Sheila Lesley OBE obituary

18th Dec 2019

Sheila Lesley OBE, our first woman President, has passed away following a short illness. Colleagues at Forresters have shared her obituary and tributes from those who worked with her.

Sheila Lesley OBE

It is with great sadness that we report the death of a lady who was a pioneer for women in the UK IP profession. Sheila Florence Lesley OBE passed away on 22nd November 2019 following a spell in hospital after a fall, and thereafter a short period in a care home in Leigh-on-Sea, not far from where she had lived in Westcliff-on-Sea.

It will come as no surprise to those who knew her to hear that Sheila had prepared her own obituary some years ago following a health scare. She was always one to do things properly and you know what they say about if you want a job done properly…… In the circumstances it seemed only right that the words below be based very closely on Sheila’s own words:

Born in 1930, Sheila’s education was disrupted by the Second World War.  She went on to Girton College, Cambridge where she took Part 1 of the Natural Sciences Tripos and Part 2 of the Law Tripos, being awarded a College Prize in 1953.

As a child, seeing John Logie Baird, the inventor of television, walking across the golf course in Bude, first sparked her interest in inventions.  Then, before university, she worked as an analytical chemist at May and Baker, Dagenham, where a dispute with Boots in relation to sulphonamides brought patents to her attention.  She decided not to pursue her original intention of doing chemical research - May and Baker had asked her to join them when she graduated – and she joined instead Forrester Ketley & Co. (now Forresters IP) in their Chancery Lane offices in 1953 qualifying under the guidance of the late Reg Howden in 1958 at a time when it was unusual for women to be in the male-dominated profession.  

Sheila was the first woman to qualify for 29 years and the third woman to become a Chartered Patent Agent.  She became a partner at what is now Forresters in 1961, became joint Senior Partner with the late Bruce Jack in 1983 and then Senior Partner on his retirement until she retired at the end of 1996.

From the time that she joined Forrester Ketley & Co. her training and interests were particularly in trade marks and she was elected a Member and then a Fellow of what is now The Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys in 1961 and 1986 respectively. She was the first woman President of The Institute in 1981-1983 and was made an Honorary Fellow in 1992.

Sheila served for several years as an Examiner for both Institutes. She often recalled how she had received a telephone call from the late Percy Lincroft, the then Registrar of The Institute of Patent Agents, asking if he could come and see her on what appeared to be a somewhat delicate matter – she could only think that a client must have put in a formal complaint.  When he arrived and said that he was hoping that she would agree to becoming an Examiner, she was so relieved that she immediately agreed to be one, and came to the conclusion that this was his skilful way of achieving his objective!

She served on the Council of The Institute of Trade Mark Agents and was the Chairman of its Law & Practice Committee for many years.  She was its representative on the Standing Advisory Committee for Trade Marks (later Industrial Property).  She made submissions and was part of a delegation from the Institute giving oral evidence to the Mathys Committee examining British trade mark law and practice in 1972. In 1982, she lead the Institute’s delegation which gave oral evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities (under the chairmanship of Lord Scarman) on the protection of trade marks within the Member States of the EEC, she was part of UK delegations which went to Brussels to discuss proposals for a Community trade mark and served on the Community Trade Mark Office Committee.

In 1988, she was appointed OBE for her services in the field of patents and trade marks.

In her retirement, she bought on an impulse Samphire Island in the Blackwater Estuary and derived great pleasure from researching its history and wild life.  It was the largest single source of samphire in Essex.  With the ownership of the island she obtained the title of Lady of the Manor of Great Wigborough and Salcott cum Virley.

Her interest in wildlife and ecology was also pursued through membership of the Essex Wildlife Trust.  She was a Freeman of the City of London and enjoyed many traditional social events in the city of London.  The Guildhall School of Music and Drama was another of her interests.  She was a Governor of the RNLI and locally was active in her church where she served on the PCC, as well as being Chair of the Governing Body of a local school.  For many years she was a member of Soroptimist International of Southend-on-Sea & District, serving as its President in 1978.

Steven Wake, Partner at Forresters, has complied a tribute from those who worked with her:

Sheila’s words provide us with a reflection on her life, but cannot begin to convey her personality or the distinct impression she made on all those she came into contact with. There will be many in the IP profession and beyond who will have fond memories of Sheila, not least her partners and colleagues at Forresters, the many clients she worked with, international associates from many countries around the world and the officials at the UKIPO and other Government bodies she came into contact with.

Sheila was one of a dying breed, a true “character”, once met never forgotten. Very proper, often wearing one of her trade mark hats, sometimes accompanied by gloves. She was identified by some as the Miss Marple of the IP world. Words like remarkable, honest, decent, charming, a treasure, a formidable lady and a woman of strength have all been used in relation to Sheila following her death and will resonate with those that knew her. She was much admired for having risen through the ranks in a male-dominated profession, and she hoped that by becoming the first female President of the Institute she would inspire other female members of the profession to follow in her footsteps.

When abroad at INTA events, particularly in the US, her demeanour was such that taxi drivers would ponder out loud whether she might be the Queen or Margaret Thatcher (two other formidable women).

As a mentor to many trainees she was not an easy taskmaster. She had high standards and high expectations. Things had to be done properly. Compromising was not in her nature. Her trainees learnt far more from Sheila than just what trade mark law was about. She was able to find great balance in dealing with people. She could be offering “constructive criticism” of a draft letter of advice at one moment and be asking after the wellbeing of your family the next. Those of us who trained under her all still share the values she instilled.

She had an inquisitive mind and would encourage others to think in the same way. Lunchtime educational sessions in the office might involve Sheila asking the assembled attorneys how the new 1988 Copyright Act would impact someone who put a copy of Constable’s Hay Wain on a tea tray and then mass produced them. She could never be palmed off with a superficial answer. If something was puzzling or needed clarification, she was always determined to get to the bottom of it.

As an attorney she was a true expert. She started her career in IP as a patent attorney, but will best be remembered for work in the field of trade marks. She lived and breathed trade mark law and practice. She was, of course, totally familiar with the 1938 Act and the 1994 Act and the associated Rules and practices. Her diplomatic powers of persuasion were legendary, as many a Hearing Officer at the Trade Marks Registry can no doubt attest. Some thought that perhaps she might retire before having to get to grips with new legislation in the form of the Community Trade Mark and the Madrid Protocol. Not so. Sheila mastered all of this and made sure that her colleagues did so too.

Sheila had an inexhaustible supply of stories and anecdotes, gathered over the many years of her working life. Being seated next to Sheila at an event was always highly entertaining. She was a regular attendee at the Institute annual dinner dances, with her OBE affixed to her evening dress.

Sheila devoted her working life to IP and to the firm of Forresters for which many owe her a considerable debt. Sheila’s character is indelibly etched on many minds, and she will be missed with fond affection. Her passing truly feels like the end of an era.