Untitled6Why did Cicely become so motivated, determined and effective in realising her vision of the right care for dying patients? Cicely’s background and education are part of the explanation. Our family were prosperous, because of our father, Gordon’s, brilliance as an estate agent. He was the seventeenth child of John Henry Saunders, who in the middle of the nineteenth century realised that photography was a rapidly developing business opportunity. He set up photographic studios, in Eton, Windsor, Oxford, Cambridge and Harrow, and also Camberley for Sandhurst. A great entrepreneur! John Henry died at 56 when my father was one.

As number seventeen child with a widowed mother, my father’s education was limited.  What profession could he enter with no money? In Surveying, you got a meagre wage right from the start, so he went for that. It helped that he was a very bright, handsome and ebullient young man, good at games. When qualified he was taken on by a respectable estate agency in London, John D Wood & Co.  He made his mark, so was chosen as senior partner at only 28 when John D Wood retired. He proceeded to build the firm to the point when it was one of the top three in the country. Cicely inherited his energy and drive.


Untitled7Cicely was born in 1918. At 13 she was sent to boarding school at Roedean, very cross that she had not been consulted about where she should go. There she did all right, but was a bit lonely. She was six feet tall, though never admitted to it, and very clever; a bit of an outsider and rather daunting, especially to eligible young men. In 1938, she went up to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE). In1939 we went to war, and Cicely went back to Oxford, but felt frustrated that she wasn’t doing anything useful. She was determined to go into nursing despite some family opposition. She applied to and got into the Nightingale School at St Thomas’s Hospital in London in 1940.

Cicely found that she really enjoyed nursing and her colleagues – known as members of a “Set”.  They did sterling work through the bombing. Towards the end of her nursing training in early 1944, Cicely’s back started to be a big problem, and just as she qualified as SRN (State Registered Nurse), she was told she couldn’t go on nursing; if she did she would be in continual pain. So, very reluctantly, she left nursing


She still wanted to be close to patients and she knew she could do that as a Lady Almoner, nowadays known as a medical social worker. So Cicely went back to Oxford in October 1944, to get a Diploma in public health, and to finish her PPE degree. She did all that in a year, getting a Distinction in Public Health – her exam technique evidently was still intact! Then she rejoined St Thomas’s in London for practical training as a lady almoner,

The derivation of the name Almoner is that the big London hospitals became wealthy charities, and had a long tradition of giving alms and helping their patients, not only with free treatment but also after they were discharged. So this became Cicely’s life.