January 2020 newsletter – Thelma Liesner

Thelma Liesner — née Seward — editor of this Newsletter from 1995  to 1997, died on 22 July 2019.  She was born in Uxbridge, West London, on 21 December 1929, the last of five children.  After school she had a number of secretarial jobs but then decided to seek academic qualifications and successfully applied to read economics at University College London. After graduating, she was appointed Research Officer at the Cambridge Department of Applied Economics and also Director of Studies in Economics at Girton College.

Thelma resigned from her Cambridge posts in 1973. Her husband Hans, also a Cambridge academic when they married in 1968, had accepted an appointment at the Treasury, and they decided to move much closer to London. Thelma took on a number of part-time jobs and also compiled historical series of statistics for nine major countries going back to well before 1900, subsequently published by The Economist under the title One Hundred Years of Economic Statistics.

In 1995, Thelma took over the editorship of the RES Newsletter from David Greenaway and was instrumental in expanding and redesigning the Newsletter and giving it a professional and attractive appearance. Writing to congratulate her in January 1996, David Greenaway said ‘I just wanted to say that you have done a super job in terms of reformatting and representing. I think it looks very good’. The late Sir Tony Atkinson wrote in similar terms. To appreciate the scale of the changes that Thelma introduced, readers need to look at the article in the January 1998 Newsletter written by David Greenaway, Thelma and Margaret Henderson (the editor from 1971 to 1990). The article celebrates the 100th issue of the Newsletter and details its history from a twice-yearly news sheet typed at home by Margaret who arranged the duplication, stapled the sheets and distributed them ‘from the Henderson dining room’.

When the present editor took over (much helped incidentally by Thelma) the Newsletter had already been transformed into a quarterly A4-sized, two-colour, professionally designed and printed publication. In managing this transformation, Thelma had to cope with a technology far less helpful than it is today. It involved much physical cutting and pasting of typed copy, with handwritten instructions to a design bureau who were responsible for preparing a printable version. One can only imagine that the final appearance of each issue, smart, entertaining and literate as it was, must have been met with great relief. Although much more of its production has been taken ‘in house’ in recent years and there have been a few redesigns and a small expansion, these are modest changes compared with the changes overseen by Thelma.

Regarding the Newsletter’s content, which Thelma did much to expand, an innovation of which she was justifiably proud was (and remains) the series of ‘Letters from America/France/Germany’.  These have been amongst the popular features of the Newsletter — readers regularly describe these as the highlights. They began with Sir Angus Deaton’s ‘Letter from America’. Looking back on her invitation, Sir Angus said ‘I am eternally grateful to her for suggesting that I do the letter. It has been very important to me. I don’t think I would have written The Great Escape, or my new book with Anne, without learning to write for a wider audience through these letters. And from the positive feedback over the years.’ If plans to re-publish some of Sir Angus Deaton’s Letters from America in book form come to fruition, this will be a fitting tribute to Thelma’s inspiration.

After relinquishing responsibility for the Newsletter Thelma continued with part-time jobs such as voluntary work for the British Library and the editorship of a local magazine. Over the last few years failing health took its toll but to the end she greatly enjoyed the company of family and friends.

For so many initiatives in such a short period of time the Society owes her a great debt of gratitude.

Peter Howells