Born Catherine Pestell in 1933, Hughes studied history at St Hilda’s College later becoming President of the Stubbs Society. Upon passing the Civil Service exams with flying colours, she joined the Foreign Office in 1955 – then a highly male-dominated environment. She was appointed Third Secretary in The Hague during the first year of the European Communities before her promotion to Bangkok as Second Secretary. Here, she had a ringside seat on the accelerating war in Indo-China.
She returned to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as First Secretary and principal desk officer for Vietnam. In this role, Hughes strongly opposed British involvement in America’s escalating war. Her toughest assignment came when she was asked in 1975 to take the tough role of negotiator in East Berlin missions during the Cold War détente. In 1978 she was promoted to Political Counsellor having earned recognition as a leading expert on the Four Power Status of this divided city.
In that strange world where hardship sat alongside political paranoia she remained “cantankerous”. And she had a slightly subversive attitude to authority, once saying “I like that tiny seed of cantankerousness which doesn’t lie down and accept things.”
She retired in 1989 from her final Ambassadorial-level job – as assistant Under-Secretary for the Public Departments – on her appointment as Principal of Somerville College, Oxford. She married her neuropathologist husband Dr Trevor Hughes in 1991, then the acting Warden of Green College, Oxford. Indeed, as the statutes of the College did not permit the Principal to marry, Miss Pestell resigned, married and was re-elected as Principal; however there was a two-week period when the College had no head.
Somerville’s Governing Body, during her time at the College, decided to admit men as Fellows and students. The decision was very vigorously opposed yet as Principal, she oversaw the admission of the first male Fellows and students in 1993-4.
With the same characteristic resilience, for many years she faced the onset of cancer, enjoying global cruises when she was well enough to travel. She described as ‘liberating excellence’ the purpose of her very generous gifts to support Somervillians in History, English and Modern Languages.
The Society is proud to have been associated with such a distinguished individual.
Extracts from the Civil Service website and obituary by St Hilda’s.