A wonderful friend remembered


Phyllis McDonald – 19 May 1945 to 15 October 2011

Several years ago Phyllis McDonald contacted The Regency Town House out of the blue to become a volunteer. A quick Photo of Phyllis McDonaldchat later, we knew that we liked her and we were very fortunate that she felt the same way. Phyllis brought to us the professional skills of a librarian, a strong interest in local history, a great sense of humour and an infectious enthusiasm for life.

Phyllis became involved in lots of Town House projects including documenting architectural drawings, researching carpet history and cataloguing architectural ornaments. Over time, her main focus became MyHouseMyStreet and she was soon immersed in transcribing census and directory data, undertaking primary source research, writing web content and introducing other volunteers to our procedures and methods. She was endlessly patient and kind.

Even the challenges of her mother’s ailing health and, subsequently, settling her estate, did not upset her balance. Phyllis was always perfectly calm, even after being knocked to the ground by Bodhi, the skateboarding Lakeland terrier who's scatty antics made national newspapers and ITVs Britain’s Got Talent. Where some might have cursed Bodhi’s owner or taken him to court, Phyllis just gave a wry smile – one we all remember so well. This characteristic refusal to be ruffled by anything led her to be the first port of call for many new Town House volunteers grappling with unfamiliar materials.

Outside the Town House, many of her colleagues discovered the pleasures of choral music as a result of Phyllis’s role as a soprano with the Brighton Festival Chorus. She sang with them for some 27 years. After a concert, Phyllis was also great company over a glass of good ale – a cheery and charming, quick and lively person both at work and play.

A little more than a year ago, Phyllis was diagnosed with cancer. At this point she had just started researching the history of Tidy Street in Brighton’s North Laine and, for good measure, the history of Arnold Street, where she lived. Phyllis underwent surgery and grueling postoperative treatment but, as soon as she could, returned to us, determined to press on with her projects. For all of us, having her back was truly joyous.

This September, we staged ten MyHouseMyStreet exhibitions in Brighton, including one in Tidy Street featuring Phyllis’s work. But Phyllis was unable to join us, having suffered a relapse. Soon after, Phyllis was again in hospital. From there she went to the Martlets Hospice. Whenever her Town House colleagues visited, they found her typically buoyant and positive, determined to get the most out of what remained to her. 

Last weekend, early on Saturday morning, Phyllis died. With her passing, we have lost a friend, a knowledgeable collaborator and a joyous person who made others’ lives much more enjoyable. Phyllis bequeathed far more than the research she undertook or the publication she authored, though both were great contributions. We remember her character and spirit, with gratitude. She gave far more than she ever took.

Phyllis leaves behind many friends from the different walks of her life and her family: her brother Phil, her daughter and son in law, Olivia and Ben, and their soon to be born son, whose name Phyllis was told several weeks before her death. To all of them our commiserations and very best wishes.

Footnote – Phyllis died of ovarian cancer, a disease that has not recently seen any great treatment breakthroughs. Only some 20 per cent of sufferers are identified at an early stage, when patients can generally expect to live more than five years after diagnosis. For most women, the cancer is identified too late and survival times are cruelly brief. For Phyllis this was especially poignant. She would have happily settled for just a few extra weeks, in order to see her first grandchild born.

Phyllis wanted women to know that symptoms such as stomach or pelvic pain, abdominal bloating, feeling full quickly, loss of appetite and having to urinate often – while most likely caused by other things – should be reported to a GP or gynaecologist as soon as possible. Her thoughts at the end of her life were for others – pure Phyllis.

The Town House team - 19 October 2011

Additional commentary on Phyllis: Shirley remembers Phyllis, Caroline remembers Phyllis