Obituary: James Partridge

DR JAMES PARTRIDGE OBE, who died aged 67 on 16 August, was an equality campaigner, both in Guernsey and around the world – a pioneer in providing support for people with facial disfigurements. He was the founder of two charities, Changing Faces and Face Equality International, devoting the past 28 years to campaigning for face equality, a term that he coined and a movement he spearheaded. He, his wife Caroline and their family built their lives in Guernsey; a place they love for the beaches, the cliffs and the people.

In 1970, aged 18, James was involved in a car fire in which he sustained life-changing burns to his face and body. Instead of a planned gap year after school, he spent five months in hospital before going to Oxford University.

He then underwent five years of gruelling and painful surgeries during university vacations. James recalled how his mother said that ‘the pain would not be in vain’. It seemed ridiculous to him at the time. But how right she was. From the depths of despair in the aftermath of the accident, James gradually rediscovered hope and the beginnings of a vision of a way forward.

James studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, before taking an MSc in medical demography (relating disease and mortality to the structures of populations) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

He then worked in health economics at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals, in London.

He met a Guernsey girl, Caroline Schofield, in 1977. Her ancestors (Collings family) had settled in the island in the 17th century. She was the daughter of Stuart Schofield, former manager of Lloyds Bank, and was at the Ladies’ College from 1958-66. They married in 1978 and decided to set up a farm in Guernsey. They were inspired by friends in the emerging organic movement in the UK (pioneers of the Soil Association) and were enthusiastic about organic farming, self-sufficiency, animal husbandry and soil quality. They bought a derelict farm in St Andrew’s (Maison de Bas) and set up a mixed smallholding, based on organic principles and crop rotation.

James had studied at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester but nothing could really prepare him for the practice of building a farm from scratch, with fields overgrown with thistles, nettles and docks. James was soon well known in the farming community and people realised that he and Caroline were serious about their enterprise.

With judicious help from Guernsey farmers, he soon learnt about local conditions, throwing himself full-heartedly into farming in his characteristically enthusiastic fashion. In the early 1980s, they expanded their dairy herd by buying 10 cows from Sark – each one craned individually off the Sark boat.

James on his farm in Guernsey. (28645672)

By chance, James started teaching economics at the Ladies’ College in 1985. It was a life-changing experience for all who were taught by him. A teacher with a facial disfigurement wasn’t something seen very often but he was very knowledgeable about economics, incredibly engaging and able to relate topics to current affairs in an animated way. In setting one assignment, he unearthed some errors in the agricultural consultants’ report for the States which was crucial to paying a fair milk price to farmers. His students helped to corroborate his findings and James was subsequently appointed to the Agricultural & Milk Marketing Board.

He became a regular on a Radio Guernsey programme with Jim Delbridge, ‘Down on the Farm with Jim and James’.

His teaching experience taught him a great deal about public speaking and how to relate to your audience. A tribute from a group of his former pupils said: ‘We loved our lessons and he had so many qualities that made them both engaging and memorable … he made a big difference to the people we are today.’

These skills were to be instrumental to his subsequent work.

In 1987 in the wake of the King’s Cross fire, he was asked by Penguin, the publishers, to write a book about his experience with disfigurement. It was new territory; facial disfigurement was not on the map then.

After the publication of his book, Changing Faces: the challenge of facial disfigurement, James found he was travelling more and more to the UK. This was sustained for a few ‘crazy’ years, combining managing the farm, travelling to London, and teaching two days a week. But it became increasingly difficult and he decided he had to focus on establishing a new charity that would provide what he called ‘social skills training’ for people with facial differences. This organisation, Changing Faces, helps people with disfigurements to have a set of resources to fall back on and cope with social situations.

In 1993 the family decided to take the big decision to sell their beloved Guernsey farm and move to Bristol, where James had already forged strong links with the psychology department at the University of the West of England (UWE) and the burns unit at Frenchay Hospital.

While living in Bristol the family came back to Guernsey every summer so they kept in touch with their friends and continued their close association with the island. The lure of Guernsey eventually proved too strong and the family re-established their main base in Guernsey in 2001. James started to commute to the UK every week.

James had a level of positivity and optimism second to none – in his mind there was always a way. He was a leader who never shirked responsibility, or the work needed to get something done. James was a force to be reckoned with, bearing the charm, the will and the utter perseverance to fight for the rights of those with facial differences. He saw it as an equality issue that is all too often overlooked. His enthusiasm for the cause was infectious and compelling. He enabled so many people whose inclination might have been to hide from the world to find confidence and to be visible.

James delivered the message to schools, companies, politicians and in as many public forums as he could find.

His story, honesty, humour and empathy were an inspiration to countless people.

‘I live with my very distinctive face with pride,’ he would say.

His ambition was for all those with some sort of facial difference to feel the same: to be shown respect not sympathy.

James led Changing Faces for more than 25 years, building up a germ of an idea to an organisation with far-reaching national and international impact. James recognised very early on that ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’. So he asked. And when he asked, he asked with passion and he asked again if necessary – but always with his unique irresistible charm.

He was instrumental in securing legal protection for people with disfigurements via the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

His achievements have been recognised by academic, disability, charitable and entrepreneurial organisations alike. Named as one of RADAR’s People of the Year in 1992, he was made an Honorary Doctor of Science by UWE in 1999 and awarded an OBE in 2002.

He followed this up with an honorary Fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and was made an honorary Doctor of Science by the University of Bristol in 2005. In 2010 he won the Third Sector award for Most Admired Charity Chief Executive and the Beacon Prize for Leadership. He won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Diversity Awards in 2013. He also read the news on Channel 5 in 2009 to show someone with a facial disfigurement appearing on a mainstream programme to try and break down prejudice.

Over the years, James made many contacts worldwide in the field of facial disfigurement. After handing over the running of Changing Faces in 2018, James set up a network of like-minded organisations around the world, creating a Guernsey-based global association called Face Equality International. It is a growing alliance of 38 NGOs, from South Africa to Nepal, the shared purpose of its members being to fight for face equality across the world.

James spoke openly about lessons learnt via the history of other equality issues, such as feminism or the civil rights movement. As an individual whole-heartedly committed to equality in all its forms, he became an ambassador for Equality Guernsey and was a major driving force in building momentum for their campaigns both nationally and internationally. He has served as a lay member on several States committees in Guernsey, and was actively involved in the Guernsey Community Foundation and the Guernsey Disability Forum, which he influenced with his customary passion and vision.

In 2020, just weeks before his death, he published his second book, FACE IT: Facial Disfigurement and My Fight for Face Equality. It is part-memoir, part-manual and part-manifesto for change – a definitive summary of his fight for face equality.

The memoir section gives a no-holds-barred account of James’s struggle after his accident and coming to terms with the negative stereotype of facial disfigurement. It recalls how he dealt with other people’s reactions, his own sadness, loneliness, shame and anger, and how, over five long years, he found a way to wear his face with pride.

It was essentially a trial-and-error process that enabled him to find a new self-respect and a new sense of self, thanks to the support of friends and family but with next to no professional counselling help.

FACE IT is also a self-help manual and a manifesto – a call to action for human rights for all people with disfigurements worldwide.

‘Work hard, play hard and be kind’ was James’s motto.

He was hugely competitive at everything he did – shamelessly roaring himself on when he sank a long (actually any) putt on a golfing green.

This zest for life was the same at home as at work, whether he was playing cards or growing beans in his vegetable garden. Family life was vitally important to him and he imbued his children with his drive and can-do philosophy.

At times it was perhaps a little exhausting, but the rewards for joining in were more than worth it.

‘On on’ he would cry, through thick and thin.

James was generous and demanding, he was mercurial and thoughtful, he was unwavering in his loyalty to friends, family and colleagues.

Without doubt, he has left a tremendous legacy, and what he instigated will no doubt live on through the friends and allies who are committed to fulfilling his mission.

James leaves behind his wife, Caroline – who has been a rock by his side and a font of good advice and support throughout, three children, Simon, Charlotte and Harriet, and six young grandchildren.

With Katie Piper at the 2018 Literary Festival 2018. (Picture By Peter Frankland) (28645662)

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