Bill Beaumont, wartime flyer and Speaker’s Secretary

Bill Beaumont

Bill Beaumont, who has died aged 92, was one of the few surviving members from the Second World War of the Caterpillar Club, the informal association of people who have bailed successfully by parachute from a stricken aircraft.

He was also, at various times, a schoolmaster, West Riding clothing manufacturer and civil servant, and held the ancient office of Speaker’s Secretary in the House of Commons, in which capacity it fell to him to pass Margaret Thatcher the message that Argentina had invaded the Falkland Islands.

His airborne ordeal had begun in August 1945, days after the Japanese surrender, when he was flying as a navigator with 355 Squadron based in Calcutta.

On a mission to drop supplies to newly liberated allied prisoners of war and starving civilians, his Liberator suffered catastrophic engine failure, possibly after taking a hit from Japanese troops unaware that the war had ended.

Forced to abandon the plane and separated from the rest of the crew, he found himself alone and without food or water, marooned in the mangrove swamps of the Sundarban forests of the Ganges delta, his parachute snared in a tree. He succeeded in constructing a small platform, and survived on water dripping from the leaves. At the same time, obedient to his military training, he marked out his territory in the manner of an animal, as protection from predators.

Four days later, he was rescued when his parachute was spotted by a passing aircraft. Remarkably, all the other members of the crew were also recovered.

William Anderson Beaumont was born in Leeds on October 30, 1924. His family, originally Huguenot refugees, had been involved for generations with the textile industry and his grandfather, Roberts Beaumont, had been the first professor of textiles at Leeds University.

Educated at Cranleigh School in Surrey, William won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, to study history. But in 1940 he enlisted with the RAF, and deferred his place until after the war. By that time he was married to Kythe, and his status posed a problem to the college authorities who had no obvious accommodation to offer the newlyweds. In the event, the couple were allowed to make their home on the college’s old rowing barge moored on the Cherwell.

Determined to become a schoolmaster, was recruited to teach at Bristol Grammar. But in 1954 he was asked to take control of Beaumont and Smith, the family worsted business in Pudsey.

He ran the business for the next 12 years and prided himself on helping to sell Yorkshire cloth around the world - first for Beaumont and Smith and later for the Shipley-based Henry Mason, part of the Jerome Group for whom he worked as managing director.

Meanwhile, he had joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force as a volunteer, and served at Fighter Control units in Somerset and Yorkshire - in which posting he was appointed to command one of the units based at Yeadon.

In 1962, he joined the Royal Observer Corps, the unit whose job it was in the Cold War to carry out nuclear reporting tasks in underground bunkers. He retired in 1975 after 13 years’ service.

In a bold mid-life move, he gave up commerce altogether and was selected for a late-entry post in the civil service, working for six years in the Welsh Office, until lured to London for the job of Speaker’s Secretary in London, advising George Thomas and Bernard Weatherill and helping them identify the MPs.

With the post came a handsome flat in the Palace of Westminster, overlooking the Thames and almost beneath Big Ben, and a ceremonial uniform that included knee breeches. Rather than stockings, he chose to wear two pairs of tights to keep out the cold and obscure the hair on his legs.

After Kythe fell ill, he took early retirement to look after her. In later life, he helped with the selection of civil service candidates, served as vice-chairman of the Franco-British Society, and sat on the awards committee of the RAF Benevolent Fund, as well as being a trustee of the RAF Club in Piccadilly.

But he never forgot his time in the cloth trade, and kept a weaver’s shuttle in a drawer at home, as a memento.

A man of wide general knowledge, he appeared on the BBC’s Mastermind, choosing as his specialist subject the waterways of England. It was an area in which he was well qualified, having been the owner of a canal boat. Later, he launched a luncheon club for the retired, the Nothing Club, which insisted on having no constitution or rules whatsoever.

A former resident of Adel in north Leeds and of Nidderdale, where he kept a cottage, he was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1986, and was awarded a military OBE in 1961 and the AE for airmen in 1953. His second wife, Rosalie Underhill, died in 2010 and he is survived by a daughter by his first marriage and two stepsons.

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