Elizabeth Wallis obituary

Other lives: Founder member of the Society of Indexers

My mother, Elizabeth Wallis, who has died aged 90, had an extraordinary capacity to gather, store and process information. She used these skills in a wide range of roles, including as an education adviser and campaigner, and as an indexer.

Elizabeth played an important role in establishing indexing as a profession. She became a founder member of the Society of Indexers in 1957 after seeing a call to a meeting in the Times Literary Supplement. Book indexing at the time was a function often carried out – very poorly, Elizabeth would say – by authors and publishing assistants. Without a good index, a reference book is a thing of little value. My mother indexed a wide variety of factual books, with regulars including Whitaker’s Almanack and Africa Research Bulletin. In 1998 she was appointed MBE for services to the Society of Indexers.

Much of the information Elizabeth gathered came from the Guardian, which she read daily for more than 50 years. Using this, among other sources, as mental “nourishment”, she was an incisive analyst and critic in areas of literature, the arts and politics. She was a vital sounding board for friends and family on all current affairs and a rock in times of personal crisis.

She was born in London, to an Italian mother, Elena (nee Tesei) and English father, Edward Russell, who worked as a wine importer. Elizabeth was educated at Henrietta Barnett school in north London and Tiffin school, Kingston upon Thames. She was 11 when the second world war broke out and took most of her exams in air raid shelters. On the way to her English literature matriculation exam in 1944 she was nearly hit by a German doodlebug; she still managed to get a distinction.

After leaving school, she had a job with the British Council, then moved to Surrey county council, where she studied librarianship. Once qualified, she worked in the libraries of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, and of British Transport Films. In the late 1950s she married Bob Wallis, a journalist and author who used the name HF Wallis, and they had two children. She began to look for work that would fit around childcare and became interested and increasingly involved in indexing.

She was a leading figure in the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education in the 1980s and 90s. Her interest in the field led to work with the Advisory Centre for Education. A proponent of comprehensive schools, she latterly became disillusioned with what she saw as decades of education policy failure.

Bob died in 1980. She is survived by her children, Robert and me, and her grandchildren, Dominic, Hal, Ella and Luka.

Neil Wallis

The GuardianTramp

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