Bill Hoskyns: Fencer who won Olympic silver and was Britain's first male world champion


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The Independent Online

Although he was not especially quick on his feet, the fencer Bill Hoskyns had extraordinary timing. He was described as having a nonchalantly elegant style which gave him a "gentleman-amateur" image that elicited much admiration. Watching him in action, one American rival said simply, "Suave – so suave, it's painful."

These qualities brought Hoskyns two Olympic silver medals, in Rome in 1960 and four years later in Tokyo. They also helped him become the first British man to win a world title when he took épée gold in 1958 in Philadelphia, beating the then Olympic and double world champion, Italy's Eduardo Mangiarotti. He also won nine golds and a silver at the Commonwealth Games.

He was also the first British member of an elite group to have gone to six Olympic Games; between 1956 and 1976 he represented his country twice in each of the three weapons – épée, foil and sabre. The 1984 javelin gold medallist Tessa Sanderson, and more recently the archer Alison Williamson, rider Mary King, and cross-country skier and biathlete Mike Dixon, later joined this illustrious group.

Hoskyns' individual silver in Tokyo in 1964, following his team silver in Rome four years earlier, was Britain's last Olympic fencing medal to date, and with his good friend Allan Jay he was part of a golden age of British fencing that lasted from the mid-1950s until the end of the next decade.

Hoskyns burst on to the international scene at the 1955 World Championships in Rome, where he made a significant contribution to Britain's foil team bronze medal, beating all four members of the French team. Subsequent foil victories included the Bologna tournament in 1959 and the Paris Martini in 1963. It was in épée, however, that Hoskyns had most success. Following his 1958 triumph he won tournaments in Luxemburg (1958), Paris (1958, 1961), Brussels (1959, 1960), London (Martini, 1962) and New York (1962, 1963), collecting individual and team silver medals at the 1965 World Championships in Paris, a tournament which established him as one of the world's leading épéeists.

In seven World Championships between 1956 and '67, he won individual gold and silver, a team silver at épée and a team bronze at foil. Domestically he had unrivalled success, with 21 British Championship medals and eight titles – four épée, three foil and one sabre – making him only the second man to win all three titles.

He attributed some of his success to being forced as a left-handed child to write with his right hand – he believed it gave him a "tangible advantage, an edge". Born in London in 1931, Henry William Furse Hoskyns was the eldest of four boys to Hal and Lilian. The boys enjoyed a privileged upbringing, living at the family home on their father's estate in North Perrott, Somerset.

Educated at Eton, Bill, as he was known, was small and slight and did not shine in the traditional sports of football, rugby, rowing and hockey, though he had some success in the boxing ring. But a broken nose led him to take up fencing, to his mother's relief. He did National Service with the North Somerset Yeomanry in Scotland, and remained in the Territorial Army into his forties, reaching the rank of major. In 1964 he became inter-services champion in all three weapons.

Although bright Hoskyns was lazy, but – thanks largely to his father's influence, he admitted – in 1950 he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford to read agriculture. After three years of bridge playing and fencing he secured a long-since abolished "Fourth".

At Oxford his fencing prowess began to shine through and he reacquainted himself with Allan Jay, who was reading law. The two had met in schoolboy fencing before Jay went to Australia for a time. Jay and "Little Lord Fauntleroy", as he called Hoskyns, became inseparable and despite wildly different backgrounds, and fierce competition on the fencing piste, they forged a lifelong friendship.

In 1952, already a member of the Olympic training scheme, Hoskyns became British foil and épée champion. Later that year Jay was picked for the Helsinki Olympics but Hoskyns missed out after breaking his leg skiing. According to Jay, the break left Hoskyns with "one leg shorter than the other, which did wonders for his parry-riposte; thereafter his fencing career really took off." Graduating in 1953, Hoskyns returned to help his father run the family estate – he inherited it on his father's death 1974 – which allowed him time to train.

Hoskyns was a keen flier and owned a twin-engined plane, regularly flying team-mates to tournaments around Europe. In 1956 he was invited by the Hungarian government to attend a competition in Budapest, an invitation marred only by the warning not to deviate from his route or risk being shot down. Unbeknownst to his passengers and team-mates, Gillian Sheen and Jay, Hoskyns, whose uncle was the double agent Kim Philby, had been approached by MI6 at a time of growing unrest in Hungary. He declined their advances, citing his official invitation, but was persuaded by the military attaché to fly round the Hungarian capital, though he described it as "nothing more than a sightseeing tour".

He caused something of a stir as the first private pilot to land behind the Iron Curtain. Years later he revealed that he had been somewhat nervous as the guards were given an extra weekend's leave if they "bagged a pilot".

His international career ended with victories at the Düren épée tournament in Germany (1973, 1974) and second place in Oslo in 1978 at the age of 47. Twenty years later he won a bronze medal at the Millennium Veterans' world championships in Switzerland. Noted for his relaxed manner and his sense of humour, Hoskyns enjoyed later life with his family and continued his bridge rivalry with Jay, who moved to the same village.

Hoskyns was later vice president of British Fencing and was elected to the International Fencing Federation's Centennial Hall of Fame. Much to his disappointment, he missed being on stage for last year 's Olympic closing ceremony due to ill-health.

Martin Childs

Henry William Furse Hoskyns, fencer and farmer: born London 19 March 1931; MBE 1966; married 1961 Georgina Howard De Cardonnel Findlay (five children); died North Perrott, Somerset 4 August 2013.