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York Civic Trust

History of York Civic Trust: Obituary for John Shannon, CBE

The Trust's Council at the Jubilee in 1996, John Shannon centre front

Plaque commemmorating John Shannon placed in 2012

John Shannon with Mary Robinson, Irish President, visiting Fairfax House in 1996
For almost 40 years the name of John Shannon has been synonymous with preserving and enhancing the character of York. He was born in the City and, apart from a period in the navy during the Second World War, he continued to live and work in his native city.

Immediately after the war a small group of dignitaries in York recognised the urgent need to preserve its historic fabric, most of which had survived enemy action, and they formed the York Civic Trust. On the death of the founder Chairman in 1963 John Shannon was appointed to lead the Trust and he continued at the helm until his retirement in 2001.

Mr Shannon was educated in York and joined a long-established firm of solicitors where he took his articles, and subsequently became a partner. This legal background was to serve him, and the Trust, in good stead for the whole of his tenure as chairman.

In 1953/54 he was Sheriff of York. This involvement in civic life, including a short spell as a city councillor, provided him with a useful insight into the workings of local government, a background which enabled him to know when to make a fuss, and when to keep quiet. This judgement he adopted as chairman, and under his leadership in 1979 the Trust received national recognition for its "outstanding contribution to the preservation and enhancement of the architecture and character of the City of York". John Shannon attended a special ceremony at Windsor Castle and received the award from the Duke of Edinburgh.

His vision for ways of improving the appearance of the city and his guidance for anything in which he believed to be of benefit to the historic interest of the city were particular qualities which characterised his time in office.  Most striking of all was his enthusiasm.  When he retired as chairman and tributes were paid to his long and distinguished service, the then Archbishop of York (Lord Hope of Thornes) recalled their first meeting and spoke of his "childlike enthusiasm for York and the sparkle in his eye and voice, and particularly in his heart". The Duchess of Kent (Patron of the Trust) contributed to the same event and spoke of his gift for "getting things done and not just talking about it"  She also referred to his " powers of persuasion" and of "taking people with him".

As a public speaker John Shannon used these powers of persuasion to great effect, whether addressing a crowded gathering in London after the enactment of the Civic Amenities Act 1967 when his missionary zeal implored members to 'go home and designate their Conservation Areas', or in the more restrained surroundings of a public inquiry when, with his well prepared brief, he spoke on behalf of the Trust either for or against a planning proposal.

His Sunday morning perambulations in the city centre of York, coupledwith a keen eye, enabled him to know the city in intimate detail. He wrote a number of books on York and used his considerable skills as a  photographer to illustrate these publications, for instance in York, the Continuing City. The Annual Reports of the Trust were mostly written and illustrated by him and his photographs were carefully chosen to make a point; sometimes of criticism but often in praise. One of his most successful contributions to numerous and diverse groups throughout the North of England was an illustrated lecture on the 'Minor Pleasures of York'. This educated and enthused the audience the better to know the city of York (and is now a Trust publication). He asked no more of them.

Of the many projects which Mr Shannon achieved, the two of which he felt most proud were the restoration of Fairfax House in 1984, and the closure of Deangate to vehicular traffic in 1989. The former is an eighteenth century. house which was in a neglected condition and had later been used as a cinema and a dancing school. With typical enthusiasm he guided the Trust towards buying the house, obtaining generous grants  and then restoring it in order to accommodate the fine collection of eighteenth century furniture bequeathed to the Trust by Noel Terry.

The closure of Deangate regained the south side of York Minster from the noise of 10,000 vehicles which daily passed close to the south-west tower. Only the skill of a patient negotiator and the diplomacy with which John Shannon was richly endowed could have achieved this.

John Shannon was appointed OBE in 1970 for his contribution to conservation, and this was advanced to CBE in 1996. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of York in 1976 and received the Honorary Freedom of the City of York in 2002.

He had a happy family life and was supported by his wife Diana who died in 1987; they had two sons and a daughter. One son predeceased both parents, but he is survived by a son - in York - and a daughter in Finland.
John Shannon CBE was born on the 28th September 1917 and died on the 2nd June 2010

Written by June Hargreaves MBE, July 2010