Among Peter Hall’s earliest recollections are the sights and sounds of Karachi during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. A four year-old scion of a diplomatic family at the time, Peter was already fascinated by the vibrant culture that surrounded him in Pakistan and retains fond memories of his schooling there as well. “I started at the Convent of Jesus & Mary, Clifton in Karachi, which was also an alma mater of Benazir Bhutto and a very pukka sort of place,” he recalls. “There’s nothing quite as superior as a superior Pakistani educational establishment!”
Peter’s peripatetic childhood subsequently saw him move back to Australia for a couple of years with his family before a lengthy stint in Ottawa including attending school at the future stamping ground of another Prime Minister-to-be, Justin Trudeau. “I was four years in Canada, we moved to Paris and after about a year, my parents decided that they wanted me to go to Bedales,” Peter explains. “A family friend of ours, John Shaw, had his son Brendan at the school and my folks thought that it would be in keeping with their philosophy on life – easy-going, cosmopolitan and slightly hippyish!”
When Peter arrived in Block 4 in 1975, it took time for him to settle in. “I had a very different attitude from a lot of my peers,” he admits. “In Paris, I’d had a bit of a louche time for a chap of my age and my interests were already very much of the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll persuasion. I’d been at school with kids who were a couple of years older, Paris was a place where you could buy a beer at the age of twelve and I was hugely into my music. I was into Lou Reed, Iggy & the Stooges and the Velvet Underground and totally obsessed by Led Zeppelin. I arrived at Bedales and the first thing I can remember being asked to do was to write an imaginary letter in French class to my grandmother about what I’d done during the holidays (trying - and failing - to seduce girls at the Patinoire, as it happens)! ”
“By comparison with what I was used to, my year seemed to be quite straight and quite protected, although a lot of them turned out to be extremely high achievers and, of course, wonderful people,” Peter continues. “I had a typically Australian irreverence and lack of deference and that got me into trouble in the first few months of my time at Bedales. I could never quite shake off the bad name I got and that continued all the time I was at the school. Even in my last year I think I was the only 6.2 not invited to the Headmaster’s house for Sunday dinner.
I loved the Outdoor Work ethos
However, by the time Peter got to Block 5 he started to appreciate the positive aspects of his new environment. “Tim Slack had been a progressive headmaster in the years before I landed at Bedales and had assembled a cohort of brilliant and inspirational teachers. I was particularly impressed by the integrity and kindness of Tim Williams and John Batstone, Dennis Archer and, later, Dr Simon Vickers, who were exceptional teachers. I was always keen to do my best for John Batstone and formed the idea of writing my essays based only on my reading of the primary materials and class notes rather than using cribs or secondary analysis. I would work away at a poem or play with a close line-by-line analysis and even though my marks were not usually good, the practice instilled in me an intellectual independence and self-confidence that has stood me in great stead as I’ve got older. There was real integrity about the teaching expectations and behaviour at Bedales and I consider that to be the greatest benefit that I derived from my time at the school.”
Having been essentially a rugby and baseball enthusiast in his earlier life, pursuits not notably emphasised at Bedales, Peter spent little time on sporting endeavours (“I was obsessed by a succession of girls and spent most of my time mooning around after them and listening to Led Zeppelin”). The arts, although a passion of his, were another area in which he was not greatly involved: “I never really had the talent,” he confesses, “although I would have loved to learn how to draw properly or play guitar. I probably needed someone to grab me by the scruff of the neck and push me into investing the time and effort into mastering those skills.” Outdoor pursuits were a different matter: “I loved the Outdoor Work ethos and John Rogers was another totally inspirational character. It was thanks to him that I developed the ambition, which I still have, of owning my own farm one day.”
Throughout his life at Bedales, Peter had never relinquished the intention, formed as a ten year-old, to become a business tycoon: “That went back to my uncle, who worked for Rupert Murdoch as a journalist for years, supposedly coined the term Beatlemania and in 1964 was hired to work on Murdoch’s new paper, The Australian. I wanted to be Rupert but first of all, I wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge to study history. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen – I didn’t realise that it was possible for me to get a university grant that would have helped me through university and in any case, my parents and some teachers were unsupportive of the idea. I think my parents wanted me to be Australian rather than English.”
A self-confessed natural contrarian and risk-taker, traits that had only been reinforced by his early battles with authority at Bedales, Peter headed back to Australia for a spell as a cadet journalist on The Canberra Times. “I hated it,” he reports, “mainly because I was based in Canberra, which seemed to me to be the dullest place on the planet. I am afraid I was pretty miserable and lonely for what should have been some of the best years of my life. After two years, I’d managed to save up a bit of money and I took myself off to Sydney University, studied history and made many clever, kind and fun friends - including one who would have been a dead ringer for Errol Flynn in terms of his romantic success and appetite for adventure.”
It was while he was still at university that Peter got himself a job with the investment division of New Zealand South British Insurance, a first step on the ladder to a career in true high finance. “From about the age of twelve I had wanted to be rich enough to own a newspaper and the stock market seemed to be a way in which one could become wealthy in a gentlemanly way,” he says. “For the next few years, I served an apprenticeship and immersed myself in learning the art and craft of investing, using the Batstone approach of close analysis of primary sources. I made a lot of money and lost a lot of money and by 1992 I considered myself a master of investing. While I was on holiday in Tours I decided that it was time to set up my own company and established an Australian version of a hedge fund, one of the first in that country.”
Hunter Hall Investment Management was duly born with assets of just AS$1 million. Uniquely for the time, the company would also separate itself from the competition by insisting on an ethical dimension to its investments. “You need something that differentiates you from the rest of the herd,” Peter explains. “I also realised that the world had been exceptionally generous to me and that I had an obligation to try and repay some of that debt.”
Hunter Hall now has over AS$1.2 billion under management and Peter himself has become renowned for his philanthropic works, particularly those affecting the animal kingdom. “I’ve loved animals since the earliest days I can remember,” he reflects. “I look back to Pakistan, seeing all these animals being led along a road at the beginning of the festival of Eid, realising that they were all going to be sacrificed and feeling a shard of ice through my heart. I’ve come to understand that the human economy is strangling the natural economy that we have all been bequeathed and I’ve put a lot of my effort into trying to give other organisms the space and opportunity to flourish.”
These are not mere words. A founder of the Sydney Rainforest Action Group and the London Committee for the Abolition of Whaling, Peter serves on the Board of Directors of the International Rhino Foundation, is a Patron of the Asian Rhino Project and has made countless charitable contributions to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Greenpeace, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Wild Camel Protection Society, Save International, Voiceless, the Great Ape Project and the Free the Bears Fund. Peter is particularly proud of his conservation work for the rhino, among the most endangered land mammals on Earth, with only 60 Javans and 100 Sumatrans left in existence. Since 2005, he has been a major funder of anti-poaching patrols, a captive breeding facility and surveying and camera trapping equipment in an attempt to reverse the decline of the species.
I know that going to Bedales makes me one of the luckiest people in the world and I believe that all of us who had that good fortune now have a responsibility to do our bit to settle the debt.
Meanwhile, Peter’s more obviously commercial investments have also flourished, often in London, where he now divides much of his time with Australia. “There is a common strand running through a lot of my interests, which is to allow human creativity and individuality to flourish while treading lightly on this earth,” he notes. Flat White café in Berwick Street, Soho, which was the first independent café to introduce Antipodean-style coffee culture to London, is one such venture: “A well-run café brings delight to so many people on a daily basis, it provides useful employment and it should be individual and quirky, not some giant, bland manufactured chain., Peter observes in a sentence that accurately summarises his whole business philosophy. “Flat White became one of those hip places that I love, we employ a lot of actors and musicians, including Mikey Sorbello, the drummer of The Graveltones, and I think of it as a classically Bedalian enterprise.”
Other notable projects in Britain have followed, notably in the publishing industry, where Peter has been a major shareholder in magazines as influential and diverse as Monocle and Prospect. His success has not stopped him from worrying about the future for the world in which he has taken so much joy. “Financially, I look at the trade and fiscal deficits in the UK and our debt is so huge that if we don’t start running things properly, we could very quickly be back to the dark days of the 1970s,” he ruminates. “It’s also shocking just how complacent we are about the way in which we squander our resources.”
It is impossible to keep Peter Hall’s mood gloomy for too long, however, he audibly brightens when he thinks back to his Bedalian days. “As a fourteen year-old, of course, I didn’t appreciate what I had around me – the beauty of the countryside, the brilliant students, the extraordinary library, the wonderful teaching,” he acknowledges. “I do now. I know that going to Bedales makes me one of the luckiest people in the world and I believe that all of us who had that good fortune now have a responsibility to do our bit to settle the debt.”
Once again, Peter has backed his words with action. Around a decade ago, he donated £250,000 to the Bedales Grants Trust Fund and has helped to manage its assets. “It’s gone really well,” he says, “and the initial investment is now worth over £4.2 million. The idea has been to be more strategic about the school’s endowments and put them on a footing a bit more like the major educational establishments in the US, such as Harvard and Yale, for example. We’re now at a place where the fund can make a real difference in helping people with talent, but not necessarily the money to go with it, to experience all the wonderful things that Bedales has to offer.”
In the film The History Boys, Hector, the inspirational teacher, is constantly urging his pupils to use their education for the benefit of future generations. It is a particularly Bedalian sentiment, one of which Peter Hall heartily approves and like many of his OB peers, now spends much of his life putting into action. ‘Pass it on’, indeed.
Peter Hall was interviewed by James Fairweather in July 2016.