Jean Wilhelma Rowntree was born at Scalby, Yorkshire, on November 8 1905. Daughter to John Wilhelm, who died just before she was born, and sister to Lawrence, killed in action in 1917, her childhood was marred by bereavement.
Nevertheless, she was flourished academically, both at The Mount and Somerville, Oxford. Building on the Rowntree commitment to extending educational opportunities Jean went on to teach girls at Downe House, Newbury.
In 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the Czechs as “people of whom we know nothing”. Despite this assertion, the danger that Czechoslovakia faced was clear to others in the UK. Early that year, several of Joseph’s granddaughters not only foresaw the threat but acted on it. Jean and Tessa Rowntree left for Prague to help those Czechs who had spoken out against Nazism to escape to safety.
Hitler mobilised troops in preparation for occupying the Sudetenland. This led to a number of German-speaking, skilled artisan supporters of the Social Democratic Party fleeing in their thousands to Prague. Immediately there was a need for food and warm clothes and various British charities came to assist. In addition to this, Jean and Tessa led convoys of refugees to the relative safety of the Russian and Polish borders.
Critically, refugees needed visas to allow them to escape the coming Nazi invasion more permanently. Most nations were willing to tolerate a certain amount of immigration for humanitarian reasons, but this ‘toleration’ was significantly limited. Some countries, such as the USA, operated a strict quota system. Most were concerned that refugees should not become a burden on state finance in any way and accepted only those who had access to financial support.
Jean spent hours trying to find countries willing to issue refugee visas, with some success. On one occasion she managed to persuade a minister of Southern Ireland to take 500 glassworkers, though he insisted that they should not be Jewish. She also rescued some refugees in the shifting ‘No Man’s Land’ between Germany and the remnants of Czechoslovakia, with the aid of a Czech Jew who was consul for a South American country.
As Chamberlain landed at Heston Aerodrome in September, declaring he was “bringing peace with honour”, Jean Rowntree also returned home briefly. She brought with her some jewellery on behalf of Czech Jews who were hoping to flee. When she attended a meeting about the plight of the Sudeten refugees, she was reassured to hear Archbishop William Temple say plainly, “For goodness’ sake, let us have the elementary guts to call evil evil.”
When Hitler invaded wider Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Jean came back to England for the duration of WW2. She initially worked with the evacuees who streamed into Newbury during the Blitz. Then, whilst waiting for a post with the Ministry of Information, she was offered a job in the BBC talks department. She decided this would engage her interests and talents more completely.
Lord Beveridge was a regular speaker, giving talks on the future of post-war planning. After one of these, Jean took him to the BBC canteen for a cup of war-time coffee. He was proffered a fish fork with which to stir it. When Beveridge asked mildly why he could not have a spoon, the canteen attendant snapped “Because such as you steals them, sir”.
In 1946, Jean Rowntree returned to central Europe to work with Allied Control Commission in Austria. Millions of displaced people were attempting to get home and return to some kind of normality; a different type of support was needed.
After three years, the BBC welcomed her back, asking her to investigate the possibilities of using broadcasting to assist with adult education. The Butler Education Act was ushering in a golden age of opportunity for people who previously had been denied access to learning (until 1944, the school leaving age remained at 14). In time, Jean Rowntree saw her report lead to a production unit, a radio department and a television department. Eventually, her influence played a part in the development of the Open University.
Jean’s further education unit reflected her wide-ranging interests, with series on science, the arts, current affairs, the environment and education itself. Her production team engaged promising newcomers and established figures. Jean Rowntree also fostered links with the audience and with adult education organisations, through the BBC’s advisory machinery and a talented team of further education liaison officers. Producers and presenters who worked with, or for, her remember her sharp mind and seriousness of purpose, coupled with an enchanting smile and a hearty laugh. She was a sturdy, energetic person, scholarly in manner, but kind and encouraging.
In family circles, these qualities also made her a much-loved aunt. She remained single throughout her life, energetically and successfully engaged in her career and with a wide range of hobbies after retirement. Perhaps typical of a Rowntree, she made little of the courage required to work with the Czechs as Hitler’s troops advanced. She was a remarkable woman.