Obituary - Frank Carter 1943-2010

28th May 2010 at 01:00

Frank Carter was the epitome of an English gentleman: bookish, intensely private and often seen about town in brogues, cords and a tweed jacket.

But, in late April, the farmhouse that had been his family's home for decades was destroyed by an uncontrollable fire, killing both Mr Carter and his 94-year-old mother.

Francis Carter was born in 1943 in Colchester, the scion of an established local family. In 1917, his grandfather had been town mayor; his own parents, however, were a haulage contractor and a beautician.

In the 1950s, the family moved into a 19th-century farmhouse at the isolated end of a Colchester backstreet.

Sent to boarding school in Ipswich at the age of seven, Frank was a consistently naughty child. However, by the time he had finished school and moved to London to read English at King's College, the tearaway boy had become a quiet, bookish young man.

After graduating in the late 1960s, he returned to Colchester to teach English at The Gilberd School, then a local grammar. Literature was his first and most enduring love: he was keen to convey to pupils his delight in Shakespeare and the literary greats. He had a particularly resonant speaking voice and was renowned for his ability to declaim from the classics in an actorly manner.

As a teacher, he was decidedly old-school: he would arrive at work in the said uniform of brogues, cord trousers and a tweed jacket, concealed under a sweeping cloak.

He fitted equally the stereotype of an old-fashioned gentleman. He was unfailingly polite: on the first day of term, it was always Mr Carter who approached new members of staff with words of welcome and advice.

He was similarly always willing to help out more established colleagues. His spelling, grammar and punctuation were impeccable, and science and maths teachers would often seek his advice when required to draw up a letter or memo.

In the 1980s, Gilberd became a comprehensive. This was not an easy transition for Mr Carter: he was scrupulously nice, and less academic pupils were prone to take advantage. He was the subject of repeated classroom tricks, an easy target for misbehaviour. But his delight in literature did not falter and, over the years, rubbed off on even the more recalcitrant teens.

He was an intensely private man, and rarely discussed his personal life; he did not marry. His ageing mother, Emilie, suffered from a bad back, which severely limited her movement: for the last ten years of her life she was bedbound. So, in 1994, Mr Carter took early retirement from Gilberd in order to spend more time looking after her in the family home.

His was a simple life: he did not care for travel, preferring to live frugally among the books he loved. Colleagues describe the Carter home as "a Miss Havisham house": books were stacked everywhere, nothing thrown away. The extensive grounds, meanwhile, remained untended and overgrown.

Occasionally, he would go out into the grounds and paint. He was a talented amateur watercolourist and loved to capture the natural world - butterflies in particular - on canvas.

And he continued to teach, working part-time at the Colchester Tutorial Centre. Here, too, he was noted above all for his politeness: at the end of every teaching day, he would thank the centre's management for having him.

He also retained an interest in events at Gilberd. Staff members would regularly come across him as he rifled through the shelves at local second-hand bookshops, and he would always enquire after former colleagues and pupils. Despite his ivory-tower bookishness, he was genuinely interested in people: he regularly stopped to chat with the teenagers who lived near the farmhouse, engaging with their lives and concerns.

And he was an active member of his local Catholic church. Here, too, his talent for declamation found a natural home: he was a regular reader at services, his voice resonating around the church.

No one yet knows how the fire started in the early hours of April 29. But the effects were unambiguous: the farmhouse was devastated, both Mr Carter and his mother killed.

In the dawn of the next morning, the charred pages of much-loved novels drifted in the wind through Colchester's streets.

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