Sir John Burgh: Senior civil servant and leader of the British Council

‘His judgement was excellent,’ Shirley Williams said of him. ‘He rang true on everything’

John Burgh, an Austrian Jewish refugee who arrived in this country in 1938 at the age of 13 unable to speak a word of English, went on to become the head of the organisation responsible for promoting British culture to other countries, having risen through the ranks of the Civil Service to work for some of this country’s leading cabinet ministers. He would also become President of Trinity College, Oxford.

Burgh was brought up in Vienna, his father a barrister who died when John was 11. He retained a lifelong memory of looking down on the main avenue from his flat in Vienna after the Anschluss and seeing Hitler standing in his car driving along with his arm up making the Nazi salute: “I can still see him, with all the cheering and jubilation.” His family background had been cultured and musical, with both his parents playing instruments and Burgh playing the piano; all that was to come to an end, though music would remain an essential part of his life.

With the help of the Quaker Movement Burgh and his sister Lucy fled to Britain in late 1938. His mother, who had had her children baptised into the Church of England in the belief that it would help them to escape, followed them six months later; both sets of grandparents and other members of the family perished.

He went to the Friend’s School in Sibford, leaving in 1941 aged 15, having become fluent in English and sailed through his exams. Piano lessons, though, were curtailed through lack of money. He worked in aircraft factories until the end of the war, when he returned to his studies. He decided to study economics, believing that the discipline could answer the world’s problems – later he said experience had shown him otherwise – and entered the London School of Economics as a night student, teaching during the day. Harold Laski, under whom he studied, helped him to win a bursary so he could study full-time. In his second year he became President of the Students Union; years later he would become Chairman of the Governors. 

It was at LSE that he and a group of friends founded a group called The Seminar which continued to meet once a week for the next 40 years. Having lost his family during the war, Burgh gathered friends about him.

The proximity between the college and Covent Garden meant he was able to sit in the gods and watch operas, never expecting that one day he would become secretary of the Opera co-ordinating committee, and in 1991, its chairman. His love of music saw him taking on a range of administrative posts: in 1994 he became vice-chairman of the Yehudi Menuhin School. He played the piano weekly in a duet with friends, the last a clarinettist, until his death.

Not wishing to work for a profit-making organisation, he entered the administrative branch of the Civil Service. Over the next 30 years he served in several ministries, becoming Private Secretary, Under Secretary and Principal Private Secretary to a number of ministers including George Brown at the Department of Economic Affairs, Barbara Castle as she worked through In Place of Strife at the Department of Employment, and with her Conservative successors Robert Carr and Geoffrey Howe as they implemented new trade union laws. Having spent years trying (by his own account) to leave the Civil Service, he was seconded in 1972 to become Deputy Chairman of the Community Relations Commission, but returned two years later to join the Cabinet Office as its deputy secretary in charge of a new think tank, the Central Policy Review Staff.

His last Civil Service position was working for Shirley Williams, who became a close friend. His appointment as her Deputy Permanent Secretary was one of her conditions for agreeing to head the newly constituted Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, told her she had made a good choice. “Burgh’s name,” Williams told me, “was a byword for integrity. He was a wonderful man, serious, but with a wryness and touch of irony. His judgement was excellent – he rang true on everything.”

In 1980 he finally left the Civil Service to become Director of the British Council, the body responsible for promoting British values, language and culture abroad. Morale at the time was low with the Council having undergone a number of cuts. Burgh dispelled the apathy, reaching out to the workers in the “engine room”, meeting them in the canteen, touring around talking to them. He was rewarded for his work with a knighthood.

In 1987 he became President of Trinity College Oxford, a position he held until 1996. Never scared of confronting difficult issues, he supported Dignity in Dying; his sister, diagnosed with terminal cancer, committed suicide, as did his sick brother-in-law. He believed it was important to have freedom of choice to decide when you wanted to die. In 1984 he appeared on Desert Island Discs; asked what he would like as his luxury, he replied that he wanted a transistor radio so he could listen to more music. Plomley allowed him to take it, a rare case of flouting the rules.

Sir John Burgh, civil servant and public servant: born Vienna 9 December 1925; CB 1975, KCMG 1982: married 1957 Ann Sturge (two daughters); died 12 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Smart phones, dumb reading: Rebecca and Harry from ‘Teens’
tv
News
people
News
Amazon's drones were unveiled last year.
business
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Life and Style
Worth shelling out for: Atlantic lobsters are especially meaty
food + drink
Sport
Gareth Bale
footballPaul Scholes on how Real Madrid's Welsh winger would be a perfect fit at Old Trafford if he leaves Spain
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£14000 - £37500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting and technically challe...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Motor Mechanic / Technician / MOT Tester - Oundle

£11 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Small friendly Ford dealership based i...

Recruitment Genius: Development Worker

£18300 - £20300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss