Mary Sandling obituary

Other lives: Civil service librarian and activist who took up clowning late in life

My aunt Mary Sandling, who has died aged 93, was an activist, a civil service librarian and, late in life, a clown.

In the early 1990s, a few years after her husband, Frank, had died, Mary attended a performance of the Snow Show by Slava Polunin, and her fascination led her to Nose to Nose clowning workshops. The clown community became very important to her and she made close friends. Mary progressed to performing – initially workshops, then small spaces and pubs.

In 2000, at the age of 72, Mary was recruited by the theatre company Peepolykus to join their troupe. This was an exciting time for her, touring the country in the troupe’s van, despite the physical demands. She played ditsy, eccentric upper-class Lady Elgin, in chaotic contrast with three sharp and sassy young men.

Born in Birmingham, Mary was the daughter of Annie (nee Mander), a teacher, and Frank Clarke. Her father was self-educated, and at the age of 30 he became a professional writer, which included contributing to the Manchester Guardian.

In 1937 the family went to live in France for six weeks. They spent their days on a beach, while Frank sat with his hefty typewriter. He was active in leftwing politics and wrote and produced political plays, in which Mary and her younger sister, Margaret, acted. In 1938 the family were featured in the newsreel series The March of Time, in a piece about the new entitlement to a bank holiday.

Mary Sandler (then Clarke) holidaying in Italy in 1960. She loved the country and revisited it many times.
Mary Sandler (then Clarke) holidaying in Italy in 1960. She loved the country and revisited it many times Photograph: none

Mary went to Tiffin girls’ school in Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey. When she and Margaret were teenagers, they hitchhiked across Italy and she revisited the country many times.

In 1948 Mary went to Bristol University to study drama. Following graduation she toured the West Country playing Mole in a student production of The Wind in the Willows. The black fisherman’s jumper she wore became known as the Mole jumper, and was passed down to me and my daughter.

Through her compassion for animals, Mary had become a vegetarian during the second world war. She was concerned about human rights abuses, and after graduation worked for Amnesty International for a period, continuing to support them actively for many years, as well as working for Paul Elek Publishers.

In the mid-1960s she studied librarianship at the North Western Polytechnic, London. During this time there was a major flood of the River Arno, and Mary travelled to Florence with fellow students to join the team working on flood damage to the rare books.

She then became assistant librarian in charge of the Architects and Buildings library, part of what was then called the Department of Education and Science.

In 1972 Mary married Frank Sandling, a local government draughtsman and they settled in New Malden, Surrey. When he became chronically ill in 1984, Mary gave up her job to care for him. He died three years later.

Mary carried on clowning until the end.

She is survived by me, two nephews and another niece.

Anne Philbrow

The GuardianTramp

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