Professor Herbert Thomas Bracewell (Bert), fencing master

Born: January 2, 1936;

Died: June 14, 2020.

BERT Bracewell, who has died at the age of 84, was born prematurely in West Ham, London, weighing 2lbs 9oz. His young mother, Maud, wrapped him in cotton wool, washed him in olive oil and fed him with a pipette, while his father, also Bert, kept the house warm. Against the odds, he survived, and thrived, and went on to become one of Britain’s pre-eminent fencing masters, and a leading figure in the sport in Scotland.

His love of fencing began when, aged 17, he saw the Stewart Granger-starring swashbuckler, Scaramouche, at a local cinema. Outside, he spotted an advertisement offering beginners’ classes at the Latista Fencing Club with Professor Alf Simmonds. He was captivated.

Later, during his National Service with the RAF, he was the only fencer during his training at RAF Kirkham. He was mentored by a PT instructor who told him: “You have a superb attack but no defence”. At his duty station, RAF Waterbeach, the Station Commander, the then President of the RAF Fencing Union, included him in a fencing team for the RAF Championships. They won at their second attempt.

Introduced to épée by another PT instructor, the French fencer André Williams, he came third in the Fighter Command Épée competition and was awarded Fighter Command Colours. Upon leaving the RAF, he returned to Latista to run three club leaders’ courses. When he took the exams himself, he passed top in foil and épée and second in sabre.

In 1956, just after National Service, Bert had gone on holiday to Bracklesham Bay. As he was walking along the front, he took his ever-present handkerchief from his trouser pocket and dropped a ten-bob note. A young woman ran after him to return it. Bert had just met the love of his life, Joan. They were engaged by the time Bert was asked to join an Olympic training squad. He elected instead to coach and marry Joan. When asked later if he regretted not joining the Olympic squad, he responded: “Joan is my Olympic gold medal.”

Bert set up his club, Cyrano, in 1962, and produced the first British World under-20s finalist, Mike Breckin. He was due to sit his final exam for his masters’ diploma when he was recommended by the Maître d’Armes to the Scottish Amateur Fencing Union (SAFU), Johnny Fethers, for the role of Scottish national coach.

They were well known to each other: in the 1960s he had been runner-up to Fethers in the British Professional Championships in the 1960s four times. He had also represented Great Britain at the World Masters five times and at all three weapons.

He became the national coach in 1966 and the following year he passed exams to become a full master and professor of the British Academy of Fencing.

Bert was determined to grow the sport in Scotland and to develop fencing in local authority schools; he established accredited coaching schemes and Schools Grading Awards, and introduced the successful week-long fencing tournament for all Scottish schools. He was also pivotal in establishing the Edinburgh Schools’ Fencing Association at Meadowbank Sports Centre, which became one of the most successful clubs in the country.

Paul Neil-MacLachlan, President of Edinburgh Fencing Club, said: “Fencing was a very minor sport in Scotland and would never have developed in the way it did without Bert. He got schools involved in a way that hadn’t happened before. Many independent schools offered fencing, but it didn’t happen in local authority schools. He transformed that. He was a ‘people person’. He was always there for someone who needed help, he made people feel special.”

At national level, in one year alone Scots held five of the eight possible British age-group titles. He trained the Scotland fencing team for the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, steering them to their most successful games up to that point. He also founded the Lothian Fencing Club, the first mixed able-bodied and disabled fencing club in Scotland.

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, of the four Scottish fencing Olympians – among them his own daughter, Julia – three were state-educated.

Inspired by Stewart Granger in Scaramouche, the film he had first seen as a 17-year-old, he developed his knowledge of stage-fighting through his friend and mentor, Professor Bob Anderson, fight director for the Star Wars and the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Students at Glasgow’s RSAMD and Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret College benefitted from his fencing and stage fighting classes. He trained stage-fight directors and worked with stuntmen on popular TV shows as well as on a number of theatre productions. He often passed offers for other stage fighting work to his drama students to enable them to build up their own CVs.

The BAF recognised his contribution to fencing in 1981 with their prestigious Gauthier Trophy. It was followed in 2016 by a lifetime achievement award from British Fencing. His role as national fencing coach ended with his retirement in 1992, but he remained active and was still producing Scottish and British champions and coaching until he and Joan self-isolated with the outbreak of Covid-19.

Indeed, even later in life he competed against his pupils, saying he could not lose if they won. He was often able to predict their moves and use his craftiness to overcome their youth and speed. There was always a twinkle in his eye. “It’s only pain!,” he would laughingly say, as he challenged his students to achieve their best.

He is survived by Joan, children Julia, Karen and Michael, and grandchildren Jonty, Amy, Scott, Laura and Josh.