Suzanne Sparrow is undoubtedly one of the region’s most influential business figures – and this year her Plymouth Language School celebrates its 45th anniversary. We visited the former Devon & Plymouth Chamber Chair at her beautiful South Hams home to find out more about how her vision came to fruition and how the business has continued to thrive.
There are few people who know more about running a successful business than Suzanne Sparrow.
This year, her Suzanne Sparrow Plymouth Language School celebrates its 45th anniversary.
Even with the ill effects of Brexit, COVID and the war in Ukraine, the business continues to thrive and welcome new students of all nationalities to Britain’s Ocean City.
Suzanne admits it’s been an extraordinary journey and one she “wouldn’t wish businesses to go through”.
Born and bred in Plymouth, Suzanne attended Plymouth High School for Girls, before joining the Royal Navy at the age of 17 and following in her father’s footsteps. She even survived her home being blitzed in 1941.
After being released from service at the end of World War II, Suzanne worked in various jobs – including being secretary at the Marine Research Laboratory at Newton Ferrers.
During her time there, she met many visitors from overseas, some of whom had limited spoken English. She says: “At home we also had young overseas students staying with the family to help improve their English, and it was through this I realised that Plymouth did not have a professional language school.
“I had developed a great interest in the English language and, as my children were growing up, I kept myself active with typing, editing and books and that sort of thing.
“Eventually I was asked if I’d organise a group from Switzerland who were, I think, doing a kind of study of the pubs in Plymouth.
“I thought there must be people needing the English language having a ghastly time learning and not realising how the language does connect with a life and the way you use it. So I thought, ‘Well, I have no idea how to start a language school, but I’ll do it’.
“We started by hiring premises and the Chamber of Commerce was then in Looe Street. It was a wonderful place for the elderly members of the Chamber of Commerce to go to work. I had premises in the Plymouth Art Centre, as it was then, and when I had larger groups, we used Prysten House and places like that.”
Impossible to not be inspired by the breath-taking view from Suzanne’s wonderful home in Newton Ferrers
Suzanne and her business joined Devon & Plymouth Chamber of Commerce in 1979 at a time where attitudes to women in business were not what they are today.
And it’s testament to her incredible character that in 1988, she became Chair of the Chamber. Suzanne recalls: “When I started at the Chamber, it really was an old-boy network. The HQ in Looe Street had this wonderful pub near it, which the ‘old boys’ often frequented.
“Of course, being a female and not having a business background, some were actually rude to me and some wouldn’t even speak to me, despite the fact that I’d been in the Navy and I was doing a man’s job anyway!
“Time turned a bit on them because in 1988, there was a naval secretary there who said, ‘Do you know, I don’t know who we’re going to have as chairman, I can’t think’. Then he looked at me and said, ‘What about you?’. So I said, ‘Oh, I’ll have a bash’.”
The following year, Suzanne co-organised a visit to Brussels and Strasbourg to discover more about the EU and its workings. This led to the Chamber opening up an international section which Suzanne ran for more than a decade.
Suzanne had founded the Suzanne Sparrow Plymouth Language School In 1978. Her continued passion, determination and dedication to language is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the School’s longevity.
Even more incredible when you consider that she has just celebrated her 99th birthday on 23 November.
In recent years, understandably Suzanne has passed over the day-to-day running of the North Road-based school to her daughter, Hilary Desvernay, who is now principal.
But she admits that she “doesn’t know the word ‘retirement’,” and still maintains a hands-on role from her home in the South Hams.
One of Suzanne’s proudest moments came in 2009 when she was awarded a Doctorate by the University of Plymouth for her contribution to education.
In 2016, she also won the 2016 Lifetime Achievement honour at the Plymouth Business Awards, given to the businessman or woman who has made a considerable, profitable and lasting contribution to business in the city.
Suzanne is proud of her Plymouth roots, and is equally more proud of what her School has achieved in the last 45 years.
“I cannot say I’m putting my feet up because I am still fairly active,” she says. “And I’m very pleased when people turn up at the school, particularly those who have been before or who are now sending their children and, of course, grandchildren as well. So it’s of great interest still.
“I will always love the fact that people are so nice and so kind in Plymouth. There are many, many very kind and helpful families and this is what has maintained the School.
“It has also benefited the economy of Plymouth enormously in the past, and I think we have brought more than £40 million into the local economy over the years.
“I think we’ve done our part in selling Plymouth as a brilliant city to come to.”