Anton Bantock, MBE
Doctor of Letters
Friday 16 July 2010 - Orator: Dr Stella Clarke, CBE
Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,
‘You do as the farmer who waters the plants to flower in all the world’
Who is this man who merits (and I use the word deliberately) such an accolade from Africa? This I hope to illustrate.
Anton Bantock was born in Birmingham and was educated at King Edward’s Grammar School. He went on, after National Service, to New College Oxford where he read history. In 1955 he started his career as a teacher.
Anton is a teacher in the true sense of the word. Everything he has done has been with the aim of helping people realise their true potential. This has taken many forms. His first challenge was at the school he was appointed to in Bristol in 1960. He was attracted to it originally because of the great aspiration it held for its pupils, despite their wide ranging ability. The curriculum was ambitious and covered many subjects, including several languages, all the sciences, mathematics and much more. This was a school where, Anton felt, real education was taking place. Sadly, in the subsequent years, the sort of problems that tend to hit neighbourhood schools in deprived inner-city areas led to its deterioration. But here came the challenge and Anton, by then the Head of History, was the man to take it on. I have talked to several of his colleagues at the time and he inspired them all – no-one forgets him!
He wrote a book entitled ‘A Bullet Hole in my Blackboard’ – the title was drawn from a real-life incident. It was in the form of a diary describing a week in the life of a teacher who has to engage and capture the interest of a class. This would be a particular challenge on Mondays and Fridays, when the pupils would be thinking only of the recent or forthcoming weekends. On Mondays it was quite usual for pupils to refuse either to sit down or take off their anoraks. Wednesdays, he maintained, were the key days for imparting knowledge. Were it not for the fact that the events in the book were true, therefore, at a deeper level, poignant, sad and sometimes tragic, the book would make for an extremely funny read. It is full of practical examples of how Anton dealt with pupils who had no wish to be engaged in what was then a radical way.
On Fridays, each member of Anton’s class was given a large sheet of paper alongside a drawing, generally of a bloodthirsty nature, such as the head of Anne Boleyn or Charles I. The children were then invited to generate their own drawings and lengthy discussions about the topics would then follow.
He developed this approach, being an accomplished artist, by producing history books with pictures to colour in, quizzes and competitions, all of which would stimulate the children’s imagination and lead them to discover their own interest in history. These books continue to be published in many guises.
The school itself had few books, mainly standard text books, but Anton grasped a great opportunity when he found and bought at auction the complete set of the Illustrated London News, whose pictures were exceptionally good. He made them available to the children at school who flocked during their lunch hour to look at the pictures. A former pupil, who now builds yachts in Devon, recently told Anton that his own interest in school work had first been captured by looking at these magazines – he will not be alone in this. Anton inspired them all, both staff and pupils.
The summer term generally leaves teachers exhausted and in need of re-invigorating and it was no different for Anton. His answer was to set off on his bicycle for the railway station, the day that term finished, with a knapsack on his back, to travel the world. His obvious interest in people led to many informal meetings with young and old leading to his being invited into their homes. Many of them were desperate to achieve education and training. This led to Anton setting up a charity to help them achieve this, although much of the funding came from his own limited pocket.
A book describing many of those who have benefited from his advice and sponsorship incorporates over 150 stories. I have read many of these stories and you would recognise the backgrounds. Each individual describes their lack of opportunity to access education and training through poverty, sickness or corruption. Each is an individual who has been helped to reach their potential and to fulfil their goals in life. Anton is a realist, but cares deeply about each person he has assisted. Not everyone has been successful, yet each individual story is recorded with drawings and photographs and the individual’s money monitored. It is an amazing research document which could well be used by others when developing aid.
When Anton came back at the beginning of each term he would talk in the first assembly, telling of his adventures and of all the people he had met, helped and made friends with on the way. It is said he has made friends all over the world and, in doing so, has made them friends of each other. This was one assembly that no-one in the school missed and they listened to every word.
Anton has remained in touch with many of the people he met on his travels and his contacts now range from South America to Africa, from India to the Middle East and Indonesia.
When he retired from formal teaching at the school, he set up in his one-bedroom bungalow a further education enterprise which he named the University of Withywood, the area in which he lives and taught. It exists on charitable donations, generally given in small sums.
It took, he says, about 12 years before his work was accepted as being relevant to people living in the area and numbers began to attend. They found themselves learning French and German, the performing arts, or indeed anything they wanted to do. His rooms are completely covered in books, so much of the entertainment has to take place in the garden. I suspect his neighbours are no longer surprised at anything – indeed, most have been roped in to help with teaching, encouragement and administration. Many of those involved are here today and we welcome them.
The range of his activities is amazing – exhausting some of those who help him might say! He started a local History Society called Malago which produces a newsletter and organises lectures, and at least once a week Anton takes groups to perform music in residences for the elderly. He has also written a number of books, the best-known of which are the published letters and documents tracing the history of the Smyth family who owned the Ashton Court Estate on the South Side of the Avon Gorge. He sat in the Record Office in Bristol copying out by hand documents that covered their lives from 1545 – 1900. It is a mammoth work.
Anton Bantock, supported by his band of helpers, has shown through his dedication and commitment to learning just how much education can inspire people and enrich their lives.
The University of Bristol has for some years had a commitment to Widening Participation to encourage those who would not perhaps have thought of attending university to apply for Higher Education. We recognise in Anton Bantock an individual who shares the same values of equality of opportunity in education and passion for learning.
Anton’s forebears were exceptional people. His mother was only the second woman to write Grand Opera and his grandfather, Granville Bantock, was a composer of great renown who was knighted in recognition of his contribution to English Music. Anton himself, whose name illustrates his family’s connections, was awarded the MBE in 2003 for services to the community – particularly in education. But he does not aspire to any sort of recognition unless it leads to furthering his ambition for others.
We, as a University which has those same ambitions, are proud to award him an honorary degree.
Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I commend to you David Delius Anton Bantock, as eminently worthy for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.