producing a memorable production of Toad of Toad Hall. She became a rock in the Sedbergh School choral society and when the passagework in a work such as Bach’s B Minor Mass became a little challenging, all the other singers in her section had to do, was merely follow her lead.

Jennifer became a member of the school musical staff in her own right. She is remembered with affection by her piano pupils. Her sound technical advice was always given with a lovely smile. She was equally happy teaching Grade 1 as she was with Grade 8. It was a proud moment for her when we took her to Garsington opera two years ago, and she found out that the performance was to be conducted by a former pupil of her, Justin Doyle. Not only that, but Justin was kind enough to give up most of the long dinner interval, to join us at our picnic table and to talk about old times. This absolutely made Jennifer’s day.

When Dad ceased being a housemaster in 1967, the family moved to Birksholme, which had just been converted into a single residence for the occupation of the incumbent headmaster and his family. It was a lovely home for the next 8 years with a wonderful garden thrown in for good measure. The only problem for Jennifer was that she had hardly cooked in her life! In School House, everything had been provided and when we went away on summer holidays, we children were entirely content, indeed ecstatic, with a diet of fish fingers followed by Angel Delight.  Now she had to cook meals which would not only satisfy the rapacious appetites of four growing children but also appeal to the more sophisticated palates of the visiting dignitaries. I recall that one of our first house visitors was the Archbishop of York. Early culinary experiments with this strange and unfamiliar thing called a ‘stove’ were not promising, but after a succession of burnt offerings eventually she got the hang of it and in fact became a very good cook, as many of us here can testify. 

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Jennifer was always in her element on family holidays which were usually on windswept beaches in Wales, cowering behind a windshield as we took a break from surfing and energetic games of beach cricket, usually featuring my brother Charlie on something like 150 not out. We would tuck into a picnic of hot soup and other goodies. My sister Lizzie came to believe the word ‘sandwich’ was nothing to do with any Kentish Earl but more a reflection of the quantity of beach material which inevitably blew its way into the bread and added an extra crunchiness to those precious fillings of ham and cheese.   

The family moved to Killington in 1975 and Jennifer proved that she had inherited her mother’s talents in horticulture. She created a beautiful garden there out of an unpromising patch of grass. And, as many here will know, last year she completed a wholesale rebuilding and replanting of the terraces below her house in Sedbergh. It is rather sad that she didn’t have longer to enjoy the fruits of this project but she did at least spend a fair few happy days sitting out on her splendid new terrace with its commanding views, admiring the newly stocked flower beds and watching the two delightful little boys from next door, Alexis and Jonah, playing on their lawn. With hindsight I like to think of this project as a demonstration of Jennifer being creative to the end and doing one more thing to make her part of the world a better place.

Jennifer was very much involved in community affairs as a peripatetic harmonium player, a church warden at Killington, a governor at Casterton School, as it then was, and of course in anything that was of a musical or theatrical nature that was going on in the school or town. 

She also travelled and with my dad visited Lizzie and her family in the United States and went on a number of Hellenic cruises. Not long after she had been widowed, Jennifer took a trip with her cousin Susan to visit my sister Jackie and her family in Australia. They stopped over in Seoul in South Korea on the way out, and stayed in an incredibly high tech hotel where they were baffled by the array of gadgetry in their rooms and had difficulty in getting even the simplest thing to work! It was as if Hinge and Bracket had briefly stepped into the world of Elon Musk. On another of her visits to Australia, Jennifer took a flight in a light aircraft and revelled in swooping down over Sydney harbour. This daredevil was also to be seen at the age of 83 in a Morgan sports car being driven by Jackie over some of the steep Lake District mountain passes and singing at the top of her voice.

Jennifer suffered from a number of medical conditions during the last years of her life. She would have been justified in having a good moan about this but she bore it all remarkably lightly. She remained ferociously independent when many people in her situation would have accepted that they needed some live-in help. Her mental capacity was fortunately undiminished. She relished the weekly quizzes on Zoom that became a feature of family life during the lockdown and won quite a few of them to all round approbation. She was fiendish at playing Bananagrams and did The Times cryptic crossword every day.   

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She bore her final illness with great dignity and calmness. She knew that she would never again move independently and had made known her readiness to slip away peacefully. A few days before she died she was lying quietly, eyes closed, on the hospital bed that the NHS had supplied to her home and I thought that perhaps the time was right to go over to the piano and gently play some extracts from the Gershwin musicals which she knew and loved. After a few moments, I was amazed to hear a little voice humming along from the direction of the bed and to see some little twitchings under the sheets where her feet were lying. This surely shows what a wonderful thing the love of music is and that it is truly a gift that can be enjoyed until the very end of life. 

She was adored by all her children and her grandchildren Michael, Lucy, Jo, Andrew, Sam, Ben, Kate and Jamie and she loved keeping up to date with all their goings on. She was thrilled to attend two of her grandchildren’s weddings. It was wonderful that, only two days before she died, she was able for the first and only time, to meet her little great granddaughter Maddie, who had been born just over a year ago. Their eyes met and she smiled and this turned out to be one of her last conscious acts, fortunately captured in a touching photograph taken by Jackie. The last few days of her life were rather remarkable as the family including her sister Sally gathered round to say final goodbyes. Whilst we all knew there could be only one outcome, we still had many reminiscences, music, readings from Winnie the Pooh and a lot of smiles. As Jackie put it, she passed away bathed in love.

There will be a Jennifer sized hole in all our lives, and we will miss her terribly. We will miss her kindness, her positivity, her cheerfulness and her practicality. Her grandchildren will also miss her homemade ginger biscuits. But we will also celebrate the fact that she had a long and a happy and fulfilling life and be profoundly grateful for having known her and loved her.