Bolton School Former Pupils

Angela Williams, CMG

Angela Williams, CMG (née Needham, 1956-1963)
Director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees

Arriving at Bolton School just before my twelfth birthday, I was already dreaming of going to Africa at the first opportunity. Visits from the “Lulindi leper man”, readings from Naught for your Comfort in Thursday morning assembly, and CEWC meetings helped to foster that dream. At Birmingham University (1963-66), I studied West African sociology, social anthropology and political science (B.Soc.Sc), and went from there to Ghana to teach English and French for two years under the auspices of Voluntary Service Overseas (1966-68).

Returning to England and too restless to take up the place Birmingham had offered me to prepare for a Master’s degree, I joined the then Community Relations Commission (CRC), a statutory body established under the 1968 Race Relations Act in complement to the Race Relations Board. From 1968 to 1971, as Assistant Education Officer, I was involved in supporting teachers, schools, education authorities, the Schools Council and the media “to promote harmonious community relations” in multi-cultural England.

In September 1971, I took up an appointment with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, introduced by a senior officer of the CRC who had formerly been Deputy Commissioner-General of that Agency. I was to remain with UNRWA for 33 years, until retirement in September 2004, at Headquarters (Beirut, Vienna and Amman) and Field Offices (Gaza and Syria). The Agency’s mandate from the UN General Assembly is to deliver humanitarian, quasi-governmental education, health and social welfare services to Palestine refugees and their descendants living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, until such time as a political solution is found to the Israel-Palestine conflict, in accordance with the pertinent UN resolutions.

These three decades were filled with the crises of war, displacement and military occupation, but there were also periods of hope and progress, and always the remarkable resilience, vitality and humanity of the people with whom I lived and worked.

I was fortunate to hold privileged and progressively more senior positions, including Chief of the Commissioner-General’s Secretariat; Chief of External Relations; Deputy Director of UNRWA Affairs in Gaza; Director of Relief and Social Services; and Director of UNRWA Affairs in Syria – in 1984 only the second woman since the Agency began operations (1950) to reach the level of Chief (and the first was also British!); and, in 1988, the first woman Director.

Some highlights from those years:

  • Putting Gaza on the map (1985-88) in the events leading to and during the first “intifada”
  • Integrating a developmental approach into Agency-wide social welfare programmes, promoting capacity-building and community-based initiatives, wherever emergencies permitted (1988-1998)
  • Improving refugee living conditions, education and professional training in Syria – with significant success, tragically shattered in the current violence and upheaval (1998-2004).

For services to UNRWA, I was honoured to be invested Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael & St George (CMG) in the Queen’s New Year Honours 2005.

In retirement, I have worked with NGOs to promote music education and performance in the Middle East and served as Trustee of the Damask Rose Trust, until family responsibilities made the travel involved impossible. My Canadian husband and I presently live for much of the year in Austria, and also have a home in Ottawa. We are now a four-generation family: three children (my step-children) and their spouses, seven grand-children and two great-grand-daughters.

What is your connection to Bolton School? Were any other members of your family here?
Attendance 1956-63, on a scholarship from the County Borough of Bolton Education Authority.
Other family members: Elizabeth Balshaw, John Balshaw, Julie Balshaw – cousins; followed by their children.

What is your fondest Bolton School memory?
Participating, as one of the three Genii, in the wonderfully ambitious production of The Magic Flute in the Lower Sixth (1962). I have seen many outstanding professional performances since, not least at the Vienna State Opera, but this is the one that lives on most vividly in my memory.  (As an aside: Elaine Woods, who sang the role of Pamina, went on to reprise it with the Welsh National Opera, making what Gramophone magazine called “a most beautiful live recording”. I also had the pleasure of attending a concert in the renowned Goldener Saal of Vienna’s Musikverein, in which Elaine and Anne-Sofie von Otter were the soloists.)

Did any member of teaching staff particularly inspire you while you were at school?
Miss Bowman (French): being able to communicate confidently in French was a passport to the wider world.

Miss Pilsbury (History and Careers Advice) – though I think she would be surprised to hear it! She fired my imagination from the Third Form on, with the history and culture of Mesopotamia, and I craved the lapis lazuli which she pronounced so seductively!

What do you feel your experience at Bolton School has given to you personally?
The confidence to pursue the international career of my own choice. A keen interest in world politics. A love and appreciation of music and poetry. The values embodied in the school prayer influenced me profoundly – even though later experience challenged and nuanced my youthful understanding of it.

What is the best career advice you can give to Bolton School pupils today?
Learn a skill; have an adventure; make a difference. And heed Miss Pilsbury’s advice: Discover what you most enjoy doing, and then find someone to pay you to do it!

What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its bursary fund? 
Without the scholarship I received, I should not have been able to attend Bolton School and would have missed by far the most enriching years of my education. The longer I have to reflect on this, the more I value the opportunity I was given. In my time, two-thirds of the girls in each year were on scholarships (from the Bolton and Lancashire education authorities), and I should like to see the bursary scheme funded as generously.

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