Businesswoman, teacher and art lover passes away

Paddy and Jane Sweeney.
Paddy and Jane Sweeney.

A woman who educated herself, set up a successful business and then became a teacher in the Rugby area, has died.

Jane Yerbury Sweeney died on June 1 at Newbegin House in Beverley, Yorkshire.

Mrs Sweeney was a shopkeeper and then teacher, and was married to well-known local vet Paddy Sweeney.

She was born on January 7, 1920, and was brought up in Kensington and Sussex. She was educated at home, mostly by herself. She read widely, but obtained no formal qualifications.

Her son Walter Sweeney described her as “an extraordinary woman”, and said: “When she grew up, she started to train as a nurse, but was evacuated from London on the outbreak of the Second World War and initially worked as a farm labourer in Warwickshire, milking cows and ploughing with a shire horse until she had her first tractor.

“She read books on agriculture and was taught by a friendly neighbouring farmer.

“By the end of the war, Jane was the manager of a large farm. In that capacity, she called in a local vet to see a sick cow.

“The vet sent a young Irish locum vet called Paddy to the farm.

“The two of them operated on the cow all through the night. The young vet and his impromptu assistant fell in love and were married, first settling in a rented Georgian house on the outskirts of Dublin where I was born. A couple of years later, the family moved to the village of Church Lawford.

“While Paddy gradually built up a general practice from scratch based on word- of-mouth recommendations and repeat business, Jane developed a market garden and started selling flowers and vegetables from a barn next to the surgery.

“Two more sons were born (Warwick and Simon) and all three boys attended the village school. Both the shop and the veterinary practice prospered, providing sources of local employment.

“Jane became the village postmistress in addition to managing the shop, which became a general store. However, with the emergence of supermarkets in the 1960s, Jane realized that the heyday of the village shop was over.

“She developed a small caravan site for long-term residents to help with the housing shortage and also raised money to buy two houses which she renovated and let out.

“She decided to become a teacher, despite having no qualifications. She studied by correspondence and obtained six O-levels in eight months. Three years later, she gained her Teaching Certificate with the equal highest mark since the college had opened.”

She went on to become a deputy headteacher, and developed a new plan for improving the teaching of reading, which was adopted by the local education authority for use in all its primary schools.

Mrs Sweeney applied for a secondment to do a one-year degree but was turned down due to her age. She resigned and completed the course out of her own pocket and then returned to teaching, taking on three successive headships at small primary schools, including the one in Church Lawford.

She sat on Rugby Borough Council and when the authority was about to sell its substantial art collection due to a lack of space she managed to persuade Warwick University to place the collection on temporary exhibition and then campaigned successfully for a new library and art centre in Rugby.

Meanwhile, Paddy continued to develop new surgical techniques for mending greyhound injuries, and became internationally respected for his pioneering work.

Walter said: “Eventually, Jane persuaded Paddy to retire in his 70s, somewhat against his will. The couple moved to Oswaldkirk in North Yorkshire to be nearer some of the family members.

“They spent 14 happy years exploring the countryside, growing woodland and keeping rare sheep, a donkey and their beloved pet Bull Terriers.

“Jane redeveloped an empty cart house, turning it into a beautiful holiday let suitable for paying guests, including disabled visitors.

“In 2006, they sold up and moved to Beverley to live with me and my family at Newbegin House. Both Paddy and Jane immersed themselves in all that Beverley had to offer.

“In January 2017, the couple celebrated Jane’s 97th birthday and Paddy made a fine speech at a lunch attended by family members. Three days later, he suffered a fall and died in Hull Royal Hospital shortly afterwards.

“The marriage had lasted nearly 68 years and Jane was bereft. She was also suffering from cancer.

“Six weeks ago, Jane underwent major cancer surgery. The cancer was removed and the wound healed well. However, at the age of 98, the sheer effort involved was too great. Jane wished to spend her final days at Newbegin House with her family and her dog Pickles.”