Sir Jeffrey Petersen

Diplomat of great ability

Saturday 02 December 2006 01:00

Jeffrey Charles Petersen, diplomat: born London 20 July 1920; CMG 1968, KCMG 1978; Minister (Commercial), Rio de Janeiro 1968-71; ambassador to Republic of Korea 1971-74; ambassador to Romania 1975-77; ambassador to Sweden 1977-80; married 1944 Catherine Bayly (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1955), 1962 Karin Hayward (one son, three daughters); died Canterbury 14 October 2006.

One of the features of the British diplomatic service as I knew it was that it had quality in depth. This meant among other things that heads of mission in countries which were far away or seldom newsworthy in the British media were often men and women of great ability. Jeffrey Petersen, who was successively ambassador in Seoul, Bucharest and Stockholm, was one such.

He came from humble beginnings. Born in London in 1920, to parents who lived in rented accommodation in Finsbury Park, later moving out to Westcliff-on-Sea, he spent a year after school in a mundane job, not having been considered "university material". He joined the Naval Reserves, following a boyhood enthusiasm for sailing, and at the outbreak of the Second World War enlisted in the Navy.

His war years were spent on the anti-submarine corvette Snapdragon. Convoy duty in the North Atlantic was a tedious and occasionally dangerous business, and Sub-Lt Petersen spent the time between bouts of seasickness reading - he said he learned more like this than in 10 years of formal education. He later became a Liaison Officer in Cairo, where he met Catherine (Kate) Bayly, a Waaf officer. Their marriage produced two children, but, like so many partnerships made during the war, it didn't prosper in peacetime and was dissolved in 1959.

He left the Navy in 1946, and studied PPE at the London School of Economics. Persuaded to sit the Civil Service Entry examination in 1947, he passed among the highest three entrants that year, a distinction that drew him to the attention of the Foreign Office. One interview secured his entry and he went to his first foreign posting in Madrid as Second Secretary in 1949.

His work with the Foreign Office then took him to Ankara and Brussels, and he met his second wife, Karin Hayward, at the Laos conference in Geneva in 1961; their marriage was to produce four children. There followed a variety of postings including a lively introduction to diplomatic life for Karin in the Jakarta riots of 1963. After Indonesia, the Petersens were posted to Greece and Brazil, and Jeffrey's career culminated in ambassadorships to South Korea, Romania and Sweden.

I first met Jeffrey Petersen in Geneva in 1959. He was a member of the British delegation to a United Nations conference on economic and social affairs and seemed to have plenty of time for swimming. I belonged to the delegation to a conference on nuclear tests whose ethos was one of intense seriousness. I envied Petersen his freer life. But I was also struck by his friendliness to everyone he met; there was absolutely nothing pompous about him.

Two years later Petersen became my immediate senior as the assistant (deputy head) of the South East Asia Department in the Foreign Office. Never fussy or impatient, he was a fount of shrewd advice. He particularly enjoyed the eccentricity of some of the political leaders in Laos and Cambodia, such as the enthusiasm of Prince Souvanna Phouma for English pipe tobacco and the fondness of Prince Norodom Sihanouk for big band jazz.

Our paths then diverged. In 1972 I found him at the other end of the wire, as ambassador in Seoul, when I became head of the Far Eastern Department. His telegrams, letters and despatches showed that he was enjoying himself, and also that he had become expert in the politics, national and international, of the Republic of Korea.

In 1977, after two years in Bucharest, Petersen was appointed ambassador to Sweden, where I was the second-in-command in the Stockholm embassy. He took to the city, pleased that there were so many lakes and waterways in which he could sail his small yacht.

Petersen was particularly interested in Sweden's commercial life. One of his first industrial visits was to the headquarters and factory of Volvo in Gothenburg, where he and I underwent a startling experience. The lunch that followed our tour of the factory was interrupted by a flustered messenger. The head of the company excused himself and disappeared. We heard later that he had been arranging for the formal arrest of a group of foreigners who had been photographing the main assembly line through overhead windows: one of our hosts told us that Volvo was often a target for industrial espionage.

From the outset of his career, Petersen had taken an interest in the economic life of the countries in which he worked. This had led to his appointment in 1968 as economic minister in Rio de Janeiro. After he retired from diplomacy in 1980 he was offered a variety of commercial posts; three of these concerned North Sea Oil, banking in Spain and manufacturing in Sweden.

Petersen listed his hobbies in Who's Who as painting, sailing, butterfly collecting and totting. He first sailed as a boy in the Thames Estuary in a dinghy built from hobby plans. Later in life, with Karin as enthusiastic first mate, he undertook some epic trips in the Java Sea. His interest in butterflies was sparked in his childhood by the eccentric curator of a local museum, who would set out across the fields on butterfly-catching expeditions dressed in a formal suit and bowler hat.

He loved painting, and recorded the places he lived in, predominantly in oils. He enjoyed colour and was a quick and skilful draughtsman who would sometimes amuse his children by sketching cartoons of family outings.

Richard Evans

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