A ‘Buttle Boy’ reminisces

Buttle generally made possible all that I became and most of what I did subsequently

While going through my mother's files after her death, I came across a box of papers in a canvas file that was older than the rest. It turned out that most of the file was comprised of  correspondence about me and my education after I arrived in England as a teenage refugee in 1957.

Among the regular school reports and letters from headmasters chronicling my progress, there was correspondence from various aid agencies that paid the school fees and made sure that I had the appropriate clothes and books required. One group of these letters - all addressed, except for one, to my grandparents - was from the Buttle Trust, a name that I remembered only vaguely from a distance of  fifty years. As I  read through the letters, I realized that the Buttle Trust had been the main sponsor for my education at  boarding school, which helped me realize the dream of studying at Oxford and generally made possible all that I became and most of what I did subsequently.

Following the bloody suppression of the Hungarian revolution by Soviet tanks in November of 1956, my parents succeeded in getting me out to England just a couple of weeks before my father, a prominent writer, was arrested. I had been abroad for the first time just a few months before, visiting my grandparents in London the previous summer. Now I was back in England under very different circumstances as part of a tidal wave of refugees who fled Hungary before the Iron Curtain was  drawn shut again.

My future looked very uncertain. My grandparents had fled Hungary themselves in 1939, leaving everything behind, and were still working hard to make ends meet. Having an adolescent boy suddenly dropped into the middle of their household must have represented a great financial burden on them, which of course they never mentioned to me.

My joyful grandparents greeted me with the news that I had been offered a free education by Mr Rex Hackett, the headmaster of a preparatory school in Sussex, where the grandson of one of my grandmother's close friends was already a boarder. Mr Hackett's warm and generous letters were also in  that canvas file. I spent the following four terms at his school in Seaford, learning English and simultaneously all the other school subjects that I had to re-learn from an English point of view. I was pushing the age limit where all my contemporaries were leaving for the next stage of their education at one of the “public” schools where their parents had applied soon after these children had been born.

Following the bloody suppression of the Hungarian revolution by Soviet tanks in November of 1956, my parents succeeded in getting me out to England just a couple of weeks before my father, a prominent writer, was arrested. I had been abroad for the first time just a few months before, visiting my grandparents in London the previous summer. Now I was back in England under very different circumstances as part of a tidal wave of refugees who fled Hungary before the Iron Curtain was drawn shut again.

Meanwhile, Mr Hackett was busy trying to find a place where I could continue my education. He arranged through his contacts that I should take the entrance exams to Haileybury College, and at the same time he began an intensive search for any grant or scholarship that would cover the considerable expenses of this venerable “public” school. Through his researches, he came across the Buttle Trust, a foundation set up by the will of  a recently deceased clergyman, the Rev. Canon Frank Buttle. The Trust had been going for less than five years, and its Secretary (Mr B.E. Astbury) followed up Mr Hackett's request by writing to my grandfather in early December of 1957 in order to set up an interview during the Christmas vacation. As he wrote: 'it would be necessary for me to see Peter before the application could be considered.' Unfortunately, I don't have any memory of the interview, but it must have been satisfactory, because on January 16th, 1958, Mr Astbury was writing to my grandfather again with the news that the Trustees had approved an annual grant that covered about five-sixths of the required tuition and boarding fees. (Mr Hackett found the remaining portion from the British Council for Aid to Refugees.) The Trustees also hoped, 'in addition, to make a private arrangement with the Master [of Haileybury College] regarding clothing.'

For the next five years Mr Astbury followed my progress at school, corresponding with my grandmother. But in the last letter in the file he congratulated me directly for winning a scholarship to Oxford and sent his very best wishes for my future.

Immediately upon reading these letters, I searched the web for the Buttle Trust. Within seconds I was surprised and delighted to learn that it was still in existence in London, and still pursuing pretty much the same goals of helping children in need. Although the social landscape of the UK has changed in innumerable ways over the past fifty years, the Trust was focusing on providing immediate, practical help: finding temporary shelter and clothing, buying a mattress, a heater, or a computer for school, quickly identifying in each case what the specific need is, and acting with the minimum of delay. And there on the website, among the criteria for providing help, I read that the Buttle Trust could pay also the school fees for teenagers under the care of grandparents, just as it had in my own case.

I composed an e-mail to the Trust at once, re-introducing myself and mentioning the letters I had found in the canvas file. And within hours I received an astonished e-mail from Gerri McAndrew, the executive director of the Trust, warmly welcoming me back to the fold, like a long-lost child. And, indeed, that is how I felt, reading those letters and reports about my teenage self.

Since that day, Gerri and I have kept in touch, meeting when my wife and I occasionally visited London. At our first meeting I told her of a strange co-incidence. We were staying in London, as usual, at the home of a friend, a colleague from the antiquarian book trade, who turned out to have been also the recipient of aid from the Trust roughly in the same period as I had been, though we did not know each other until much later. He told me that in his day, such recipients were called 'Buttle Boys.'

One of the most memorable visits we had with Gerri was in Oxford, in May 2008, where the university joined a nationwide network of  institutes of higher learning, that pledged to help care leavers to cope with the challenges of university life. Gerri was giving an award to the Vice-Chancellor called the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers, which acknowledged that Oxford had fulfilled the conditions for providing such special  help. The event was also attended by a couple of other 'Buttle Boys', one of them from 1958, the very year I received my first grant.

I was especially proud to be back with my alma mater at that moment, since I knew first hand what it had felt like to be attending such an institution, in a highly competitive and privileged atmosphere, without adequate family support. Most teenagers under care shrink from even attempting to get into college, the bar seems set so high. It was good to see that under encouragement from the Buttle Trust, Oxford and many other universities in the UK were willing to lend a hand.

And there was another reason for our presence on that occasion. Soon after renewing contact, my wife and I had given a gift  to the Trust specifically to help some young people of college age who faced great difficulties getting to make that leap. The first two grants were given to help two African refugees, one from Ethiopia and the other from the Congo. The first boy, estranged from his abusive parents and coping on his own, was working and studying for his A levels, hoping to go on to university. The other boy's education had been disrupted by war in his native Congo. When he arrived as a refugee in England, he was reunited with his mother who had been imprisoned and badly tortured back home. The boy spoke French when he came, but was learning English and hoping to take A levels for university entrance.

I don't know their names, which remain confidential, but the Buttle Trust gave these young men a lifeline and they should be launched by now on their new lives on a strange continent that is engulfed, as I write this, by a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. One of these new Buttle boys said at his interview:  'You're the only chance I've got or I won't have the dreams I want.'

It is good to want dreams. Though more fortunate and less traumatized than these African boys, I recognized several threads in their story. I got to realize my dream thanks to many individuals and agencies, but in large part to the Buttle Trust. And I am grateful for the opportunity to give back a little of all that I have received.

Peter Hay is an author and former antiquarian bookseller who, now retired, lives in Canada.

Photo by Chris Hunt / CC BY

Peter in his school days