Darrell Buttery, English teacher devoted to protecting York’s civic heritage – obituary

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Buttery: ‘a gregarious loner… always supportive of young people, rarely critical of others, always kind’
Buttery: ‘a gregarious loner… always supportive of young people, rarely critical of others, always kind’

Darrell Buttery, who has died aged 81, was a schoolmaster, heritage campaigner, historian, diarist, collector and leading light of the cultural life of his beloved city of York.

By profession a teacher of English literature, Buttery was described by a colleague as one of York’s “most knowledgeable, passionate and devoted citizens”. As chairman and president of the city’s Civic Trust, long-serving chairman of its Georgian Society and a member of its Conservation Advisory Panel, he was an indefatigable opponent of any planning development he felt offended against its heritage.

He was particularly proud of his role in public opposition to “Coppergate 2” – the largest commercial scheme ever proposed in the city, with a footprint bigger than the Minster – that would have crowded the banks of the Foss and encroached on the Norman landmark of Clifford’s Tower.

While the city council fought to advance the plan, the Civic Trust condemned it as “architectural vandalism”. Buttery himself, having declared it “gargantuan” as well as simply not good enough for such a sensitive site, endured aggressive cross-examination during the subsequent public enquiry which led to its refusal by the Secretary of State in 2003.

Buttery in front of Clifford’s Tower in York
Buttery in front of Clifford’s Tower in York

A fluent public speaker for all occasions, Buttery deployed elegant manners, sonorous tones and a sardonic sense of humour. At one Civic Trust AGM, his wheelchair-bound comrade-in-arms, the architect Patrick Nuttgens, was heard to say: “Excuse me for sitting down. I’m exhausted by listening to the chairman.”

Darrell George Buttery was born at Guisborough on May 15 1941, the only child of Thomas Buttery, who followed his own father into the butchery trade before becoming an insurance agent and, for a time, manager of the ABC cinema in York. It was during those years of Darrell’s childhood that his fascination with heritage was sparked by “pushing open church doors – York had lots more of them then.”

Thomas would have preferred a son who liked sport rather than buildings and books. Darrell – who was much closer to his mother Ruby, née Wiskard – completed his education at Guisborough Grammar School and Durham University, where he read English and was president of the union.

He began his teaching career at Ashville College in Harrogate before becoming head of English at Wootton Bassett School and returning to York to teach from 1974 to 1985 at Nunthorpe Grammar, a “splendid” school, in his estimation, that was “smashed” by the decision to merge it into a comprehensive.

Many pupils there had found him inspirational, one recalling not only being introduced by Buttery to Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy (“rather off-curriculum”) but, most memorably, “his Local Studies course… basically a way of bunking out of school early on a Tuesday afternoon” to spend time wandering round the city discovering its architectural gems and byways.

One such was Fairfax House, then “still decorated like a 1970s nightclub”, now one of England’s finest Georgian town-house museums, many of its artefacts having come from Buttery’s personal collection.

He also presided with aplomb over an annual Georgian Ball at the city’s Assembly Rooms for sixth-formers from Nunthorpe and a nearby girls’ school.

He went on to teach at Queen Mary’s girls’ school at Baldersby Park near Thirsk until his first retirement in 2001, when a lunch encounter with the chair of governors of Pocklington School led to 10 days’ temporary cover at the end of Michaelmas term – which turned into five more years’ teaching and a governorship of what he considered a “wonderful” school.

Buttery wrote several books on the cultural history of York
Buttery wrote several books on the cultural history of York

Buttery was elected as a Conservative member of Harrogate borough council in the 1970s. He was governor of York’s Company of Merchant Adventurers in 2002-03 and the curator of paintings in its medieval timber-framed hall until the end of his life. He was also an active member of the city’s philosophical society.

Among Buttery’s published works were The Vanished Buildings of York (1984), Pictures of York Minster from the 17th Century to the Present (2007) and (with co-authors) The Streets of York: Four Centuries of Change (2018), as well as histories of Nunthorpe Grammar and Pocklington School.

It was while teaching at Nunthorpe that Buttery began keeping a waspish journal of the life of the school; he eventually donated the complete 47-year collection of his diaries to the Borthwick Institute for Archives of York University, where he was a much-valued member of the Court.

Darrell Buttery was a deputy lieutenant of North Yorkshire and was appointed MBE in 2018. A lifelong bachelor, he was, as one friend put it, “a gregarious loner… always supportive of young people, rarely critical of others, always kind”.

He was also a celebrated host at his Georgian villa overlooking York Racecourse, which he filled with a remarkable collection of furniture, paintings, costumes, “Yorkiana” and other curiosities that caught his eye.

Darrell Buttery, born May 15 1941, died July 27 2022