No openDemocracy reader is alike – A tribute to Joan Burchardt

Judith Herrin
11 September 2009

Joan Burchardt, who died last July at the age of 91, never called herself a feminist yet she had a progressive, fearless attitude and an egalitarian spirit that treated men as her equal even when she could often outdo them. She was a mathematician, glider pilot, factory engineer, science teacher, astronomer, goat farmer and Oxfam volunteer - and a historian of late 19th century Hawaii. On her small holding near Sherborne, Dorset, she might have appeared to be a figure from the past, yet she was thoroughly modern and represented the independent-minded, energetic intelligence of England, so often stifled by official mandarin culture. After retiring as a schoolteacher she ran a small but serious high-quality business in goats' milk and cheese production, and in her spare time mastered the latest computer software coding.

Judith Herrin is emeritus professor of Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at King’s College, London. Her books include The Formation of Christendom, A Medieval Miscellany and Women in Purple. Her most recent book is Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Penguin, and Princeton University Press, 2007)

Among Judith Herrin's articles in openDemocracy:

"Edward Said: the man and his music" (26 September 2003)

"How did Europe begin?" (4 July 2001)She read openDemocracy and became a modest supporter of its appeals for financial support (as should we all). Just after it was launched she identified a coding problem with its initial HTML, much to everyone's astonishment when they learnt she was 83! It is therefore perhaps suitable to mark her passing here, and reflect on the life of an unusually open-minded and engaged reader.

Joan was my aunt. She was born in Oxford on 9 May 1918, the sixth child of Viola Joy and Ernest Burchardt. She and her younger brother Cyril were the babies of the family; they were raised together and remained very close. They invented their own games, which included spitting competitions down the back stairs of their large family house at 62 Banbury Road, Oxford, and walked across the road to Gee's, which was then a flower shop to buy seeds which they planted in the garden. Her older siblings had been sent away to boarding school, the boys to Rugby and the girls to Sherborne School for Girls, so Joan followed her sisters Chris and Eleanor to Sherborne. Before her departure however, her father died, and she recalled how hard it was to help her mother nursing him at home. Cyril was spared that task. 

All three Burchardt girls benefited from excellent teaching at Sherborne, particularly in maths and science, which is reflected in their subsequent careers: Chris in botany and biology, Eleanor (my mother) in medicine, and Joan in physics and astronomy. In addition, when Joan went to Oxford to read maths, she became a keen member of the gliding team at Stokenchurch airfield in 1938 and a year later found herself teaching RAF cadets to glide. Then she decided to switch to a course in stressing aircraft at Imperial College London, where she learned the theory of aircraft design, writing to Flight Magazine in January 1940 to advocate the value of gliding in training pilots (opens in pdf).

She talked about her life in London then as one of the most thrilling periods, sharing a flat with her sister Eleanor, who was training as a doctor at the all-female Royal Free Hospital, and brother Cyril. There was much music: Cyril played the flute while Joan had her violin and Eleanor took singing lessons. When Cyril went for an orchestral audition and proudly claimed to be able to play the piccolo, they were subjected to a terrible weekend of squeaky high notes as he tried to learn the part he would have to play. Alas, Cyril went into the RAF and died in a flying accident in 1941, which affected her profoundly.

Joan gliding aged 20 in 1938

Later in the war she got a job in airplane design at Reading where she was one of only two women employed in the factory; they used to bump into each other in the ladies and compared notes about the unforgiving masculine environment. It was not a happy experience. But it strengthened the qualifications that enabled her to move after the war to Westlands in Somerset (now the helicopter manufacturer). There she spent many evenings in the cinema. Her skills made it perfectly possible for her to compete with men without fear of failure. But when, post-war, she returned to her previous love of gliding, she found it full of rich men whom she characterised as fascists, and gave it up. In the early 1950s she was glad to leave military engineering to complete her maths degree at Southampton University.

Then Joan was asked to help out with science teaching at her old school in Sherborne, Dorset, where her sister Chris was already teaching biology. They were known as Miss Burchardt with a bun and Miss Burchardt without a bun. Joan, ‘with a bun', recalled with great pride the many students whom she had encouraged and trained to get into medical, veterinary and nursing schools. On parents' day, when fathers visited her labs, she enjoyed setting up experiments with built in jokes, bells that went off, electrical connections that sparked to try and frighten them. When the science block was rebuilt, she insisted on an astronomical dome so that the girls could study the movements of planets and constellations, and she built her own telescope.

Eventually the two sisters bought a small holding of twenty acres near Leigh, a few miles outside Sherborne, with a cold bungalow that had no electricity. It was fun lighting the gas lamps when it got dark and cooking on the old Raeburn stove. But they built magnificent stables for Chris' two horses.

My cousins Philip and Andrew, who were at school nearby at Bryanston, recalled their visits almost every weekend in early years, when the aunts were like mothers to them, determined to feed them to repletion. They had to be careful about any exaggerated or incautiously expressed remarks. Both aunts were frighteningly clever. Chris's  ‘what do you mean?' was the more incisive, but Joan's gentler queries were just as potent and devastating.

They got into pig rearing when a neighbouring farmer asked if they would take care of a tiny piglet, the runt of a large litter, which they kept warm on the stove. The pig became a much loved and enormous pet called Tricksy, who always knew where the biscuit tin was kept and frequently broke into the bungalow to find and open it. Despite the pigs and other pets, both sisters continued teaching and used to transform themselves from farmers in boots, dungarees and a good souwester, into smartly dressed teachers. Joan enjoyed the local astronomy club run by Eric Mobsby and subscribed to ‘Sky and Telescope', the professional magazine, and followed developments at the Hubble institute as well as new theories about sun spots.

Cutting from the London Evening Standard, 24 July 1939

After Chris's death in 1978, Joan came into her own. The pigs gave way to goats. Joan had already acquired two named Crisis and Willow Sprite, who became the founding members of a herd of beautiful white Swiss goats. This opened her post-retirement career. She and Eleanor drove through Brittany and Normandy, bought the best cheese making equipment at a discount in Sainte-Maure, and became a producer of organic goats' milk, yoghurt and cheese, which she sold at the pioneering Health Food shop in Sherborne.

When morning and evening milking became too much for her, she pensioned off the goats, keeping only the billy for stud purposes and one non-milking pet goat. She then began to investigate the Burchardt family history, which opened a completely new venture. "For years", she writes in the introduction to her book, Little Britain. Letters from the Hawaiian Kingdom, "we have had water colour sketches painted by my father and photographs taken by him of his life as a rancher in Hawaii. In 1996 my sister Eleanor had to clear her attic completely to get rid of the asbestos round the central heating. Oh dear! What a to-do! Among the miscellanea we unearthed was a parcel labelled, ‘Letters from him, about Hawaii', containing 56 letters written between 1884 and 1891, about the life of my father and his two brothers as ranchers."

This chance discovery led her to research the adventures of her father Ernest and his brothers Godfrey and Fred, in what were then called the Sandwich Islands. It brought her into contact with librarians, ranchers and shop keepers in Hawaii, who helped her to reconstruct that era when all journeys on the islands were on horseback and the Burchardt brothers experienced the cowboy life. How they loved their horses.

Here is one family story that tells a lot. Ernest and Fred bought the Kahua ranch in Kohala with John McGuire. This is how Fred describes McGuire in 1886: "Very shrewd and cautious... one of the very few honest half-whites in this country, he is a very fine looking man, with aquiline features, which is very unusual among half whites, is of a rich mahogany complexion...". Later McGuire, who became the main owner of the ranch, came with his wife to visit Ernest in London. They took him to shop in Harrods where he was refused entry "because he was black". After which, Joan wrote, "We were never allowed to go near the place". The store was dubbed `orrid `arrods and our boycott continues to this day, despite its change of ownership.

Implicit in this story is something about Joan's branch of the family. This is how she sets the scene for her account of the letters from Hawaii:

Watercolour of Chinese indentured workers in Hawaii painted by Ernest Burchardt in the late 1880s









The story really starts in the great city of Liverpool, a rich and sociable city with fine buildings and balls and concerts, but with a dark and hidden past which was known to all but never mentioned. The days of the terrible slave trade... At Lime Street railway station, near the Liverpool docks, in the year 1878, there was a party seeing off young Godfrey Burchardt on the start of his journey to the Sandwich Islands... The party would have included his mother, born Jane Ashton, and by then sixty-two, his brothers Ernest and Frederic, and his sister Chrissie, a rather stiff young lady of twenty-one. If his father Otto Burchardt was there it would have been the last time Godfrey saw him...  A tall, fair blue-eyed man he was the Prussian Consul in Liverpool....

Oh dear, what nostalgia, the tall ships on the Mersey, girls' large hats, the guard waves his flag: and the journey half round the world starts off in a great cloud of steam and smoke.

The insistence that she would mention the slave trade is characteristic. Her uncle Fred's style of frankness (in the book Joan describes him as a "snob") easily turned into racism. But Joan and her brothers and sisters were determinedly anti-fascist, as well as being hostile to all forms of hypocrisy. So she went out of her way to remind us of what lay behind the wealth and fun of nineteenth century England, just as she would probe people's motives with considerable suspicion to tether her instinctive generosity.

Her research on the family history from Hawaii deepened her international concern and prompted her to volunteer at the Oxfam shop in Sherborne. Into her late 80s she took pride in managing the cash register, bagging up the takings and depositing them in the local bank. Never a stickler for appearances, no one dared attempt to mug her. She made new friends and observed the Oxfam customers most critically. Active until the last six months of her life, although increasingly blind, she would sing old music hall songs with a mischievous grin, as well as reciting her favourite poems with a memory that puts succeeding generations to shame.

Among the many skills I learned from Joan, how to make a béchamel sauce was never forgotten; there was feeding goats and pigs, mucking out stables, and double de-clutching on an old van to get into first gear when it was struggling up a steep hill. Above all her self-confidence set an example. It was rooted in her training that helped her become a first class practical mathematician, who ran her goats' milk business and then mastered basic programming when few of her generation even used computers. Pre-war London saw many extremely capable women taking on largely masculine professions such as flying and medicine. They were the first generation who went to university with the assumption that this would be seen as normal, not something that made them different. I suspect they didn't consider themselves as feminists even though they admired the suffragettes, because of course they should have the vote;  their aim was simply to show that they were as good as anyone.

I don't recall Joan ever expressing a view on the feminist movement. She always favoured comfortable clothes, hated wearing stockings and abandoned bras many years before they were burned. To my eyes, she personified the development of full individual potential, especially when she managed the farm alone, becoming quite frighteningly competent in a wide variety of activities. As she often said, she was never bored. While she took pleasure in re-reading much loved poems and novels, she constantly requested new titles, and only recently enjoyed ‘Le soleil des Scorta' by Laurent Gaudé, and the Egyptian trilogy of Naquib Mahfouz. 

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