Tessa Jowell

“In me, thou seest the glowing of such fire…” Sonnet 73

Shakespeare Schools Foundation has lost a redoubtable friend. We are all so sad to hear of the death of Tessa Jowell and our thoughts are very much with her family and friends.

From the earliest years of the charity, Tessa advocated for us, helped us to unravel the mysteries of engaging with government departments, attended events and applauded the children who performed there with her characteristic warmth and enthusiasm. She provided encouragement and support to the team, not least to our Founder Chris Grace and then Chief Executive Penelope Middelboe, by believing in their vision and backing their sense of purpose. Without her, our acorn of a Festival would not have grown roots and flourished as it has.

When I became Chief Executive in 2015, it was an unexpected privilege and pleasure in my early weeks in the job to meet her in the House of Lords with my colleagues as we discussed next steps for the charity and what future events might be.

From that first meeting, I found her to be a rare mix of great warmth and unfailing incisiveness. Tessa made us feel as if we were the most important appointment in her day. She listened and she responded, she said that she would act and she followed up. Her genuine enthusiasm and belief in our work was palpable.

Before writing this, I read and listened to the many tributes paid to her from across the political and public spectrum. I have never heard a politician so universally and genuinely mourned. The stories of her humanity, decency, tenacity and unfailing ambition to make the lives of others better are extraordinary and humbling.

So, then, what of SSF and how we will remember her?

After that first meeting, I wrote thanking her for her hospitality and for her efforts on our behalf, both past and contemplated.

She wrote back:

“Anything at all I can do for young people to feel Shakespeare as part of their birthright.”

The best tribute SSF can pay her, the best thanks we can make, is to “do” in her stead; to be, as she was, a champion of the power of culture, a staunch advocate for children and their development. And for all of us in the team to resolve to act, as she did, with “such fire” as she embodied – kindness, determination and great courage.

Ruth Brock - Chief Executive


Ruth has expressed our very great debt to Tessa and our deep sadness at her untimely death. And our empathy with her grieving family who meant the world to her.

Chris had the first encounter with her, and it was to radically affect the viability of SSF. She nurtured the fragile seedling that went on to bloom so beautifully. Like the British hosting of the Olympics, she absolutely understood how to take an idea and transform it into reality.

For many years SSF’s signature Shakespeare quotation was: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’ It seems more apposite than ever.

Penelope Middelboe, former Chief Executive

SSF is a cultural education charity that exists to instil curiosity and empathy, aspiration and self-esteem, literacy and teamwork - giving young people the confidence to see that all the world is their stage.

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