John Sully obituary

Other lives: Accountancy teacher and Labour county councillor who helped to create the West Yorkshire Playhouse

My father, John Sully, who has died aged 81, was a former Labour councillor who was a catalyst in the restoration of the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canals, the building of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the development of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

He was elected to represent the east Leeds seat of Osmondthorpe on West Yorkshire county council in 1977, and in 1981 became chair of its recreation and arts committee. John had a firm belief that investing in leisure activities brought economic regeneration, improved the environment and enhanced wellbeing. His background in economics and his Methodist faith combined to give him a strong commitment to social justice.

John was born in Leeds, son of the Rev George Sully, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Gladys (nee Mills), a teacher. The family moved around when John was a child, living in Redcar, Finningley, Nuneaton, Burley and Yeadon. He went to Woodhouse Grove Methodist boarding school at Apperley Bridge, and then studied economics at Leeds University. After graduating in 1960, he went on to become a chartered accountant. Briefly he worked for Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) and then went to teach accountancy at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett University).

In 1964 he married Cynthia Trowsdale, a primary school teacher whom he met at church. A 1976 narrow boat holiday the couple took sparked a lifetime interest in the potential of canals. The role on West Yorkshire county council enabled him to became a catalyst for the restoration of the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canals. Known across Leeds as an advocate for cycling, John had biked along their derelict towpaths gathering evidence that restoration was possible. He promoted walking, investing in the maintenance of footpaths and the development of both the Leeds Country Way and the Bronte Way. He saw the potential of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, offering a larger grant than requested to encourage it in its ambition to become a world-leading arts venue. He was delighted to see this come to fruition.

When the metropolitan councils were abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986, there was money in the county council reserves that, if not spent, would be forfeited to central government. John proposed £4m for a new playhouse in Leeds, agreement for which he won by persuading committee members that it must be called the West Yorkshire Playhouse, to show it was for all the people of the county. It opened in 1990.

Benefiting from being able to take early retirement from his teaching aged 50, John had a second career writing about railways and canals for Modern Railways, Waterways World and Canal and Riverboat monthly.

He completed two further council terms, including a spectacular win in 1995 of a safe Tory seat – the local paper headline read: “The red flag flies over Alwoodley today”. He didn’t seek recognition of his achievements and was somewhat bemused to be made an honorary alderman of Leeds in 2005.

He continued to live in Leeds until 1999, then moved to Peterborough and later, Crawley in West Sussex. John lived with dementia in recent years. His characteristic response to the diagnosis was: “It will be an adventure.”

Cynthia died in 2016. John is survived by his two daughters, Heather and me, and four grandchildren.

Anthea Sully

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
John McCall obituary
Other lives: Architect who was committed to civic provision and helped save properties from slum clearance in Manchester

Neville Kirk

04, Nov, 2020 @4:47 PM

Article image
Winifred Wheable-Archer obituary
Other lives: Local councillor dedicated to the Labour party

Graham Whitham

27, May, 2018 @4:13 PM

Article image
John Hodgson obituary
Other lives: Agricultural ecologist and expert on the management of grassland

Dave Hodgson

23, Nov, 2018 @6:07 PM

Article image
John Hone obituary
Other lives: Teacher of sailing, rock climbing and caving

Alison Woodhouse

21, Feb, 2018 @5:45 PM

Article image
John Harbottle obituary
Other lives: Mud engineer whose expertise took him to drilling sites around the world

Charlie Duncan

10, Aug, 2020 @4:54 PM

Article image
Marie Furness obituary
Other lives: Social worker who fought hard for disadvantaged children

Glenys Thornton

21, Aug, 2018 @4:35 PM

Article image
John Dowling obituary
Other lives: Dedicated civil servant who worked at No 10 and the arts ministry

Grey Gowrie

07, Nov, 2018 @12:31 PM

Article image
John Jennings obituary
Other lives: Key figure in the regeneration of Durham

Rosie Jennings

24, Sep, 2019 @4:39 PM

Article image
Ragnhild Sweet-Escott obituary
Other lives: Counsellor and doctor’s wife who loved the Yorkshire Dales

Ellen Sweet-Escott

20, Sep, 2021 @5:21 PM

Article image
Mary Pelly obituary
Other lives: Marriage guidance counsellor in the Mendips

Nicola Pelly

08, Feb, 2018 @5:04 PM