Peter Needham obituary

Other Lives: Classics teacher at Eton who came to prominence with his Latin translations of Harry Potter

The life of my friend Peter Needham, who has died aged 86, began in Czechoslovakia in times of tumult and ended in Berkshire in easeful tranquility, with much of the intervening period spent as a classics teacher at Eton.

Peter was born in Teplice, in what is now the Czech Republic, to Fritz Niethammer, a lawyer, and his wife, Ann (nee Bergmann), later known as Annerle Needham, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. In 1939, aged four, Peter was one of the first refugee Jewish children to be flown out of Prague as fears of a Nazi takeover grew.

He owed his rescue to an organisation called the Barbican Mission, which required that the children it rescued must be brought up as Christians. Accordingly, Peter started his life in England in the care of one of the mission’s leaders at Chislehurst, Kent, moving on to Winterdyne school in Southport, Lancashire. He was eventually followed to England by his mother and his mother’s parents, though not by his father, for by that time his parents had divorced.

In 1947 he won a scholarship to St Paul’s school in west London, arriving while still called Niethammer but soon converting to Needham. In 1952 he won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, where he read classics. He moved on from Oxford to national service in Colchester, and then became a classics teacher, first at Bromsgrove school in Worcestershire and then, for four happy years, at Magdalen College school in Oxford.

In 1964 he moved to teach classics at Eton, and stayed there for 34 years until his retirement in 1998. His speciality at the school was ancient history, and he was also one of two masters who had oversight of the school’s in-house newspaper, the Eton Chronicle. For a period Boris Johnson, chaotic and frequently late with copy, was one of the editors he had to supervise.

The best thing that happened to Peter at Eton, by the common consent of his friends, was that the house where he lived with four other bachelor masters acquired a housekeeper in the form of Nicola Scott-Dove, who was a talented cook. They married in 1971, and the union gave him a new and contenting stability.

In retirement Peter was looked after in everything great and small by Nicky, who would serve up dazzling meals in the kitchen while Peter, sunk deep into a favourite armchair and distracted by one of his famously ill-disciplined dogs, would entertain his visitors. His retirement project was producing Latin versions of favourite children’s stories, and having translated Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington into spirited Latin, he took on two novels by JK Rowling, which he named Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis and Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum. These took his name around the world.

By that time the Needhams had settled in Datchet in Berkshire, where Nicky had grown up. She and their two children, Ruth and Rupert, survive him.


David McKie

The GuardianTramp

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