When he arrived at Bedales, Charles Bevan was encountering an ethos and an environment which were comfortingly familiar. The son of Nigeria-based parents with a notably liberal political view of the world, Charles was sent to Monkton Wyld School in Dorset in 1958, a progressive establishment that had been set up by dedicated educationalists during the Second World War. The school would close in 1982 but Charles, who recently published a book about its history, is one of a number of alumni who retains a great fondness for the place.
“It was run by lefties and although it was academically a bit restricted, Monkton Wyld’s anti-establishment ethos definitely had parallels with what Bedales was all about,” Charles reflects. “I was very happy there; in fact I’m going to a reunion with some of my contemporaries quite soon. As I say, though, it wasn’t quite in the Bedales class as far as the academic side of things were concerned and so I moved to Steep in 1962, where, coincidentally, Tim Slack was also about to begin his first term.”
Charles hit the ground running. “I took to Bedales at once,” he says. “My year was actually a remarkably interesting and accomplished one, which included various Fellows of the Royal Society and Gyles Brandreth! There were a lot of good influences among the teachers – Tim Slack was always full of beans, of course, I remember Ruth Whiting as an inspirational history teacher and Andrew Ralph in biology was a remarkably patient man, very good at getting his students to understand what they needed to do. My housemaster was John Slaters and on the pastoral side, he was the person who really looked after me.”
On the extra-curricular front, Charles immediately made a bee-line for the school’s printing works. “The printing club was a pretty exclusive one in those days and we used to get into a certain amount of trouble for regularly producing politically incorrect stuff,” he recalls. “As far as sport was concerned, I did quite well at athletics, for which the facilities at Bedales were so much better than I had been used to at Monkton Wyld. I got as far as coming second in the county 440 yard dash, for which I once trained well after lights out on one moonlit summer night!”
There was a lot of good influences among the teachers - Tim Slack was always full of beans, of course, I remember Ruth Whiting as an inspirational history teacher and Andrew Ralph in biology was a remarkably patient man
Despite his propensity for bending the occasional school rule, Charles would ultimately become Head Boy at Bedales in his final year, an appointment which was greeted with some hilarity by his peers. “There was a general sense of disbelief,” he chuckles, “that this particular poacher had been turned into a game-keeper but the truth was that the position came with a suite of duties that was not desperately taxing.”
It was while he was in this position of modestly exalted authority that Charles first came into contact with the girl who would later become his wife. “Louise Trueman, as she was then, was about five years younger than me and used to sit in the front row at morning assembly so as to ensure that she was among the last to leave,” Charles remembers. “Rather sweetly, she told me later that she did this so she could try and make me laugh when she finally emerged. She was a good deal younger than me of course and it was only well after leaving that we got together but we’ve had a long and happy marriage since and I’ve been very lucky.”
After taking A Levels in Maths, Chemistry and Biology, Charles won a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge to read zoology. “I switched to reading agricultural botany and then irrigation engineering almost immediately because I couldn’t see much future in endlessly peering up the backsides of worms!” he laughs. “Cambridge was fun – oddly enough, outside of my studies, I gave myself a focus there by joining a group of Christians, even though I wasn’t an especially religious person myself, and helping out at a local boys’ club.”
Charles had an open mind about what his future career might entail. “Becoming a farmer was of no interest to me, I knew that,” he says. “Agricultural research was a definite possibility but above all, I wanted to do something that would take me overseas. The colonial era was over but there was a sense of responsibility in Britain about helping the emerging independents that were now springing up to stand on their own feet. I did my MSc through the auspices of the Ministry of Overseas Development (now known as DfID), who then sent me off as a junior agricultural research officer to the country that is today Lesotho.”
It was a return to the continent in which Charles had spent his formative years. “I had loved my childhood in Nigeria and had continued to go back once a year during my school days until the family returned to the UK in 1966,” he explains. “When I arrived in Lesotho, I did feel as though I had in some way come home. My job there was all about looking at the irrigation of fodder crops and seeing whether we couldn’t help to increase the domestic production during the winter months and so help the country with its livestock, which are so crucial to the economy. Lesotho, of course, was completely surrounded by what was then the pariah state of South Africa and just about the only people who could travel freely in and out of the country were we Brits. Anyway, I drew up a programme of how we might accomplish the task and it was promptly kicked into the long grass. That was my first experience of dealing with politicians!”
Charles returned to the UK but his peripatetic days were far from over. He now started work for an agricultural consultancy company, an eight-year spell of which four years were spent abroad and four in Britain, with Africa again playing a substantial role in his life. “There were feasibility studies for me to undertake in Sudan and Egypt, each of which were long-term matters, and then a variety of shorter projects in all sorts of places, including Zanzibar,” Charles explains. “It seemed that someone at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome had liked my work because I was then invited to join the FAO. We moved out to Italy and I spent the next 25 years there, working on the preparation, supervision and evaluation of agricultural investment projects funded by the World Bank and other development agencies.” During his quarter of a century at the FAO, Charles would visit more than 40 developing countries on all five continents and see for himself the problems and possibilities of development in emerging economies.
“I’m realistic about those problems and possibilities,” Charles remarks. “There is a school of thought that a rising tide lifts all boats and that successful investment in one place can have a knock-on effect elsewhere. That’s fair enough but the fact is that chucking money at countries hasn’t been terribly successful over the years. Over the past 50 years or so, 50 out of 54 newly independent countries have remained seekers of international aid, which leads me to the conclusion that what we have been doing may not have been harmful but neither has it been terribly effective. I’ve had a fascinating career but it’s a sphere in which politics will always be the ultimate driver. The rest of us can only try to ameliorate the situation on the ground where we can.”
Although he was once a Liberal Councillor in Leamington Spa, Charles and his wife have chosen to spend their retirement in Petersfield, just a brisk walk from the alma mater where they first met. The family connections with Bedales are as strong as ever. “I’m a member of the Bedales Association Steering Group and we’ve also sent the next generation of Bevans to the school, where my daughter Julia now teaches English,” says Charles. “I think that one of the things that unite all of us who were at Bedales is a sense of trust in people’s honesty and ethics, which is such an important part of leadership.”
“I remember being interviewed by Hector Jacks before I arrived and listening to him say that finding a place for students at Bedales was like fitting a quart into a pint pot,” Charles continues. “I hadn’t a clue what he meant, I said so and in retrospect, I think that the honesty of my admission went down well with him. Those ethical standards that Bedales were so strong on are still very much the same today, it seems to me. It’s a much more sophisticated place these days, of course, but it still encourages that spirit in its students of being your own person. I like to think of myself as quite an eclectic sort of individual and in that respect I think that I am a typical Bedalian. The interpersonal skills that I learned there have served me well throughout my life and even in retirement, I still feel that I have something to offer. In fact, I’m just off to go and help out at Winton House!”
Charles Bevan was interviewed by James Fairweather in May 2019.