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The Bridge Interviews

Deborah Knight

Deborah Knight

March 2020

If you head north out of Fulbrook along the A361 and up the steep hill known as Spring Hill, you will pass (but not see) Waterloo Farm.  Tucked away in a fold of the hills and guarded by a flock of honking geese, it is the home of Deborah Knight and her husband, Martin.  Although Deborah may not have the highest profile among our interviewees, she has enjoyed a distinguished career in charitable and educational work as well as contributing to life in our area.


Deborah was born at the then Hampstead General Hospital.  At the age of three she moved with her parents to Hampstead Garden Suburb where she spent her formative years.  She attended Henrietta Barnett School, a local grammar school, for two years and then went to Roedean in Sussex.  “I was happy at the time.  I had a good education but it was not challenging enough.  I still see school friends from those days.”


After leaving school she had a gap year in South Africa, helped by a travelling scholarship from the Haberdashers’ Company (of which more below).  She spent eight months at Cape Town University studying archaeology, history and Sesotho, the language of Lesotho (“I have forgotten it all.  You have to make that click sound.”)  She travelled around South Africa and took part in fencing competitions at other universities.  This was 1968, the year of worldwide student protests, and she became involved in politics. “You never knew who was a spook or a government agent”. This was the apartheid era in South Africa.  “The university appointed a black lecturer and the government rescinded the appointment”.  Deborah took part in protests against this and as a result was identified as a “listed person” by the authorities.  “There was no follow up from this but I didn’t go back for years”.


When she arrived at Bristol University she found that students there were protesting about reciprocal membership of the university union for students at the then Bristol Polytechnic.  “It seemed pretty trivial by comparison after South Africa”.    She read history.  “I had a good time.  I helped with public relations for the student union, did some fencing and lived for a time in a flat in Clifton overlooking the Avon Gorge and the suspension bridge”.  Again, she made some lifelong friends during her time there.


Deborah had thought of reading law but decided on history as it had a wider choice of what topics to study.  After graduating she nevertheless decided on a legal career, taking the necessary exams and becoming an articled clerk, as trainees were called in those days, at the City firm of Herbert Oppenheimer Nathan and Vandyk.  “The offices in Copthall Avenue were very old-fashioned.  The partners had fires in their rooms”. By the time of her final exams she had become engaged to Martin. 


After qualifying as a solicitor Deborah stayed for a while with her firm and then moved to another City firm, Stephenson Harwood, doing banking and ship finance work.  “It was difficult in those days as there were many fewer women in legal practice.  I remember having a meeting with a client and at the end he said ‘Now I want to see my solicitor’.  I said ‘I AM your solicitor!’  Another time I went to a meeting at another firm and was asked ‘Are you the secretary who is here to take notes?’ ”. She stayed there for eight years during which she became the first female partner in the firm and also had three children.  As a woman she felt she had to be in the office throughout working hours and unlike my male peers couldn’t take time off, for example, for a child’s nativity play.    After her third son was born she decided to leave full time work.   Part time work gave her the opportunity and time to volunteer in her  community; for example, she  became an advisor with a local  financial  advice centre.   Her last post in the City was five years as secretary to the Financial Law Panel which was set up by the Bank of England to report on legal uncertainties affecting the wholesale financial markets, and was chaired by Lord Donaldson (a retired senior judge). 


“About this time I was invited to become a governor of Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College, a City Technology College  (“CTC”) in New Cross, close to our home in Greenwich.  My father was a past master of the Haberdashers and I had become a freeman. [See panel for an explanation of this].  I was told – but knew that this would not be true – that it would involve a couple of meetings per term.  Five years later I was appointed chairman of the governors, and during my term of office the CTC became one of the early Academies. 


Hatcham College converted to become another of the first academies and the lead school in a multi-academy trust under Deborah’s chairmanship.  It took into the trust a local failing school, formerly called Malory, but renamed Knights Academy, although for reasons unconnected with her (it is a reference to Knights of the Round Table).  “Nowadays there is a set procedure with standard documentation for setting up an Academy.  At that time there was more scope for negotiation with ministers and civil servants at the Department of Education”.  She very much enjoyed being so involved in the early stages of a major government educational initiative and the Academy Sponsors Trust, an organisation formed to support  the sponsors of early academies, some of whom had little experience of managing an educational establishment.  She subsequently became chairman of the  Haberdashers’ Aske’s Elstree Boys School, an independent school supported by the Haberdashers Company, and discovered that her experience of governance in the maintained sector enabled her to challenge some aspects of governance and school performance in the independent sector.


During her chairmanship at Hatcham, women were for the first time taken into the livery of the Haberdashers’ Company.  Although she was not one of the first invited to join, the Company,realised that she had made a significant contribution to their educational activities so she was made not only a liveryman but shortly thereafter the first female member of the Haberdashers’ Court of Assistants.   After serving her time as a junior and then senior warden, she was in 2011 elected as Master of the Haberdashers company and as such the first female master of one of the Great Twelve livery companies. 


Deborah and Martin bought Waterloo Farm including 66 acres of land, various outbuildings and three cottages 23 years ago. It was previously a working farm with beef cattle.  They don’t farm it themselves but let the permanent pasture for grazing.   They also have the geese and some chickens.  The oldest part of the farmhouse is about 350 years old but various extensions had been added at different times.  They have planted many trees over the years and have just put in 100 as part of the Burford Tree Challenge, which is a plan to plant 2020 trees in our area this year.  


Martin was previously a banker at Morgan Grenfell and worked at Imperial College, where he was a governor for 18 years, spearheading the construction of a second campus for the college at White City in West London.  They have three sons.  Matthew, the youngest, is a musician.  He is co-principal trombone in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and artistic director of Septura, a septet of leading brass players who have made a number of acclaimed recordings and have twice performed in Burford Church.  He is married and the couple have a baby.  Thomas was in the army and is now a project manager at investment bank Goldman Sachs.  He is an adventurer whose exploits include swimming the Channel and whose next challenge will be swimming round Manhattan.  Adam, the eldest, is a partner at Deloitte and lives with his wife at Aston Rowant.  Deborah regularly helps look after their two children.


Do you do have time for anything else?  “We enjoy walking.  Our favourite walk round here is over Macaroni Downs at Eastleach.  With three girlfriends I walked from Le Puy en Velay in the middle France to Santiago de Compostela in stages over five years.  We arrived on Good Friday which happened to be my sixtieth birthday and three days after Martin’s.  The husbands flew out to join us. We witnessed elaborate religious ceremonies involving huge incense censers which needed four men to swing each one on long ropes.  Martin and I have also walked along  the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean in stages and we have waked Offa’s Dyke in wind and rain.  We play tennis every Friday, however cold, and  we play bridge, we garden and we support the Longborough and Garsington operas.”  


Deborah has also played a big part in local life.  She is a trustee of the Burford Festival and was involved in appointing Bill Risebero as the new chairman (as reported in the February edition of this magazine).  She is a member of Fulbrook Church and sits on the Fulbrook Parochial Church Council; she was one of the two Fulbrook representatives on the panel who selected Tom Putt as the new vicar of the benefice.  She is also on the committee of the Fulbrook Forum.


Any future plans?  “Martin did a D.Phil at Oxford about the way the Pacific Islands were partitioned between the Great Powers in the nineteenth century.  He has never visited them but his ambition is to go there on container ships which have accommodation for a small number of passengers and I will go with him.” That will be a very big journey for these Knights errant to undertake.

Livery companies in the City of London are descended from medieval guilds which were formed by members of various trades (e.g. drapers, goldsmiths and tailors) and regulated training and qualification in their respective skills.  Many of them also engaged in charitable activities and continue to do so.  “Livery” means a special form of dress or uniform worn by a full member of the trade.  New members first become a “freeman” and may then advance to be a full member or “liveryman”. 

They are usually run by a master and a number of wardens and a court of assistants (or board of directors).   Liverymen are entitled to take part in the annual election of the Lord Mayor.   There is an order of precedence amongst the companies and the most senior ones are known as the Great Twelve, the Haberdashers being ranked at number eight.  The Haberdashers (formally The Worshipful Company of Haberdashers) have a strong tradition of supporting schools and now run ten of them.

Deborah Knight
Deborah Knight
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