Obituary: Henry Fair

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The Independent Culture
FIFTY YEARS after the end of the Second World War, a retired education officer was surprised, and in retrospect rather flattered, to learn that he had been featured in a Gestapo hit-list. A Vasser professor researching in Potsdam had unearthed a file headed "Emigranen in der CSR" in which he found the name of Henry Fair. The reason for Fair's inclusion was probably the part he played in organising the escape of 1,000 Czechoslovak children from the German occupation.

Fair was for 72 years a member of the Woodcraft Folk, a progressive educational movement for children and young people founded in south London in 1925, and was its first National Organiser. He joined the original group in 1926, aged 19, attracted by a philosophy based on democracy, co-operation and human rights, combined with a programme of outdoor activities, particularly camping and hiking. He adopted the folk name of "Koodoo" (after a South African antelope).

The emerging movement sought to avoid the military-style framework of organisations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and was from inception for both sexes. Within a couple of years new groups were springing up in London, Bournemouth, Bristol, Bath and Leicester, as far as Sheffield and into Scotland.

When Fair gave up his job as a colour matcher in a paint factory to take on the post of National Organiser in 1936, his financial prospects appeared somewhat precarious. For the first seven years, his salary was dependent on a successful Christmas draw.

In 1937, the unsettled time of the Spanish Civil War and the Jarrow March, Fair organised the Woodcraft Folk's first major international camp in Brighton. The Fascist Blackshirts were then at their strongest point and the Woodcraft Folk had paraded their opposition to them at every available opportunity. Guards and lookout posts were set up at the camp to protect it from Blackshirt raids and journalists wanting to interview Henry Fair poured into the area. Questions were even asked in Parliament requesting that the government look into the activities of the person who called himself Koodoo.

Two thousand children attended the camp, including 800 Czechs, some of whom became orphans a year later when the Germans invaded their country. It was to the Woodcraft Folk that the Czechs wrote, pleading for a lifeline. As a direct result, 1,000 children were transported to England, and 40 of them were taken in by Henry Fair and other Folk members.

He said later that the greatest reward of his life was when a large number of those children, by then in their sixties and seventies, gathered at a reunion in Prague in 1991 to visit the extermination camp where their parents had perished. A woman put her arm around his neck and said: "If it wasn't for you, I'd have been in there."

For a movement dedicated to peace - and also to opposing Fascism - the Second World War presented an enormous moral dilemma. Three weeks before the outbreak of hostilities, Woodcraft Folk had been at an international camp in Belgium, British children forming friendships with German and Austrian youngsters.

Many Woodcraft Folk members, including Fair, chose to be conscientious objectors. The organisation became associated with the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors and Fair supported members at the tribunals held to decide whether objections were based on genuine principles. Disruptions resulting from the war could have broken the Folk but much of the credit for rebuilding the movement is given to Fair.

Another international camp was organised in Brighton in 1946, a fortnight after the introduction of bread rationing. Fair apologised to the Dutch leader for the meagre allowance of four slices per day, but was assured that in Holland they had learned to cook tulip bulbs.

He left paid work with the Woodcraft Folk in 1954 to be the Education Secretary of the London Co-operative Society and, on retirement, moved to Bruton in Somerset. In 1984 he was presented with the Labour Party Certificate of Merit by Neil Kinnock, in recognition of his 50 years of service, and in 1997, the Henry Fair Appeal launched in celebration of his 90th birthday raised nearly pounds 6,000 for Woodcraft Folk development.

Henry Fair, educationist: born London 8 August 1907; married (two sons, one daughter); died Bruton, Somerset 16 February 1999.