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TRIBUTES have been paid to a man who played a pivotal role in the modernisation of an historic organisation.

Former Durham Freemen chairman John Heslop, who was instrumental in getting woman admitted to ancient order, died suddenly while on holiday in Spain at the age of 71.

Paying tribute, his daughter Kate Luther said: “My father will be very sadly missed.

“It was a big shock. We as a family are devastated.

“But we want to celebrate his life. He was was a very special man held in high regard by a lot of people.”

Mr Heslop was admitted a Durham Freeman to the Curriers Company in February 1987, was appointed warden in December 2001 and chairman, in succession to Alan Atkinson, in January 2006.

During his decade at the helm of the freemen he strengthened links with the cathedral, while the eight guilds gave tens of thousands of pounds to charities and projects.

Membership also rose from from 80 to more than 230.

But, perhaps, the major changes of Mr Heslop’s stewardship was the freemen’s unanimous backing for the admission of women in 2012, ending 700 years of tradition.

Mr Heslop saw through the balloting procedures and their acceptance. The organisation overwhelmingly backed proposals to end its men-only rules in 2010, but the change was delayed by protracted and complex legal hitches.

Although there are other groups of freemen across the country, Durham was one of only two in which membership rules were governed by historic acts of Parliament.

After months of legal exchanges with the Government, it was accepted that new legislation, such as the Equality Act of 2010, effectively set aside obstacles on membership on women.

His daughter, who was one of those who became a freeman, said: “That was something he was really proud of. It was a massive achievement. We are are very proud of him.

“When he became a freeman he made it his mission to get women involved. Although joining the freemen was an honour for him, he felt it was not right that women could not be members and felt he wanted to put that right.

“He very much wanted to bring the organisation into the 21st century and increased membership significantly as well.”

A tribute on the Durham Freeman’s website said: “The day in February 2012 of the first admission of women to the Durham Freedom was a very happy one both for John’s family and for the Companies.

“John enlarged the facilities of the Freemen to offer charitable funding to local causes which were relevant to their aims and objectives – aid to apprenticeships, acknowledgement of projects involving work and craftsmanship, projects which further the understanding of the historical continuity of effort and imagination in local society. John was a prudent and fair-minded reformer, an encourager and an enabler and he promoted the recently established Freemen Charitable Trust with enthusiasm and care.

“He was a keen networker and good communicator with the Freemen of England and Wales. But, of course, as a career teacher in County Durham, especially at Wellfield Comprehensive School at Wingate and an cause-advocate for the Association of Headmasters and Headmistresses, that was to be expected.”

“His clarity of thought and discretion were much appreciated in Freemen meetings of Wardens and Trustees.”

Mr Heslop attended the Durham Johnston Grammar School and went on to train as a science teacher at Westminster College, Oxford.

He was a teacher at Wingate Secondary School (later to become Wellfield Comprehensive) for 21 years, before becoming deputy head at Haughton Comprehensive School, in Darlington.

He was the school’s acting head in 1998 when he left to become regional officer for the National Association of Head Teachers, covering an area that embraced the North-East, Cumbria and Scotland. He retired in 2008.

Mr Heslop is also survived by his son Kris and two grandchildren by his daughter. His funeral service will be held at Durham Town Hall at 10.15am on Friday, May 5.