Sadly, Michael passed away on 30 October aged 95, after a full and amazing life.
Michael was born in 1928 in Putney, London. His father, who was an expert in organising railways was seconded to British Railways – the Great Western Railway. In 1931 Michael went to Germany with his family. As his mother was English Michael had a British Passport, which was to prove of great use in the years to come.
He went to school in Munich at the French Lycée. With war imminent the Nazis said that all Foreign Passport holders had to leave Germany. His father sent Michael to the International School in Bavaria. When the Polish invasion occurred Michael, approaching 17, realised that he would be called up so he decided to ‘disappear’ and created an ‘official’ document requesting a visit to his dying grandmother in Munich – giving him the chance to travel west across Germany. He ran into an American army group and avoided being shot by producing his British Passport. The Americans took him in and he joined UNRA (UN Relief & Rehabilitation) with whom he worked until 1946.
His father survived the war and wanted Michael to go to England to continue his education. He wrote to a contact, who provided Michael with the necessary invitation to travel to England. He gave Michael an introduction to Keeble College, Oxford, but without ‘A’ levels Michael could not sit the entrance exams. So at 18 he went to teach in prep schools, which gave him the means to support himself plus board and lodging, whilst studying for his exams. In the holiday he went to Central Europe to help young people prepare for their future. Whilst there he also did translating at the Nuremberg Trials.
In 1948 Michael gained an Exhibition to Keeble College, Oxford. He could have stayed on to do a PhD at All Souls, but he decided he wanted to teach. At 24 he got a job teaching history at Sherborne, and then became a House Master at Shrewsbury, where he met and taught the young John Sykes.
In 1960 he became Head of Mill Hill School for 7 years. Later he became Inspector of Schools and this was followed by Head of the European School at Mol, Belgium and then Head of the International School in Luxembourg.
On retirement he was awarded a CBE and became Advisor to British Education, but he was frustrated by the lack of technical education available. Michael lived in Eastbourne until 2006 when he moved to Marlborough where he lived at St Luke’s Court on The Common. One day whilst walking across the Common to buy his newspaper he saw a collie dog (which he used to have) and its owner, whom he recognised as John Sykes, who he had taught all those years ago at Shrewsbury. That friendship was rekindled and remained strong in the years to come.
Whilst at Oxford Michael met and married Dabney Waller, an American Rhodes Scholar. They went their separate ways when Michael went to teach at Mols and Dabney returned to America – but they kept in touch thereafter. Michael always kept in touch with his family. His elder brother moved to America, but they remained in touch until his brother died. His younger sister later followed him to England and Michael helped with her education and that of her subsequent family, after she married Sir Anthony Figgis latterly Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps.
He was a great lover of dogs all his life, his last one was Bramble, who now lives with his nephew Olly. He had a passion for Shakespeare and music. Michael regularly attended Marlborough Subscription Concerts and those at St peter’s as well as the Annual Saltzburg Music Festival where he enjoyed good conversation as well as the music. He set up several discussion groups whilst living at St Luke’s, which were well attended.
In 1991 Marlborough Town Council bought the 17th century silk merchant’s House on the High Street when it came up for sale. The Merchant’s House Charitable Trust was formed under the chairmanship of Sir John Sykes. The following 30 years saw a fundraising programme to conserve the unique Grade II* Listed building and rented from the Town Council for a peppercorn rent, and which is now an important historic building enjoyed by the Community and visitors from further afield.
Michael became a great supporter of The Merchant’s House and was happy to be involved in fundraising by giving lectures over the years, included the Annual Study Series, which. together with two other eminent local people, a particular period was chosen and then described, focusing on its Social History, Art and Architecture. He particularly enjoyed judging the Debating Event between St John’s School and Marlborough College, which was held at the Merchant’s House. Michael contributed enthusiastically to Marlborough College Summer School, where he offered a variety of lectures over the years, which were always a sell out. In return he enjoyed college life again.
At a lunch given on his 80th birthday, Sue Sykes sat next to Donald Wright (Headmaster of Shrewsbury School 1963-75), said Michael had a tremendous gift with young people. Perhaps we can add ‘also the not so young people’ as he acquired a large circle of friends and admirers.
Michael will be greatly missed and it was a privilege to have known him.
The Merchant’s House, November 2023
After moving to Marlborough in 2006 Michael soon joined u3a in Kennet taking on the leadership of the European and subsequently the English History Groups, Current Affairs and Advanced German language Groups.
Many u3a members have benefitted enormously from Michael’s extensive knowledge, global perspective and enthusiasm for the subject. He was widely respected for his candid, balanced and concise lectures. He remained an active member of the Groups until the autumn of 2023.
In addition to his role as a Group Leader Michael also supported u3a in Kennet as a member of the Executive Committee.
He will be sadly missed.
Jill Turner, Chair, u3a in Kennet
Funeral at North Wiltshire Crematorium on 24th November at 2 pm. Please no flowers. Donations if desired to Dogs Trust via Claridge Funeral Service 01672 511836