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Sir Harry Batterbee, GCMG, KCVO, MA

Home / History / People / Sir Harry Batterbee, GCMG, KCVO, MA

"In every sense of the word, Harry Batterbee was a giant of a man: he was enormous in height, reaching 6ft 4in; his life-span overstepped the Biblical three-score years by more than a quarter of a century; and he was called on in his career to play many major parts ..." So tribute was paid to him at his memorial service in Faversham Parish Church in September 1976.
 
One of the town's most distinguished sons, he was born in 1880 at 62 Newton Road, then a spanking new house into which his parents, Napoleon and Sarah, had just moved. Napoleon, the son of a compositor, had come to the town in 1859 to teach at the District National Schools (now St Mary Court) in Church Road, then a Mecca for educationalists from all over Europe because of its excellent premises and progressive methods. Sarah's father and brother, John and John Robert Fagg, had a grocery shop at 11 Court Street (now the Shepherd Neame visitor centre).
 
Napoleon and Sarah were by no means rich, but in common with many of their Newton Road neighbours could afford to employ a maid. In 1890 Harry started at Faversham Grammar School (as it was then known), where he soon became renowned for his academic and sporting prowess. He won a scholarship to Hertford College, Oxford, and entered the Civil Service after graduating. Here he was quickly recognised as a high-flyer with a particular flair for handling Government relations with what were then known as the 'Dominions'. After a successful visit by the Duke of York (the future King George VI) to Australia in 1926 Harry was appointed KCVO (Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order).
 
In the 1930s he had the tricky job of negotiating with the great Eamon de Valera, the Prime Minister of Ireland. The country was then still a Dominion but de Valera wanted to secure its independence. Fortunately he got on well with 'Dev', whom he admired. Bravely - for a civil servant - he tried to sink British plans to impose import duties on Irish farm produce. He failed, but his efforts were vindicated when the duties were lifted after a couple of years.
 
On the national and international stage Sir Harry played an important part in resolving the crisis that arose when King Edward VIII was advised that he should abdicate if he wished to pursue his plans to marry Mrs Simpson. He got on well with the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, but found his successor, Neville Chamberlain, much less congenial.

In 1938 came his final appointment, as British High Commissioner in New Zealand. Here, perhaps prophetically, he was wary of excessive US influence. "The United States authorities lose no effort to improve their advantage by propaganda, some of it injudicious but much of it subtle and effective." Perhaps it was his very awareness of the threat of US cultural domination that helped lead to it being warded off. With the 'green' stance it has since taken, New Zealand has since distanced itself from the USA, while remaining loyal to the Crown.

Sir Harry retired from the Civil Service in 1945. His retirement was to last almost as long as his working life, and it was active. He became Chairman of the British Antarctic Survey, now the Scott Polar Institute at Cambridge, and a mountain range in Antarctica was named after him.

Within a year he had became a governor of his old Faversham school, and from 1961 to 1967 was chairman of the governors. He moved back to the town, living in an up-to-date bungalow on a site where Gange Mews was later built.  He joined the Faversham Society and, at the age of 87, became its 'secret weapon' in the long, and ultimately successful, struggle to avert KCC plans to give the town an inner ring road on the lines of Ashford's. He was still a commanding figure, though gentle with it, and his understanding of the Whitehall corridors of power was put to good use in the interest of the town. 

Dr Arthur Percival,
Director, Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, Faversham



Further reading

Sir Harry Batterbee, by John Stevens (No 88 in the Faversham Society's Faversham Papers), available from the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, Preston Street, Faversham.