After 30 years of compiling crosswords for The Times, the answer to 13 across in the final puzzle that Joyce Cansfield set was “egghead”.
The puzzle — her 1,265th for the paper — appeared on November 15, 2011, and although she would have gently demurred at the description, “egghead” was not a bad way to sum up her prodigious cerebral power. Her ability to solve the knottiest conundrum led to her becoming Britain’s national Scrabble champion, the first series winner of the television quiz show Countdown and the 1983 Brain of Mensa.
Yet Cansfield was far more than a bluestocking. Active in body as well as mind, she was an excellent Alpine skier who was still sashaying her way down the slopes in her seventies, and an enthusiastic boater on the Norfolk Broads. Her extracurricular interests were sometimes reflected in her crossword clues. “She put the name of a Canadian skiing resort into one of her puzzles and was disconcerted when I queried it,” recalled Richard Browne, who was the editor of The Times crossword for much of her time.
Sashay, Schleswig, Ergometer, Isthmus, Tuareg
Her crossword-setting technique involved taking the grids with which The Times supplied her, filling them with unusual and at times even obscure words, and then devising ingeniously cryptic clues. “She gave no thought to how ‘clueable’ the entries were,” Browne said. “She prided herself on being able to find a good clue for absolutely any word — and she did.”
Among the words with which she filled her final Times crossword were sashay, Schleswig, ergometer, isthmus and Tuareg. One clue involved a policeman, a weaver and a man called Teddy, which led to “copper-bottomed”, while “stratagem” was arrived at via an almost impossibly convoluted word reversal.
“She prided herself on being able to find a good clue for absolutely any word — and she did.”
Browne also recalled that Cansfield used the Times grids in strict numeric order. “In each puzzle 1 across started with the next letter of the alphabet from the one before. The number of grids and the number of letters being mutually prime, this meant a different combination every time with a guarantee of no repeat within 30 years at her regular three puzzles a month.”
In all the crosswords she compiled for the paper, her name appeared only once, when she was given the honour of setting the puzzle that commemorated the 80th anniversary of the first Times crossword. Beneath her clues on February 1, 2010 appeared the words: “And thank you Joyce Cansfield for providing today’s puzzle.”
She also set crossword puzzles for The Listener from 1969 to 2002 under the name Machiavelli. “That gives you an idea what her mind was like,” Browne said admiringly. In her first puzzle for The Listener all the clues were in verse.
She was born Mary Joyce Patrick in Redhill, Surrey, in 1929, the younger of two daughters. Her father, Jeffrey, was a solicitor employed at Somerset House and her mother, May, was a housewife.
She was brought up in Lewes, now in East Sussex, where her early education came courtesy of Miss Walker, whose “school” was the sitting room of her spinster home. Her sister, Pat Elliott, recalled her younger sibling as “frighteningly bright” and a voracious reader “who could read a dozen pages and take it all in while I laboured over one”.
She earned a place at Lewes Grammar School for Girls a year early at the age of ten, but in 1940 was evacuated to Huddersfield, where her maternal grandparents had a small hotel.
After returning to Lewes to complete her schooling, she took a degree in statistics at the University of London’s Westfield College (which merged with Queen Mary College) and went to work for the Dental Estimates Board in Eastbourne, where she ran one of the earliest mainframe computers — a machine that took up an entire room.
A Year to Go Round the World
Enrolling with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, she did two weeks’ service a year in bases in Gibraltar and Malta, and in the early 1950s took a year off to go round the world, staying with relatives in Canada before taking a cargo ship to Kuala Lumpur and returning to Britain via Australia.
It was while in Canada that she played Scrabble for the first time, when staying in a log cabin on an island in Lake Winnipeg where it rained continuously and “there was nothing else to do”. Almost 30 years later she won the 1980 British Scrabble championship with a score of 1,540 points, a record at the time.
At the peak of her formidable powers as a puzzler, within three years she had earned the Brain of Mensa award and become the first winner of a Countdown final, which brought her some celebrity and a prize of 13 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Her long reign as a crossword compiler for The Times began around the same time, when she was invited to become a setter after impressing as a competitor in The Times Crossword Championship finals.
She is survived by her husband, Mike Cansfield, a retired printer. They met on the Cresta Run in 1957. Both were looking after elderly parents, and living at opposite ends of the country, so they did not marry until 1974, when she moved to Otley, West Yorkshire, and took a job as a statistician at the University of Leeds.
By then Joyce was too old to have children of her own, but she was a devoted aunt. A skilled knitter, she made her sister’s children wonderfully intricate baby shawls that were “works of art”. Her cooking was less impressive. She preferred dictionaries to recipe books and could make just one menu of chicken and mushrooms in a cider sauce followed by sherry trifle, which she served to all guests.
She spent her final years in a nursing home, where she enjoyed playing in a Saturday morning Scrabble club almost until the end.
Joyce Cansfield, crossword compiler, was born on October 8, 1929. She died after a long illness on October 12, 2019, aged 90