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Tony Denton | Pinders Heath | Wakefield | WF1 4TH | Telephone: 07863786344

Some background . . .

The first phase of my employment runs from 1958 until 1976, starting as junior clerk (opening post and making tea!), through various incarnations, rising to office manager.
My initial postings were with the local county council and the local constabulary. Later followed by a couple of stints in industry.
In 1976, I moved into further education and worked in two colleges in Leeds as registrar until 1982, when I felt I had to move on to get on. A growing family, a mortgage to pay – I needed a better salary. Representations over the years to the local authority had fallen on deaf ears, and so . . .

A move into higher education . . .

1982 was a significant year for the family. Up to then, we had lived in the same house. But, in 1982, I was successful in getting a job as the Bursar of Bretton Hall College near Wakefield, my home town. There had been three previous bursars since the college was founded in 1947.
Bretton Hall was one of half-a-dozen faded country houses that had been requisitioned by the army during the war. At the end of the war, their aristocratic owners were prepared to let them go 'for a song' feeling perhaps, that they had, in some way, been defiled.
Post-war, there was a great demand for teacher education and, in response to this demand, Sir Alec Clegg, the hugely influential and innovative chief education officer, took the opportunity to ‘snap up’ a number of these properties. The estate was sold to the authority for £37,000 – lock stock and 260 rolling acres!
It was a beautiful estate, set in the narrow valley of the River Dearne. There was deciduous and conifer woodland, a nature reserve, two lakes, the river flowing through, a historic mansion built in 1720, and various associated ornamental follies, etc..
The bursar was in charge of the lot! Imagine that! You had to be an accountant, country estate manager, a commercial woodland manager, a back-woodsman and nature reserve expert, a reservoir controller, be able to liase with the local authority, and the Nature Conservation Society, and the Historic Buildings Council, and many other agencies.

A jack-of-all-trades . . .

The post of bursar was somewhat of an anachronism. It harks back to a time of grace and favour. My immediate two predecessors had both been ‘military’ men. More often than not, this was a prerequisite for this type of post, in this type of college. Something to do with bearing, stiff upper lip, leading from the front, having moral fibre, and all that.
The post was classed as a service tenancy. This meant that the family had to live on the estate. Now don’t get me wrong, the property was great. A stone-built bungalow set in woodland, with a view to die for. It was high on the side of the Dearne valley, facing south, looking down towards the lower lake, and the country park.
My predecessor, an ex-royal navy commander, had been there some sixteen or so years. He had made the cottage and garden his own, and very practical. He kept geese and a few chickens. Fresh eggs for breakfast and always something for the christmas table. The only downside was the fairly regular visits of reynard. The commander had devised elaborate structures and booby traps for the fox, but it was clear he had been losing the battle for years.
Now, while warming to the idea of becoming a gentleman small-holder, collecting fresh eggs of a morning (and I had been known to pluck a goose or two), I instantly recognised the work involved in the enterprise, and the futility of pitting oneself against nature, and decided to patronise the local supermarket instead.
The whole thing was idyllic, though. A beautiful and peaceful place. The downside was that it was more than a mile from the nearest bus stop (or the village shop), and through a wood – and the kids needed to get to school. There was nothing for it, my wife had to buy a car and learn to drive. We lived on the campus for some 3-4 years. But with house prices rising fast, and hardly a need for us to live on the estate, we got permission to move off. This made way for the expansion of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP). But I am getting ahead of myself. . .

A great privilege . . .

For the first three or four years of living there, it felt as if it was from an earlier bygone age. As I said, a grace-and-favour time. The college had only just dispensed with the daily ringing of a bell for tea and cucumber sandwiches. Also, at this time, the estate was being opened up to the public and visitors were encouraged to use the grounds.
The college trained teachers in the arts and education. There was music - but I kept a low profile. There was drama and dance – we occasionally involved ourselves in some of those events. I recall annual visits to a mediaeval guildhall in York, dressed in the appropriate garb, lords accompanied by their ladies, to partake in banquets and feasts, the odd 'knighting' or two, and more than a bit of ‘method’ acting.
Among other things, the college was on the British Council tour list, and I had the privilege of meeting a broad and goodly number of famous artists and celebrities, including George Melly, Elizabeth Frink, Paul Tortelier, Joshua Nkomo, Susan Hampshire, etc.
It was such a varied and interesting time and there were many memorable occasions during our time there.

A recipe for chaos . . .

Then, as now, you were not always in charge of the things you thought you were either.
I recall a particular occasion when a member of staff approached me with, what seemed, at the time, a simple request. Could we host the regional amateur radio society annual meeting? It wouldn’t need much input from the college. They would see to all the arrangements, and put up a discrete marquee or two in the grounds. And we could even get revenue from supplying refreshments. It seemed a good idea at the time. So, of course, I said yes. What I didn’t realise was that these people are 'on the air'! They came from everywhere! They blocked the grounds; they blocked the whole village – solid! They blocked all the approach roads to the village and I spent the next three weeks fending off complaints from the local residents. He asked again the following year. I said no – go away!

Another annual event, over which I had no control, was the Boxing Day hunt.
Now as I said, I was in charge of the security and well-being of an historic mansion. Two hundred and sixty rolling, landscaped, acres; lakes, a nature reserve, residential accommodation, etc..
Not that I’m particularly against hunting, you understand. I’m certainly not one of those hunt saboteurs or anything like that. But there is something fearful and uncontrollable about a pack of 50 hounds, and some 30 or so horses complete with crimson-clad stiff-upper-lips in full cry. I can’t really blame the fox. After all, he’d been visiting these parts for years. He was always fairly discreet in his comings and goings. He didn’t bother me at all. My predecessor – yes. He was probably only visiting my cottage garden to see if I’d decided to replenish his food supply.
The hunt on the other hand went where the fox went. Jumping over my country park fences (often bringing them down). Through my carefully cultivated and nurtured flower beds and borders. Not to mention frightening the canada geese that regularly used the lakes. I mean, I always got an apology from the hunt Master following the annual skirmish. And they usually paid for any contingent damage after I had sent in my usual annual angry resident’s letter. But it really rankled with me.
It’s very easy to see with hindsight how years of this kind of experience, and fine honing, has mellowed my approach, and lowered my flare-up threshold, to what you now see as a soft touch!
Happy Days!

Personal satisfaction . . .

There were two interesting associations that I made through my service at the college. I became the honorary treasurer for both the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) and the National Arts Education Archive (NAEA).
The YSP had grown out of the college, and was one of the first sculpture trails in the country. Peter Murray, the executive director, had been a member of college staff and had persuaded the then principal to allow him to discreetly place pieces of sculpture around the college and the immediately associated landscape. Little by little, Peter expanded his territory and ambitions, and the Park is now a free-standing charity, and one of the foremost open-air sculpture galleries in the world.
If you haven’t been yet, do go and pay a visit. Even if you don’t appreciate all the exhibits, the walk will do you good! Anyway, it was a most fascinating experience, and one that continues today – I still get invitations to attend previews and special openings.
The NAEA also grew out of the college and became a free-standing charity. It is a repository for all things connected with arts education, and it covers all the visual arts, music, film and textiles. It is a rich collection and offers a valuable resource to the college, teachers and scholars. Also, it has been a success story in attracting sponsorship. The purpose-built building, built to British Standard, was achieved through the generosity of Lawrence Batley, the Huddersfield cash-and-carry magnate.
I remained treasurer of the NAEA until the charity was dissolved and the assets handed over to the YSP where they are available, by appointment, for study and scrutiny.

Storm clouds . . .

The college was a special place – not least because of its location and historic associations - but it possessed other idiosyncrasies as well.
Can you imagine a situation where every member of academic staff and a representative cross-section of the support staff formed the academic board! The termly meetings represented ‘town assemblies’ where the management were stood up against the wall in the old dining room and cross-questioned for an hour or two. (At least our backs were against the wall so there was nobody behind us!) It all harked back to those interesting experimental 'Dartington-esque' times. It clearly couldn’t last.
Change came in the form of a government white paper “Education- Meeting the Challenge.” The document hit the doormat in April 1987, and had a lead-time of two years. It proposed the removal of polytechnics and colleges of higher education from local authority control, setting them up as free-standing corporations within a new HE sector funded from a newly-formed quango – the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council. Life would never be the same again!

Incorporation . . .

I remember, the then government banging on for years about the inefficiency and non-responsiveness of the local authorities in making improvement to the higher education service; and what it was going to do if the authorities didn’t get their houses in order in this respect. Well, the sector had begun to get their houses in order, and had responded by setting up a specific organisation, the National Advisory Body for Local Authority Higher Education (NAB), to do just that. Just as the NAB was about to report, in April 1987 the government played its trump card. The white paper arrived. As I said at the conclusion of the previous paragraph, life was never going to be the same again! And it certainly wasn’t!
The immediate experience of incorporation for the college was the local authority’s reaction to the thought of losing millions of pounds worth of real estate assets (it happened again when the government turned its attention to further education a few years later). All the local authorities in England were in the same boat, but you wouldn’t have thought so, to hear ours shout.
In fairness though, I think we had more than our fair share of battling with the local and other authorities. There were, of course, the major assets, the 1720 mansion, the 260-odd acres of historic landscape, lakes, follies, a considerable amount of woodland, and various properties dotted around the village – some very substantial. There were other assets of course – equipment, and the odd work of art, donated by generous artists passing through the college.

Provision for minority users . . .

Then there was the entitlement of the minority users of the estate to be taken account of. And they were not an inconsiderable number. Among them was the YSP, the local schools service (I forgot to mention the local schools service. They used the lower lake as an outdoor water sports activity centre, complete with rowing boats, canoes and a motorised safety boat.) The Girl Guides also had a regional campsite on the estate, and various troops used to visit three or four times a year for their annual camp. The campsite was within 100 yards of the bungalow that we lived in. They usually arrived in the evening and we could always tell when they were in residence – the following morning, the smell of bacon cooking over an open camp fire wafted across our lawn, the excited chatter of young, impressionistic girl guides, could be heard as they swarmed over the countryside, clipboards in hand, ticking off plant, wild flower and bird references in pursuit of their latest ‘badge.’

Well, all this would have to be ‘accounted’ for. Much would go in the process, as the college faced up to its newly found responsibilities under incorporation. It would not be appropriate for me to go into detail about these battles. The scars are still visible in some quarters. However, for better or for worse, the various vested interests were all accounted for, and solutions found, although not always to the complete satisfaction of the parties.
The local authority had little choice in the matter, and the thought, for example, of the college now being able to charge them a rental for the continuing use of the lakes, was too much for them to bear. Off they went, lock, stock, and motorised safety boat. Shame, really. The Girl Guides didn’t put up much of a struggle. They re-located into a farm field adjacent to the estate for first year following incorporation, and then were never to be seen in the vicinity again.

The YSP . . .

The main battle was reserved for satisfying the YSP needs. I had been the honorary treasurer since my appointment as bursar. It kind of came with the job – along with honorary treasurer of the college bar and a bit later, honorary treasurer of the NAEA. These appointments sound very grand, but they usually resulted in me being out of pocket!
Looking back, the solution for the YSP was probably the best that could be forged from what we had. It involved the agreement to transfer a fairly large chunk of land, including my old bungalow and the surrounding areas. The bungalow was destined to become the main offices for the YSP, and this now forms an annex to the brand new visitor centre which was developed a few years later.
The agreement to transfer the land and property was complex, long and involved some very tough talking. It even required the expertise and ‘clout’ of a senior civil servant brought up from London to complete it. As honorary treasurer of the YSP, and clerk to the governors of the college, it became clear that there was a major conflict of interests looming for me. There was no solution other than to resign from the position of honorary treasurer. It was a great disappointment to me because I have always been very interested in, and committed to, the work of the YSP and what it stands for. I have some very happy memories of my six or so years as honorary treasurer. The operation was always seeking funding and seemed to do spectacular things out of nothing. It had (and still has) a very loyal and committed team of professional and voluntary help. It almost always is successful in everything it tackles. Not absolutely always, though.

One of the most spectacular, but unfortunate, things happened when I was on holiday during the summer of 1983, or 4. Beautiful mid-Wales, remote location, self-catering, plenty of horse riding, reading, and a lot of lounging about. On the particular day in question, we decided to go down the coast five or six miles to a quiet little beach. It was a beautiful sunny day. Still and calm. With a copy of that day’s Guardian under my arm, the deck chairs, swimming gear and towels, a bag of sandwiches, drinks, and an old lorry inner tube attached to a few yards of string, we launched ourselves onto the beach and staked out our patch.
Lolling idly in the deck chair, I glanced at the news briefing column. Someone had had some sculpture stolen – see page 6 for the full story. Very careless, I thought, and turned the pages. The next hour-and-a-half or so seemed surreal. The theft was from the YSP. My YSP! It had involved stealing half of the monumental nine-piece bronze work called the 'Family of Man' by Barbara Hepworth. They were almost priceless. The work itself was one of only three complete editions in the world – and it was only on loan to us from the Hepworth Trust. God! I was the honorary treasurer. How would that look on my c.v?
The theft had been audacious – involving a lorry that silently freewheeled down the hillside at night, loading up the pieces. Then a quick burst on the engine, and it was away. I frantically sped round the countryside trying to find a phone box (it was in the days before the ubiquitous mobile phone). I did eventually find one and called in. “No. There was nothing I could do. Everything was being done that could be done. We’ll be in touch”. I sat tight and waited. It ruined my holiday.
A couple or three days later, the pieces turned up in a scrap yard in Leeds. They were within hours of being melted down. They are back in their rightful place now, re-patinated and all welded together, and with an extra layer of security in place.

Moving on . . .

Well, the college was in the throes of planning and deciding how it must respond. What it should do with all these additional responsibilities. As the clerk to governors, I was in the thick of it. It was a privileged position, and some of the tales I could tell would make the hair stand on end – but maybe all that is for another day and another publication.
What happened next was predictable, and not unusual for this type of situation. A spot of re-organisation was called for. To be fair, the responsibilities taken on were onerous and the college had to ensure that it was in a fit state to tackle them. So new roles were carved out, job descriptions and titles changed, and new appointments made. It was all very unsettling for most staff. One casualty was my own particular role. No longer would the college sport a bursar. Now it had a new-fangled director of something-or-other. It wasn’t too bad though, at first. All this was happening towards the end of 1988. The impact of the changes would take place on 1 April 1989. The college had achieved its reorganisation. The new professional people were in post and beginning to make their mark.
The impact certainly totally changed the ethos of the place. The ‘family’ atmosphere had given way to a more ‘business-like’ set-up. Gone was the old academic board with all full time members of teaching staff in membership. I have little doubt it was all completely necessary – and it served the college well for a time.
I left Bretton in 1992. There was a new principal and senior management. It had hugely expanded its student numbers and course portfolio. There was now new, hi-tech, buildings off-campus. The college appeared to the outside world to be upwardly-mobile! A few years later, the college got into financial difficulties and was required by the funding authority to merge completely with the University of Leeds. The university moved all the students into its Leeds campus, removed all the assets, and 'sold' the estate back to the successors of its original purchaser!
History can deal a few unpredictable hands at times. I might have remained at Bretton had incorporation not happened; but it was to rear its head again. This time, though, it was the turn of the further education sector.

Back to Leeds . . .

In 1992 I was appointed to, a new post of director of administration at the Leeds College of Music (LCM). This was before the LCM became a higher education institution. The government had decided to extend its 'incorporation' policy to the FE section. It was a re-run of the Bretton Hall experience!

Retirement and beyond . . .

I retired from the LCM in 2002 and, at last, I could follow my latent ambition as a free-lance jazz musician. But all that is a different story . . . And I'm still actively engaged I this now.