Baroness Brigstocke

Consummate chairman and charismatic High Mistress of St Paul's
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Heather Renwick Brown, teacher and public servant: born Birchington, Kent 2 September 1929; Headmistress, Francis Holland School, Clarence Gate 1965-74; High Mistress, St Paul's Girls' School 1974-89; President, Girls' Schools Association 1980-81; created 1990 Baroness Brigstocke; Chairman of Trustees, Geffrye Museum 1990-2000; Chairman, English-Speaking Union of the Commonwealth 1993-99; CBE 2000; married 1952 Geoffrey Brigstocke (died 1974; three sons, one daughter), 2000 Lord Griffiths; died Athens 30 April 2004.

When Heather Brigstocke died in a tragic accident in Athens, she died as she had lived, in a whirlwind of chairmanships, committees and causes. She was a charismatic leader - headmistress of two leading London girls' schools, Francis Holland and St Paul's, chairman of the English-Speaking Union - who had the vision to see the potential in people and organisations, and the drive to help them realise it. She thought in bold, imaginative sweeps, without losing the attention to accuracy that came from her Classical training. She not only chaired her boards; she corrected their grammar.

Heather Brown came from a relatively modest background. Her father was an RAF officer who won a DFC in the First World War, and later ran a newsagent's shop in Pinner; her mother went to Glasgow University and was a teacher. Heather was born in 1929 in Birchington in Kent, moving with her family to Reading in 1939 and educated there at the Abbey School. She won a state scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, where she is remembered more for her involvement in the theatre than her application to Classical texts.

She played Olivia in Twelfth Night and, most notably, Antigone in Oedipus Coloneus, in Greek, the first woman ever to perform in the prestigious Cambridge Greek Play. More recently, she was instrumental in raising money for the spectacular Cambridge production of Aristophanes' Birds.

Heather carried her experience of the stage from Cambridge into the wider world, always conscious of impact and presentation in pursuit of serious aims. She described her elegant clothes as her "acting cupboard" and would take newly appointed headmistresses on a day's extravagant shopping to equip them with a suitably stunning wardrobe. Her vision of headship had nothing to do with the brown Harris Tweed suit.

She wanted to make her career on the stage but, thwarted by her parents, she went as a management trainee to Selfridge's department store in London. Although she soon switched to teaching, her hands-on experience of the retail trade was invaluable when she became an associate director of Great Universal Stores and Burberrys in 1993.

There was a particularly busy period in her early life, when she taught Classics in London, produced her first three children, then escaped the humdrum to accompany her diplomat husband, Geoffrey Brigstocke, whom she married in 1952, to Washington. There she taught Latin at the National Cathedral School and made some of her most important contacts. She made her first public speech in the White House - a vote of thanks to the Kennedys for hosting a children's tea party. "Just wear plenty of lipstick," she was advised. "That keeps the audience's attention focused." She became an impressive speaker, with a mellifluous voice and a relaxed manner - and she never forgot the lipstick.

On her return to the UK in 1965, she was appointed Headmistress of Francis Holland School, Clarence Gate, in London, where she seized a rather old-fashioned establishment by the collar and shook it into prominence as one of the best small schools in England. Personal tragedy, Geoffrey's death in the Turkish DC10 crash over Paris in 1974, coincided with her appointment to one of the pinnacles of the teaching profession, the post of High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School. Many less dedicated educationalists would have faltered, but Brigstocke's courage and steely resolve saw her through the crisis.

She fostered the school's reputation for academic rigour, making Latin and Physics parts of the core curriculum. But she also proved that glamour, style and a sense of fun are not incompatible with scholarship. She told jokes against herself with great relish and appeared on stage with the likes of John Cleese, dancing the can-can in a red net petticoat at a school fund-raising gala. She established international links and brought in distinguished outside speakers.

With a shrewd perception of the cold winds that were blowing through the independent sector, her preferred commentaries on education came from The Economist, rather than the TES. When the wealthy and famous were pleading with the High Mistress and her very high cat, Oedipus, to secure places for their daughters, Brigstocke was innovative in creating bursary funds for those less privileged, even quietly financing a few girls from her own bank account. To both staff and students she was a great support, the perfect role model. She showed that it is possible to combine an important career with family life, and inspired them to achieve more than they ever thought possible.

When she retired from St Paul's in 1989, she directed her formidable energies to her next career, that of consummate committee chairman. She was created a life peer in 1990, taking the Tory whip because that was the way to get on to the most interesting committees, but she was a crossbencher at heart, an independent spirit who sometimes refused on principle to vote with her party.

Of her wide range of achievements in this period, a few stand out. In 1990, she became Chairman of the Geffrye Museum, the museum of "historical English interiors" in east London, then an unconfident institution under the control of the Inner London Education Authority, which was itself on its last legs. With her usual shrewd assessment of character, she spotted just the right team of trustees and directors to galvanise the museum. She restored its pride and raised £5.3m to extend its premises. She was "its guiding light", says David Dewing, the museum's Director.

In 1993, she assumed the chairmanship of the English-Speaking Union and used her formidable network of contacts to give the organisation a hitherto undreamed-of international dimension. The ESU was originally founded to strengthen relations between Britain, the United States and the English-speaking countries of the Commonwealth. While improving these traditional ties, Brigstocke oversaw the launch of nine new branches, in countries as diverse as China, Japan, Eastern Europe and Brazil where English was not the first language; she set up steering committees for two more.

China is a typical example of her modus operandi. A headmistress colleague had just married the British ambassador to Beijing, so Brigstocke sent a message, "When you see Joan, tell her I have a little job for her." The "little job" was setting up a branch of the ESU in China. This was not strictly possible, as China had no NGOs at the time, but Joan did lay the foundations of the China Universities English-Speaking Association, and soon afterwards found herself, as Lady Appleyard, appointed a Deputy Chairman of the entire ESU. ("The Chinese loved Heather. She was their image of a glamorous English lady.") During Heather Brigstocke's chairmanship, the brave decision was taken to borrow, in order to carry out much-needed renovation of the ESU's Dartmouth Street premises.

Brigstocke's passion for education swung from the independent to the state sector, when she became Chairman of the Landau Forte College in Derby in 1993, one of the first "Specialist Schools". She was generous beyond the call of duty with her time, experience and promotional skills. The school was very dear to her heart and she was determined that it should succeed.

Finally, there was Home-Start International, a voluntary organisation providing support and friendship to families with young children, of which she was Chairman and on whose business she died. Having brought up her own children as a single parent, she was aware of the strains within families and anxious to provide safety-nets for those in trouble.

In 2000, she married Lord Griffiths, a former Lord of Appeal, who tried unsuccessfully to make her slow down. He survives her, as do the children of her first marriage, David, Julian, Persephone and Thomas.

Heather Brigstocke was an exacting character, intolerant of fools and slackers, yet generous with praise where praise was due. Off-duty with her friends, she was relaxed and deliciously irreverent. She loved good food and wine, loved to travel, sometimes by bicycle, and loved the Classics. Once, when her knees were being particularly troublesome, she arrived in Greece on two sticks, rather than forego her trip to lthaca and Pylos.

She will be remembered for her warmth, her zest for life, her elegance and her humour. She was invariably late for appointments, but, when she finally rushed in, she lit up the room.

Anne Mustoe