Forged in Sheffield

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Ted Wragg was a gifted linguist, sportsman and musician who believed passionately that everyone should have the opportunity to discover their gifts and excel. The fire was lit in his youth, explains his daughter, Josie Wragg

'What drove Ted?" asked the woman from The TES one morning shortly after my father died. What drove Dad? I pondered a little over the question and wondered if she meant, "Who drove Ted?" Well he drove himself, obviously, in his much-loved BMW, usually at speed, usually late and usually accompanied by a string of expletives. No, no, she must have meant, "What drove Ted mad?" But everyone at The TES and in the world of education knew very clearly what drove him mad. Years of writing articles delivered with humour, satire and vitriolic denouncements of ill-conceived and poorly researched government policy, illustrated very clearly what drove Dad mad.

"What made him the man he was? That's the side we don't know about Ted,"

she continued.

Now I got it. What made him care? Where did his humour come from? What made him intellectually brilliant? What made him get up at 4 o'clock in the morning to meet his TES deadline? What made him be his own man and not give a stuff about the establishment?

Allow me to share a little with you.

My Austrian grandmother, Maria, arrived in England alone and seeking work in 1933, one of eight children from a poor family living near the Czech border. Gradually she worked her way, cleaning and nannying, from the south of England to Sheffield where she met my grandfather, George, a strong, opinionated, determined working-class man. He was selling flowers door to door and knocked on a door where she was the housekeeper. On June 26 1938, dad was born into a small terraced house in Clarence Street, Sheffield, later cleared as part of the 1960s slum clearance programme.

For some reason my grandmother had the foresight to ensure that her only son secured a place at Hunter's Bar, an infant and junior school considered the "best" in the city, even though he had to catch two trams there and back every day. She was right; 29 out of 33 of the children in his class passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school. One of Dad's party tricks was to recite all 33 names from that class in alphabetical order; it always raised a groan and a chuckle.

Dad was one of only six children in the whole of Sheffield to be awarded an Ecclesall Bierlow scholarship and, pound;11 richer, he started at King Edward VII Grammar School in 1949. At King Edward's he blossomed and pursued his love of music, acting, sport and especially languages. He knew he was being given a special opportunity in life and felt privileged.

Despite Grandad being told that his son would only get to university when degrees were "two a penny", Dad went to Durham and gained a double first in languages. "We've got enough seconds in this family, what we want is some firsts," was one of Grandad's favourite sayings. No pressure there, then!

Dad was popular at school and many of his friends from his schooldays wrote after he died giving beautiful anecdotes, mainly of the mischievous things they got up to. But it wasn't always that way; the fact that his pre-school years were spent during the war with an Austrian mother (well, that's almost German, isn't it?) meant that he was often ostracised. He was the only child in the street not to be invited to the VE celebrations because he was "the little German". I'm sure, although he never said, that this must have contributed to his strong sense of social justice.

Music played a big part in his life. He had this amazing ability to sit down at the piano, having heard a song only once, and play faultlessly the tune as if he had practised for weeks. He was in the church choir as a boy and later at university played guitar in a skiffle band. We often sat round as a family and sang, and Dad had recently taught his three grandchildren "My Way"; we sang it at his funeral.

My grandmother had the most fantastic voice as a young woman; many of her relatives and friends in Austria told us she could have been a professional singer given the opportunity. But she wasn't given the opportunity and ended up cleaning and being a housemaid to scratch a living. Dad always said people should have opportunities in life according to what they could achieve, not where they were in the social hierarchy. He truly believed that everyone had something they could excel at and encouraged so many people during his life.

Despite being told at school not to play football because it was "working class", Dad's love of the game stayed with him all his life. In his second teaching job, at Wyggeston boys' in Leicester, he started a football team in a rugby-playing school. When the team won the local league, the rugby teacher could barely bring himself to talk to him. That very same team - now men in their late 50s - were due to meet for a reunion with Dad two weeks after he died, such was the strength of the bond they had formed. He played football regularly when he was younger and never tired of supporting Sheffield Wednesday. When we were children, we were all taken to Hillsborough to watch the Owls. I've never experienced so much gritty humour as I did in that crowd; Dad absolutely loved it and came away smiling with his stock of northern humour topped up until the next time.

As well as playing football, Dad became a keen jogger in his mid-thirties.

He went running every day for the rest of his life. If we were going on holiday he would even run round an airport lounge or a channel ferry deck, much to our embarrassment. But he didn't care, he really didn't. He often recalled the time when we were staying with my grandparents in Sheffield.

At about 7am on a cold December morning he went on his run via the newsagent to get the paper. If people at an airport or on a ferry thought he was eccentric, it was nothing to what the little old chap buying his paper that cold morning articulated as Dad ran by. "Thou' daft bugger!" he called out. Dad had tears of laughter rolling down his face by the time he got back. It was fitting that he died while out running. He would have loved the irony.

I can't end without describing Judith's influence. They met 50 years ago as teenagers at a Congregational church event; Mum has been his partner, his rock, his sparring partner, his grounding. He could be bold because he had the unwavering support of Mum, he could be controversial because the opinion he valued more than anyone's was hers, and if he thought something was "bollocks" and she agreed, then that was good enough for him.

So what drove Ted?

I'll tell you. He came from an intelligent, unusual, motivated working-class family. He was given a push and an opportunity. He had continuing support and love throughout his adult life and he believed so passionately that everyone should be given an opportunity, as he had.

Everybody has a worth - it doesn't get much simpler than that.

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