School at War, part three: Local talent and evacuees

Date: Friday 1st May 2020
Andy Connel
Andy Connel

WHEN Lionel Budden, headmaster of Appleby Grammar School, and his wife took their 1939 summer holiday in Paris, there was widespread optimism that the Munich Settlement of the previous September had saved European peace.

They were accompanied by two of his most promising sixth form French pupils, Neville Bousfield, from Hartley, and Douglas Birkbeck, from Soulby. By the time school resumed in September the Nazi-Soviet pact and invasion of Poland had started another world war; but Neville and Douglas progressed so well from Higher School Certificate to scholarship examinations in 1940 that both gained places to read History at Queen’s College, Oxford. They started their courses, did military service in the RAF and Army respectively, completed their degrees post-war, and went on to fulfilling careers as schoolmasters and family men before retiring to their home villages.

The next two boys to follow the centuries-old path from AGS to Queen’s were not Westmorland-reared, but imported talent. 18 of the 44 who joined the school in 1939 were evacuated from cities like London, Glasgow and Newcastle, where bombing was expected. In 1940 the figure of 71 was swelled by the wholesale evacuation of Stanhope Street Boys’ School from South Shields. The 1941 intake of 66 included sons of the workforce of Wagon Repairs, relocated from Birmingham. The school boarding house could not accommodate them all; many boarded at private houses in and around Appleby.

Among the newcomers in September, 1939, all the way from Prague, was 14 year-old Otto Pick, whose parents, foreseeing the horrors to come for Jews under German rule following the post-Munich partition of Czechoslovakia, had sent their only child by kindertransport to the safety of rural Westmorland.

Urbane, fluent in three languages and an accomplished musician, Otto was initially “uppity”; but he came to recognise in his new headmaster “a cool one … a wonderful man” who would nurture his talents. Impressive Higher School Certificate and scholarship grades — “excellent” in German, “good” in History — earned him in 1943 a County Scholarship and a place at Queen’s, a year after another high-flying AGS evacuee.

Derek Hall, a teacher’s son, arrived from South Shields in 1940. In 1942, not yet 18, he passed HSC in four subjects, achieved “excellent” in scholarship History and French, and was awarded a State Scholarship tenable at Queen’s.

But war sent them on divergent paths. In 1943, after a year studying History, Derek joined the RAFVR, reaching the rank of Navigator Flying Officer before returning in 1946 to Queen’s, where he was joined by Neville Bousfield and Douglas Birkbeck; switching the remainder of his degree course to Law, he gained a first in 1948.

Meanwhile, instead of taking up his Oxford place, Otto had enlisted in the Czech army in exile; he saw action in both France and Czechoslovakia before demobilization in Prague in 1945 and the discovery that both parents had perished.

There he saw his future: he worked as an interpreter, taught English, played in a jazz band, started a Law course, and married in April, 1948. But by then it was clear that the Soviet control of Czechoslovakia boded ill for bourgeois Jewish intellectuals.

Otto and Katerina Pick fled via Germany to Britain; and in October, 1948, Otto was at Queen’s, commencing an accelerated two-year History degree course. In 1950 his daughter was christened in the college chapel; her godfather was Derek Hall.

Now pursuing an academic career as fellow and tutor of Exeter College, Oxford, Derek combined tuition, research, writing and posts of responsibility in the university so effectively that in 1969, aged 45, this “eminent legal historian and energetic and skilled administrator”, aged 45 was elected president of Corpus Christi College. But his health was failing; he died in 1950. Douglas Birbeck recalls Derek telling him that he could happily live “in a rut”. This seems to have been the wishful thinking of a driven perfectionist. Derek Hall was, said his Times obituary, “warm-hearted and sympathetic, a good friend … but never easy-going”.

The life of his friend Otto was similarly intense, but longer and more diverse. After eight years as a BBC journalist, he returned to academe, first at the London School of Economics then at the new University of Surrey at Guildford, where he was Professor of International Relations, Dean and pro-Vice Chancellor. In between came an “odd job” in 1964 as executive director of the Council of African-British Relations. In 1983 the Picks moved to Germany, where Otto worked first in media with Radio Free Europe, then at Munich University. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 he returned to his homeland, now the Czech Republic, where he headed an Institute of Foreign Affairs, advised the government on foreign and security policy, addressed conferences and wrote books. Four years before he died in Prague aged 90 I spoke with him over the phone. He expressed fond memories of the Appleby he had left 69 years earlier, and hoped there might still be girls who remembered him.