Aroundtown Meets Professor Dame Hilary Chapman DBE, Lord-Lieutenant of South Yorkshire

She’s a professor, a dame, a Doctor of Medicine, and is now Her Majesty’s Lord-Lieutenant of South Yorkshire. But when we meet her at her new office in Barnsley town hall, she introduces herself simply as Hilary.

We’re in the presence of an extraordinary woman whose outstanding commitment to nursing has made a difference to the lives of so many – a pioneer whose impact on the industry is likened to that of Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale. But she’s also remarkably ordinary with a genuine and endearing persona, her warm-hearted bedside manner having clearly never left her.

HM Lord-Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, Professor Dame Hilary Chapman DBE

Now Dame Hilary Chapman is set to become a voice for the wider community as she embarks on a new lieutenancy era to promote the growth, development and pride of South Yorkshire.

“This is the county where I was born, went to school, trained, and worked. The county I thought I knew. But I’m looking forward to exploring and learning things about South Yorkshire I never knew before,” she says.

Dame Hilary is the first woman to be appointed HM Lord-Lieutenant of South Yorkshire, and indeed the previous West Riding of Yorkshire, since the honorary title was initially bestowed by the Crown in 1660.

Her promotion from deputy is a momentous occasion for the county. Not only is she a woman, but Dame Hilary also has a public service background with no links to aristocracy, and she is much younger than her predecessors. Her appointment follows a wave of diversity across the country’s Lord-Lieutenants, symbolising the shifting attitudes within the monarchy to modernise the historic role and bestow more responsibilities to the Queen’s representatives.

Having spent a large proportion of her career as a chief nurse, her final role leading Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust for 12 years, Dame Hilary is certainly well-equipped to head the lieutenancy team of 43 deputies in South Yorkshire.

She follows in the footsteps of Andrew Coombe who had held the position since 2015. It is a requirement that Lord-Lieutenants must retire on their 75th birthday, and Dame Hilary officially took up the post on 5th November on Andrew’s retirement. Now 58, the upper age limit means Dame Hilary may well be in the role for 17 years.

The role of a Lord-Lieutenant is voluntary but demanding and has often been given to someone retired. While Dame Hilary is retired from full-time work, she is still an independent consultant and will juggle these commitments with her lieutenancy – something she says nearly made her turn down the opportunity.

“Andrew was fantastically involved and he often worked 40-hour weeks. When he was ready for retiring, the Privy Council invited a number of the deputies into a very relaxed meeting to discuss what qualities we thought a Lord-Lieutenant should have and how the role could further benefit the region. At the end, they asked me if I would consider the role as my name had been mentioned quite often.

“I said I was far too busy and couldn’t possibly do it justice. But it was my husband Neil and Andrew, who both stopped me in my tracks and made me reassess. They said to me, ‘Yes, it’s a big commitment and you might be busy, but this is a real privilege and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’”

And one thing’s for certain – she will take great care in ensuring she leads by example.

Born and raised in Deepcar, Dame Hilary says she and her older sister had a blissful childhood. Their father was a senior engineer at Fox’s steelworks in Stocksbridge and their mother taught French at the high school.

“We didn’t live on a working farm but our house had lots of land and various animals and all the children from the community would regularly come over. Because Mum was a teacher she adored children and Dad would make stilts, create a putting green, or get the kids involved in hay making.

“Although he had a high-ranking job at Fox’s, Dad was very grounded and I think I get my values from him.”

After leaving school, the plan was for Hilary to go to university to study business and French. Her mother had been to university in the 1950s which was a rarity among her peers and she longed for her own two girls to follow suit.

However, after speaking to a girl in the upper sixth who was going to London to train as a nurse, and reading a copy of the Nursing Times, Hilary had a change of heart.

“When I told them about me doing nursing instead, they said, ‘Whatever you want to do we will support you.’ If they were disappointed, they never showed it.”

This February marks forty years since she began her nursing training, having moved to Sheffield to take up a trainee position at the Northern General Hospital in 1982.

And her parents needn’t have been disheartened with their daughter’s decision.

Throughout her nursing career, Dame Hilary worked across many areas of medicine including cardiothoracic for patients undergoing open-heart surgery, and intensive care where she first became a Sister.

After leaving Sheffield in 1992, she went on to work in Leicester, Nottingham, Kettering and Coventry, before moving back to Sheffield in 2006 to take up the role of chief nurse. Here, she was responsible for maintaining clinical and patient care standards, developing new strategies, and ensuring the hospitals ran to schedule.

“Nursing is the best career ever and I try and persuade people to seriously consider it. I often hear ‘oh, I don’t like blood’ or ‘I couldn’t do that’ but it is so varied with so many opportunities.”

One of her most influential endeavours was that she co-developed the Safer Nursing Care Tool, a project which began 22 years ago that Hilary is still involved in today. The idea was to overhaul the traditional methods of staffing wards, whereby the previous year’s rota would be consulted and implemented the same. But Hilary says that wasn’t working; patients were getting sicker and spending longer on the wards.

“The Safer Nursing Care Tool is based on something similar to time and motion. If you’re looking at how many nurses are needed for a ward or department, you look at the needs of the patients and what level of care they need. For example, do they need help with feeding or walking. We want to know how many hours of nursing are needed on that one ward at that one time. Then it uses an algorithm to calculate.”

The tool was developed by Dame Hilary and her co-lead, Professor Katherine Fenton, during days off, evenings and weekends before it was rubber stamped by the chief nursing officer for England in 2006. There is also now a fellowship programme to show younger and newly qualified nurses how to use and manage it correctly.

“I get asked all the time how much money I made from it. And the answer is one pound. Katherine and I and others involved all sold our intellectual property rights for £1 so that every hospital in the UK can use it for free. If trusts must use their budgets to pay for it, then it defeats the object.”

The accolades Dame Hilary has earned for her dedication to nursing means she now has many letters after her name. She went on to achieve her nursing degree and master’s, was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Sheffield, was made a professor at Sheffield Hallam University, and a fellow at the Royal College of Nursing. For her services to nursing, she was first awarded a CBE before being made a dame in the 2018 honours.

“When I became a Sister on ICU I think my parents nearly burst. I felt guilty when I was awarded the CBE but my mum didn’t. She used to meet up with all the retired teachers from our school and I remember when she told my old RE teacher she said, ‘Fancy that from little Hilary Brown.’

“Sadly, Mum didn’t get to see me get the damehood but, because she was so poorly and we knew she wouldn’t make it, I was allowed to tell her before it was officially announced.”

Wherever she may be, I’m sure she’ll be looking down on her daughter and beaming with pride as she dons her uniform and represents the Queen. After years of campaigning from the Lord-Lieutenants, this is the first year that women have been allowed to wear a uniform like their male counterparts.

“To prepare, I was given a one-and-a-half-hour lesson with a regimental sergeant major about how the uniform should be worn, how to stand, and how to salute.”

Her first month in the role was full of events, from being invited to Barnsley College’s graduation ceremony to officially unveiling the Covid memorial in Barnsley alongside former Archbishop of York, Lord Bishop John Sentamu.

In uniform with Lord Bishop John Sentamu, former Archbishop of York

“The Lord-Lieutenancy role comes with lots of rules, regulations and precedence. As Her Majesty’s representative, it is my duty to do as the Queen would do or walk out at ceremonies in the order she would. One of my first official events in uniform was the Remembrance Day parade in Barnsley. It was an honour to be surrounded by so many of the town’s veterans and military community and to lay the first wreath at the cenotaph. I obviously can’t attend all four regions at 11am on the same day, so I will rotate between Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield each Remembrance Sunday.”

As well as being a dignitary at ceremonies, Dame Hilary’s role will also see her give out honours and awards to South Yorkshire people and businesses on behalf of the sovereign, such as the British Empire Medal, the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise or Voluntary Service, Citizenship ceremonies, and attend Freedom of the Borough events.

In November, Dame Hilary proudly presented two South Yorkshire based businesses with the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise, both of whom stipulated the awards be given at their respective shops or factories.

The Community Shop in Athersley, part of Tankersley’s Company Group, was presented with the award for Promoting Opportunity in recognition of its social impact to break long-term dependence on food aid through life-changing training and development programmes.

Dame Hilary then presented SJM Alloys and Metals with the International Trade award at their Rotherham factory for the short-term growth they have seen in global sales of recycled alloys and steels, with clients in Japan, USA and Europe.

This year, Dame Hilary will award some of the Queen’s New Year honours to South Yorkshire recipients, including the British Empire Medal to 11-year-old Paces School pupil ‘Captain’ Tobias Weller from Sheffield who raised over £150,000 for his school and The Children’s Hospital Charity and is the youngest person on record to be awarded an honour.

“This role is so varied and I can’t wait to meet more people who do amazing things. The people who deserve the honours are often those who never come forward; they hide their light under a bushel. When you start to dig and poke your nose in, you get to know all about those people who have maybe gone unnoticed.”

With such a large county to cover, Dame Hilary is supported by a Vice Lord-Lieutenant and 42 deputies who come from all walks of life, from the military and police to retail and industry. You are invited to be a deputy and ultimately, Dame Hilary will be on the lookout for more people to ask to take on the role, as she was back in 2016.

“Often the best Deputy Lieutenants are the busiest people. They’re those who are already out there in the community. In South Yorkshire, with credit to Andrew, we have a mix of genders, faiths and races to reflect our communities. We make a conscious effort to look at the Census across the boroughs and identify our different cultures and communities.”

While the deputies are split across the four regions of South Yorkshire, Dame Hilary’s HQ is at Barnsley in the iconic town hall building. She is assisted by a very capable team including the Vice Lord-Lieutenant John Holt, Lieutenancy Officer Phil Barraclough, her PA Alison and at home, her husband Neil who was the finance director at Leeds Teaching Hospitals.

“The support I’ve received from Barnsley Council has been second-to-none and I have to pinch myself sometimes how lucky I am to work in such a magnificent building. The team has been wonderfully supportive and although she’s new to the role, Alison who has had a great handover from her predecessor, Lorraine, has taken to it brilliantly and is the one who makes it all happen.

“And of course, I wouldn’t be here without my husband making me stop and think. He was more excited than me about it and even went and bought a whole new wardrobe from Frank Bird down on Eldon Street for all these new occasions.”

We’d like to wish Dame Hilary the very best of luck in her new role and look forward to sharing her journey with Aroundtown readers.