Obituary: Sir William Harpham

UNPRETENTIOUS, DIFFIDENT, often disarmingly self-deprecating, always with a ready chuckle, William Harpham nevertheless had a countervailing grit, a steadfastness, an incorruptibility which made him a remarkably effective player over a period of more than 50 years on the international scene.

When he was knighted in 1966 - representing in his case genuine recognition of his special achievements over a long career - it was typical of him to be astonished, almost taken aback. Yet neither his diplomatic colleagues, nor the many businessmen he had helped over the years in difficult markets overseas, were in the least surprised. They knew the worth of this quiet, bluff, shrewd, dependable, lovable man.

Bill Harpham was born in 1906, the son of a police inspector, and was an outstanding pupil in the secondary school at Winteringham near Grimsby. In 1926 he won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge, where he took a First in Spanish and went on to take a year of Economics. On leaving Cambridge, he entered the Overseas Trade Department and served in Brussels and Rome before being sent on secondment, in 1937, to the League of Nations in Geneva.

There, apart from producing the first ever international survey of nutrition policies, he met and fell in love with his future wife, the vivacious Isabelle Droz - granddaughter of a former president of the Swiss Confederation. At the outbreak of war Harpham was despatched to Cairo, so their romance from then on had to be conducted by sea-mail and, remarkably in the circumstances, it culminated in their marriage in 1943. From then until the end of her husband's life, Isabelle, with her inexhaustible energy and social flair, provided a perfect foil for his gentle amiability and dry humour.

At the end of the war, Harpham was transferred to Beirut, with responsibility for reviving British trade in the area, and from there, in the late 1940s, to Berne. On returning to London in 1950, he found his department had just been merged with the Foreign Office, of whose mysteriously named but wholly innocent General Department he became Head, dealing with the crucial business of European post-war reconstruction.

This was followed by a three- year spell in Paris as Deputy Permanent Representative to the then Organisation for European European Co-operation (OEEC), helping to implement the Marshall Plan, defending Britain's interests in the 1956 Icelandic Fisheries dispute, and preparing the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose task was to lay down the ground rules for the peaceful uses of atomic energy. From Paris, he was posted to Tokyo in 1956, where without the advantage of Japanese language training he bore the brunt of negotiating a difficult commercial treaty with Japan.

On leaving Tokyo he was posted back to Paris as Minister Economic at the British Embassy to France, where he worked on Britain's application for member- ship of the Common Market under such great figures of post-war diplomacy as Lord Gladwyn and Sir Pierson Dixon.

Finally in 1964, to conclude his career in the Diplomatic Service, Harpham was appointed as Minister Plenipotentiary to Sofia. But the Legation was immediately upgraded to an Embassy and he was proud to become Her Majesty's first ambassador to Bulgaria. In that role, he revealed his true strength as a doggedly patient builder of bridges between different cultures. No matter how many obstacles the Communist regime placed in his way, he ploughed on, creating new links where few had existed before - commercial, educational, cultural.

He encouraged the oil companies to come in and explore for oil. He encouraged British tourists to come to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. He encouraged the Royal Ballet to pay its first ever visit to Sofia. All this and much else besides, based on his own unshakeable belief in the intrinsic value of human contact as the best means of breaking down mistrust and overcoming barriers. It was in recognition of this that, three years after his retirement in 1966, he was offered, and allowed to accept, the unique honour of the Order of the Horseman of Madara by the Communist President of Bulgaria. A decade later, he was further honoured with the Order of Stara Planina (First Class).

Building on success, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office asked him on his retirement to set up a new centre in London for the encouragement and development of links between Britain and countries of Eastern Europe. He threw himself into this new career with characteristic determination. The Great Britain-East Europe Centre - which Harpham devised, nursed into life and ran on a shoestring for its first 15 years, establishing connections, breaking down misunderstanding, building up confidence - made an important but largely unsung contribution to the change in East-West climate that led to the events of 1989 and to the transformation of Britain's relationships with Eastern Europe since then. In that sense, it was the culmination of his life's work.

After leaving the centre he continued through the 1980s to devote himself to helping Bulgaria in many ways, among other things through the promotion of an Anglo-Bulgarian archaeological project on a late Roman town in the north of the country.

Over the last decade, Bill Harpham, who all his life had been an indefatigable reader, became increasingly handicapped by the steady deterioration in his sight, and it was painful to sense the frustration he felt at his growing dependence on others. But his mind, his memory, his gentle good nature, and his strong sense of duty remained with him to the end.

Besides a host of friends all over the world, he leaves behind his wife, Isabelle, their daughter Christine and their son Michael, and a bevy of granddaughters whom he adored.

Derek Thomas

William Harpham, diplomat: born Grimsby, Lincolnshire 3 December 1906; Counsellor (Commercial) at Berne 1947-50; OBE 1948, KBE 1966; Head of General Department, Foreign Office 1950-53; CMG 1953; Deputy to UK Delegate to OEEC 1953-56; Minister, British Embassy, Tokyo 1956-59; Minister (Economic), Paris 1959-63; ambassador to Bulgaria 1964-66; Director, Great Britain- East Europe Centre 1967-80; married 1943 Isabelle Croz (one son, one daughter); died London 5 June 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence