Anthony Bottrall: Diplomat and agricultural expert for developing nations who went on to be a dedicated local councillor

Bottrall strove to overcome prejudice, ignorance, and stultifying dependence on tradition or hierarchy

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Anthony Bottrall had a remarkably diverse career: he was, by turn, a youthful diplomat, an agricultural expert in overseas development and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Lambeth. He dedicated his life of practical Christian idealism to the underprivileged, without a whisper of proselytising or self-righteousness. There was a kind of sacramental quality in the work he chose: irrigation of difficult terrain to bring work and food to the people of the subcontinent, and the improvement of education in what was then a deprived London borough. In both fields he strove to overcome prejudice, ignorance, and stultifying dependence on tradition or hierarchy.

Bottrall's parents were literary, administrative and academic. His father was Ronald Bottrall (1906-89), a notable though neglected poet. Ronald was assistant director of the British Institute at Florence before he made a career with the British Council, where he became controller of education in the early 1950s. His mother, Margaret Bottrall (1909-1996), was refined and devout, an authority on 17th-century poetry, a Founder and Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, and also, for a while, an independent councillor in rural Essex.

Bottrall was born in Florence. His early childhood included five years spent in Rome – and in the 1960s, while on holiday with his father in Sicily, he was informed at the reception desk of every hotel he stayed in that he was on a list of men wanted for evading military service. Ronald's retort was that apart from any question of nationality, the Italian army could not possibly have any uniforms to fit Anthony, who stood at 6ft 6in.

He was a classical scholar at Winchester and at Magdalen College, Oxford but his education was conventional and limited: little mathematics, no economics, no serious study of any science, no study of business (or any other) management and no study of the developing world, let alone agriculture or irrigation.

He spent a year in Yugoslavia in 1960 and acquired fluent Serbo-Croat (he would become a gifted linguist). He then joined the Foreign Office, and was posted to Jakarta. When the embassy was stormed in 1963 by a mob persuaded by President Sukarno that the UK had set up Malaysia to hurt their interests, Bottrall figured conspicuously in a photograph of the staff in flight on the front page of the Sunday Times; his flat was wrecked, photographs and gramophone records bloodied.

At his next posting, in Singapore, he was disappointed by desk-work and by much of the British expat community. He wrote later that "I decided that I had no wish to be posted anywhere in the world to tell lies on behalf of my country," (quoting Sir Henry Wotton, ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I), and that he had "tried hard enough to meet my father's aspirations". Six months in Kenya inspired him to take a diploma in agricultural economics at Oxford; after this he did fieldwork in the Lower Indus (Pakistan) and the Sudan.

From 1972–82, after joining the Overseas Development Institute, he was concerned with large irrigation schemes, working in or visiting East Java, Taiwan, and Tamil Nadu, where he was also for a time visiting professor at the Agricultural University. Here he was amused to register himself as an alcoholic to qualify for a liquor permit, entitling him to import 144 bottles of beer a month. He found himself suddenly very popular with his colleagues.

He then worked for the Ford Foundation in Dhaka from 1982-86, where he was concerned with flood management; and in New Delhi until 1990, where he focused on managing watersheds for farming systems and avoiding salinity in irrigation. Establishing himself as a freelance consultant in overseas development when returning to this country in 1990, he visited southern India, Nepal, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Morocco.

Bottrall had met Ingeborg Oesch in Cambridge, and they married in 1978. Together with their three young children they moved into a Victorian terraced house in Brixton, bought by Bottrall in a derelict state in 1972. He began to realise that some of his overseas experience could be usefully applied in Lambeth, and he stood as a Liberal Democrat candidate for Lambeth Council, serving from 1994-2006. Lambeth was then in crisis; at the time, Stockwell, his ward, was one of the poorest, with 65 per cent of its inhabitants in social housing. The core of his votes came from there. He considered the estates in Stockwell as his "field" and helped to sort out innumerable complaints.

Bottrall was appointed as Liberal Democrat spokesman for education in Lambeth, and rose to the challenge. He was good at cooperating with his Conservative and Labour colleagues during the hung council (1994-98), and then in opposition (1998-2002); and he positively enjoyed being the executive member for education during the Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration (2002-2006). He was an excellent school governor himself at two Lambeth primary schools right up to the end of his life: St. John's Angell Town and Allen Edwards. He also appointed numerous governors for the many Lambeth schools in a non-partisan manner.

Bottrall was proud at the end of his life of having played a significant part in the striking improvement of educational standards in Lambeth. In 1995 Ofsted declared that 14 out of more than 80 schools in the borough required "special measures"; by the time he lost his seat on the council with the Labour landslide of 2006, not a single school remained in that bracket.

Bottrall was a loving and generous husband and father; his recreations included cooking, entertaining, singing and listening to music.

In the 1960s he came up from Singapore to join me on a trip to the East Coast of Malaya. We took a boat up the remote Kelantan River. Stopping by rapids, we happened upon a lofty waterfall; a group of kampong children were playing in the basin below. We stood in silence for quite some time: luminous water out of the rock, the bright eyes of youth.


Anthony Bottrall, diplomat, agricultural expert and councillor: born Florence 15 May 1938; married 1978 Ingeborg Oesch (three children); died Clapham, London 16 December 2014.