Obituary of Celia Hensman MBE: Thames21 founder

head and shoulders photo of Celia Hensman

Celia Hensman was a woman of great charm and conviction, who used her formidable intelligence to create lasting, positive change for people and the natural environment. Her name became synonymous with the health of the river Thames after she founded environmental charity Thames21. 

Celia was a connector of people. Twenty-five years ago she brought together key organisations including the Port of London Authority, the Environment Agency, Corporation of London and Thames Water to support a new, collective initiative to clean up the tidal Thames. Through the birth of Thamesclean – which grew into Thames21 – she created a space for Londoners who wanted to take action to improve the health of the river. This space enabled communities to connect with the river Thames and its tributaries in a new way – and one which is having a lasting impact on the river environment. River enthusiast and philanthropist Roger De Freitas commented: ‘She was a constant presence – you knew you were in the right place, because Celia was there.’ Thames21 CEO Debbie Leach said: ‘For those of us who had the good fortune to meet her, she has always been known as a total legend.’

After graduating from Cambridge, Celia worked as a social and research worker in prisons and psychiatric hospitals in this country and abroad, holding many senior civil service posts and served on a wide range of committees, retiring from the Department of Health in 1994 to focus on the river Thames.  She was the chairman of charitable funds for Hammersmith Hospital from October 2000 – December 2006 and served on the Thames21 board of trustees until resigning for health reasons in 2017.

In 2005 Celia was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in recognition of her outstanding services to improve the river Thames, as well as her work with children’s organisations and wider health issues.

Chris Coode, Thames21 deputy CEO said: ‘Celia was always a warm and encouraging presence; interested in everyone at Thames21 and everything we were trying to do. She advocated for us everywhere she went. I admired Celia for many reasons and I loved, that for all her achievements, drive and determination, she was able to not take herself too seriously.  I will always be grateful for her insight and guidance.’

Celia’s conviction, dedication to the river and belief in Thames21 enabled the charity to develop into the multi-faceted champion for our rivers that it is today.

Celia Hensman 1936 -2021