In this blog, Mike opens up a chapter from his ‘Black Files’.
The British School in The Netherlands is a very high profile and high achieving school and this is reflected in the archives – excellent public examination results, sporting victories, all manner of successes and triumphs in a multiplicity of clubs and societies and extra-curricular activities; visits by royals and numerous V.I.P.s; high-ranking, even celebrated alumni all around the world; the list could go on and on. But the school has been in existence for 87 years and in that time many thousands of people have passed through its classrooms and corridors, and alongside all the positives there have of course been negatives, as there would be in any institution or society. There have been mishaps, expulsions, accidents, scandals, tragedies. Fortunately not many in number, but they are there. These are not things that one airs too readily. It would not be appropriate, it would not be in anyone’s interest and it could be unforgivably hurtful. The details are kept locked away and only I know about them and have access to them. I pride myself on never having let slip a single confidence or secret, despite the sometimes strong temptation to do so.
The Black Files
And now, today, I am, after all, going to write a blog about one of the items in my ‘black file’. This item, however, was never a secret. Far from it. Not only was it known about throughout the whole school community, it even featured on the national news in both The Netherlands and the United Kingdom. And it took place back in 1979 just when the Senior School was due to move into its new premises at Voorschoten.
At the back of the hall there is a framed photograph hanging of a certain Sir Richard Adam Sykes; and the official name of the hall is the Sir Richard Sykes Memorial Hall. However not many people nowadays know anything about this gentleman or else have forgotten about him. It’s time I did some reminding.
Sir Richard Sykes was the British ambassador to The Hague from 1977 until 1979. He was a distinguished senior diplomat who as a younger man had taken part in the Normandy landings (for which he had been awarded the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre) and the liberation of The Netherlands. He was Chairman of the board of Governors of the British School and was actively involved in deliberations over two major building projects – a new Junior School Annex and a completely new Senior School at Voorschoten. On Thursday 22nd March 1979 as he was leaving the ambassadorial residence on the Westeinde, in The Hague, en route to Voorschoten to chair a meeting about the forthcoming opening of the new school, he and his valet were shot and killed by two masked gunmen. These assassins were later found to have been agents of the IRA – the Provisional Irish Republican Army – but they were never caught or even identified.
In those days acts of terrorism were relatively uncommon and the shock wave that went through the BSN community was considerable. Nowadays, tragically, such acts have become almost daily fare in the news media, and organisations such as the BSN have to be constantly pro-active in updating every possible measure to ensure the safety of those within its premises.
A Headmaster’s wise words
It is perhaps a good moment, therefore, to read what Brian Davidson, the Headmaster of the Senior School, had to say in his address at the hall’s dedication service on 5th December 1979 and to see to what extent it should still apply to us.
“ You visit us today for a ceremony which will recall the vivid horror and sadness that we all felt at the death of Sir Richard Sykes. But the act of dedication is also an act of faith. We are here to keep faith with him. In peace and war he was an outstanding and valiant servant of his country and a staunch friend of the Netherlands. Throughout his life Sir Richard Sykes represented and upheld principles which Great Britain and the Netherlands hold in common: respect for justice and the rule of law; respect for the individual; the principles of tolerance, order and decency; the humane and democratic principles on which our societies are founded. It is not, I think, too far-fetched to say that he died on active service, destroyed by men whose avowed aim it is to attack and undermine the foundations of western society.
It is right that we should commemorate Sir Richard Sykes as a public figure who earned the respect and affection of British and Dutch communities alike. It is also right that we should dedicate this hall in his name. For he was a very good friend of this school. He presided over the deliberations of the Governing Body at the time when the new Junior School Annex was opened and this Voorschoten project was carried through to completion. On the very morning of his death he was due to come to the school to discuss the arrangements for last May’s official opening, an event which he had looked forward to with the greatest pleasure.
In the troubled and anxious times in which we live the murderers of Sir Richard Sykes and their like will bring on a new Dark Age of anarchy and chaos if we lack the will or the moral courage to resist them. In a world where, so often, the individual feels himself powerless to influence events, we have to stand by the principals of liberal education: the tradition of freedom of thought and expression, respect for the views of others, encouragement of healthy, unbiased and constructive criticism. And we have to be prepared to defend these principles and to proclaim them, for the battle against terrorism is a struggle for men’s minds and hearts.
When a man becomes afraid to express his horror and disgust at terrorist atrocities, the terrorist has succeeded; for the fear that he inspires has suppressed the response from the heart of the individual. Two hundred years ago the great parliamentarian, Edward Burke, wrote these words: “When bad men combine, the good must associate, else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” In this hall people will associate, from both communities, our neighbors from Voorschoten as well as the many and varied societies of the BSN. Let this plaque, with its dedication, remind them and us, all of us who are members of this school, of our duty to decency, to tolerance and to freedom. And let the example of Sir Richard Sykes strengthen our courage and resolve.”
Stories from the Archives is a Voices Blog series by British School Archivist Mike Weston.
Mr Mike Weston
BSN school archivist, detective and storyteller
Mike came to the English School at The Hague (BSN) in 1972 as Head of German, intending to stay for two years. Now he is in his 47th year at the BSN. Over the years he has taught a range of subjects and has been involved in many school activities. Starting a school archive from scratch and tracing the history of the school is the activity which has given him the most pleasure. Once he reached retirement age, he asked if he could stay on as archivist in hopes to be of service for a while yet. In this capacity, he regularly dives into the archives and comes up with some great stories. His stories are all our stories, enjoy them.
In case you missed it, you can read the last installment Stories from the Archives: Parkweg 17 – and a remarkable man