Mary Boast died on 21 June 2010 at the age of 88. She was the author of The Story of Dulwich (1975, revised 1990), the second in the series of neighbourhood histories published by Southwark Libraries. After moving from Peckham Rye in the mid-1980s to Ruskin Park House, Champion Hill, Mary joined the Dulwich Society’s Local History sub-committee of which she remained a stalwart member until 2004.
Mary was born in Hove in 1921 and studied history at Royal Holloway College, Egham during the Second World War. After training as a teacher in Oxford and working in schools for a few years, she decided to become a librarian. Mary joined the Library Association in 1948 and qualified as a chartered librarian in 1951, remaining a member all her life. Her first posts were in Brighton and Cheltenham but in 1954 she was appointed a branch librarian in Camberwell. She soon became interested in the history of the borough, which included Dulwich, writing and giving talks on the area. When Camberwell was amalgamated with Bermondsey and Southwark in 1965 to form the London Borough of Southwark, she was based in Dulwich Library working on local history and friendship links with other towns. She began writing well researched and popular booklets for the council; the first in a constant flow were Southwark: a London Borough (1969) and The Mayflower and Pilgrim Story (1970).
In 1972, Mary was appointed Southwark’s first full-time Local Studies Librarian, then based in the Southwark Room, in Newington Library. Very different local history collections from the three former boroughs were brought together with archives from various town halls and greatly added to by Mary with copies of local maps, newspapers and records from other sources as well as photographs which she commissioned of all Southwark’s streets. Fortunately, space originally intended for a Library of Elizabethan Theatre became available in the new John Harvard Library, Borough High Street and much of the local collection was moved there in 1978. Demands on the service increased dramatically, particularly from family historians and local schools. At a time when council services were expanding, she was able to increase the staff and appoint a full-time archivist, the post held by Stephen Humphrey from 1980 until this year.
Mary’s teaching experience and recognition of the value of local history in schools led her to write the series of neighbourhood histories for which she is best known. Before retiring in 1981, she wrote five, from Camberwell (1973) to Rotherhithe (1980); that for Peckham was written by John Beasley. Written originally with young people in mind, they have proved so successful for all ages that they have been revised and kept in print ever since. Mary’s swansong for Southwark was to organize the major exhibition in 1981 at the South London Art Gallery on Herne Hill’s most celebrated resident, John Ruskin. She also compiled the catalogue, but, in typically modest fashion, failed to acknowledge herself as the author.
In retirement, Mary remained just as active, giving talks, writing two new neighbourhood histories, Borough and Bankside, and revising others - Camberwell for the fifth time in 2000 and Walworth for the fourth time in 2005. In the 1980s, she wrote notes for the Alan Godfrey editions of old Ordnance Survey maps, including East Dulwich and Peckham Rye, and a short history of St. Giles’ Church, Camberwell. In 1991, she wrote a history of the church, St John the Evangelist, Goose Green, of which she had been a devout member for many years. She never married but dedicated the major part of her long life to serving the local community, services which were recognized in 1994 when she was granted the Freedom of the London Borough of Southwark. She was much loved and widely respected for her encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the area as well as for the generosity and enthusiasm with which she shared it with others. She died in King’s College Hospital and donated her brain to the hospital for medical research. A large congregation, including the Mayor, attended her funeral at St. John’s on 5th July.
Bernard Nurse and Stephen Humphrey.