Karel Jaeger: An English knight errant

I have a signed copy of Niccolo, a children’s book written by my quixotic fencing master, Karel Jaeger. It wasn’t until after his death that the budding D’Artagnan learnt about the adventurous life his teacher had led.

Cyril Karel Jaeger was born 13 March 1912 in Bradford, England. He was adopted by the poet and children’s author Lady Margaret Sackville (1881-1963), who frequented Edinburgh’s salons and became the first president of Scottish PEN and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Karel Jaeger spent his early life hobnobbing in Scottish literary society and by the age of 12 had started writing short stories.

When he was 15, his adoptive mother entrusted his upbringing to her friend the sociologist and town planner Sir Patrick Geddes and his wife. Jaeger was educated together with six other boys in the Outlook Tower near Edinburgh Castle. He later pursued French at Montpelier University, but spent less time studying than in the cafés, where he developed a close friendship with the Bengali poet and future Nobel Prize-winner Rabindranath Tagore.

A combination of asthma and tuberculosis prompted a two-year spell in a Swiss sanatorium. On the recommendation of doctors, he moved to the south coast of England, funded by a generous inheritance that he immediately set about spending. His extravagances included a white sports car, in which he hurtled around the Sussex lanes with Lydia Nicholls, the glamorous young actress he married in 1936. Through her, he joined an artistic circle that included performers such as Alastair Sim and Herbert Marshall but also her father, who was an established sculptor and Royal Academician.

In 1940, a few months before the publication of his debut novel, Angels on Horseback, Jaeger was conscripted into the army. Following a stint as a bombardier with the Royal Artillery, he became a dispatch rider in the North Africa campaign. He was ultimately invalided out of the military after he rode over a German mine. Recovered from his injuries, Jaeger resumed his life in the seaside resort of Bognor Regis. (In 1929 King George V, asked to bestow the suffix “Regis” – meaning “of the King” – on Bognor, allegedly replied, “Oh, bugger Bognor.” The King’s Private Secretary informed the petitioners that, “The King has been graciously pleased to grant your request.”)

Jaeger produced a second novel entitled The Man in the Top Hat (1949) before trying his hand at writing a script for a film. When that failed, he turned to working as a labourer, meanwhile playing cricket for the Sussex Second Eleven and penning a succession of charming children’s books.

These books, many of them illustrated by Margret Rey (who did the Curious George series), included Men of Fine Parts (1950), Sweet Fanny Adams (1953), The Bull that was Terrifico (1955), The Little Bandita (1957), Niccolo (1959) and Pinook (1960). Critics likened them to the works of Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame.

In 1958, Jaeger got a job teaching French, cricket, and fencing at Oakwood Preparatory School in the village of Funtington, near Chichester, West Sussex, where he and his wife moved into a cottage. With outstanding success he also taught fencing to three unlikely musketeers at Midhurst Grammar School, remaining a teacher until his retirement in the early 1980s. Jaeger’s characteristic ebullience, wit, and joie de vivre never left him and he lived to see the republication of Niccolo in a parallel French/English edition. He died on 8 September 2008 in Chichester, West Sussex, aged 96.

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15 comments on “Karel Jaeger: An English knight errant

  1. Amanda Jagger says:

    I stumbled upon this article researching my husbands family, and was so touched. What a lovely piece. He was a truly interesting man, from a very interesting family. His brother Frank Jagger (yes Jagger – Mac changed his name) was my husband Andrews grandfather. Frank married Wendy Clapham (related to Lord Clapham). The jaggers of Shropshire were farmers (300+ acres at their most affluent time). Franks son David and his family own Battlefield 1403 in Shrewsbury, the richness of this family and their history goes on. But thank you for reminding me about our beloved Mac. Amanda Jagger

    • Philip Lee says:

      How nice! I was delighted to know him briefly and disappointed not to have known more of his wonderful story at a time when I could have (probabaly rather naively) questioned him. Thanks for getting in touch.

    • Wendy Clapham says:

      I too stumbled upon this while attempting to research my Father’s family. It is a lovely story.
      Wendy Clapham, Ontario,Canada.

    • Roy Blake says:

      Good Morning Amanda
      As you have a close relationship to the Jaeger (Jagger) family, would you have any contact that I could make who would be likely to know if Karel ever completed and Published a Book on Victor DeSpiganovicz’s Life i.e. Biography! please?
      I do know from letters I have that passed between Karel, His Son Nicholas and Victor that it was in a pretty advanced stage in 1965 even to the point of designing the Book Cover for it. I believe that it would have been given a title something Like ‘Spiggies —-!’
      Victor was on This is your Life in 1960 when Karel appeared on the program!
      Hope yo may be able to help!
      best Regards
      Roy

  2. Vera (Vee) Darlington says:

    I was very intrigued to learn about the life of a Karel Jaeger. He, his wife and son Nicky lived across the road from us in Elmer Sands, just outside Bognor Regis and we children spent many happy hours swimming in the sea at Elmer. My parents were given signed copies of the books “Sweet Fanny Adams” and “The bull that was Terrifico”. Sweet memories for me and my twin sister.
    Vera Darlington

    • Philip Lee says:

      I am glad to know this. Thank you. He was always very patient with his fencing pupils, but we missed out on knowing anything about his earlier life. It all sounds intriguing and the stuff of legend.

    • Nicky Jaeger says:

      Hi Vera I have fond memories of your family, you your sister and of course Hugh with whom I spent many hours playing paper cricket with Wisden. Your parents were so kind
      I bumped into your father a few years ago in Felpham and he told me of Hugh’s sad death.
      Good to catch up with you
      Nicky Jaeger

  3. David Leatherwood says:

    He was my fencing coach at Oakwood for a number of years. Always ready with a boiled sweet for the winner.

  4. Roy Blake says:

    I have just found some letters dated Dec 1965 which were passed between Karel and Victor j despiganovicz. Victor was then 84 yrs old and living penniless in a loan cottage in Scotland, Karel had just given Victor a telephone to enable him to continue communication with the outside world and his friends. Karel was also preparing to publish an Autobiography of Victor,s story called ‘Spiggies life’ to help fund him in Food and warmth! A wonderful man who should be remembered for this fine gesture among many others in his life.
    I wonder if this book was ever published as I have an original Script of Victors in my possession and would dearly love to compare Karel’s version with that of Victor’s.
    If there is anybody who can give me an answer to this outstanding question I would dearly love to hear from them on Email royblake264@btinternet.com
    Victor was actually honored by the BBC in 1960 on a ‘This is your Life’ program with Eamonn Andrews who was also a common friend of both gentlemen They were the days!!!!

    • Philip Lee says:

      A fascinating story. Thank you for writing. I am not sure my blog has the reach that might enable you to get an answer to your question, but good luck!

      • Roy Blake says:

        Thank you Phillip
        I actually have copies or originals of most of Baron Victor de Spiganovicz’s writings
        plus a copy of his This is your life Script. As I have a lot of Victors Correspondence also I was able to find that Karel Jaeger was advanced in the process of Publishing Victor,s Autobiography!
        I found this site and hope that somebody might just be able to shine a light if it was ultimately published and under what Title!
        I shall keep my fingers crossed as elsewhere in this site there are relatives of Karel’s commenting!
        Maybe they will be able to help!

  5. Nicky Jaeger says:

    Amazing synopsis of my father’s life. I didn’t know it was so well documemted.
    I was delighted to read it!

    • Roy Blake says:

      Hello Nicky
      I would like to know if your Father ever completed the Autobiography of Victor deSpiganowicz
      as I have a copy of Victors original Manuscript! and having read it felt that it should have been published as it was so interesting. If it was under what Title do you think that it was published.
      I also have some of the original letters that you sent to him also correspondence that went between your Father and Victor during the days that you were at University.
      Victor was an extremely interesting Character who had a fascinating Life which eventually came to an end at the age of 92 yrs . He actually donated his body for research to the Edinburgh Medical University. He felt that he wanted to pay back Society for what they had done for him!
      Amazing Chap.
      I look forward to your reply.
      Best Wishes
      Roy

  6. Karel Bartholomew says:

    How lovely to read the comments on Karel Jaeger,my father. He certainly was a unique character with a wonderful sense of humour, often living in his own world of fantasy and fun. He wrote me a letter when I was 12 having my appendix out and it made me laugh so much I had to hang on to my tummy and the bedpost, tears streaming down my face!
    It wasn’t always an easy ride for my mother who was a saint!
    Karel Bartholomew (yes, I have his name)

  7. John Podaras says:

    I was fascinated to read about our remarkable French master and fencing tutor when I was at Oakwood back in the early 70’ies. “Yogi” as we affectionately called him used to regale us with his stories of bull-fighting (showing us the scar on his wrist), motor racing and penchant for perfecting a romantic French accent. I remember French sessions (which we would effortlessly turn into great stories from his past) in his cottage and his wife who would bring us tea and biscuits. Thank you for bringing that wonderful man back to life for me. I wish I could have known him better back then.

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