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PANGBOURNE COLLEGE Spirit in Changing Times

Robin Knight


3 NAVIGATING THE THIRTIES 1930–1939

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n the 1930s the Nautical College, for the most part, settled down and made headway after surviving the turbulent buffeting of the previous decade. Its distinctive ethos and purpose had been clarified, its market defined, its finances balanced, and its unusual staff structure agreed and settled. The school’s leadership had been tested by events and its nautical routine was producing results. With its national reputation growing, and its beautiful campus high above the Thames Valley consolidated into a working whole that remained unchanged into the 1990s, there seemed to be every chance that the wind was set fair for the young institution.

Cadets watching aquatic sports in 1939.

Advances over the next ten years proved to be mostly incremental. Numbers crept up from 200 in 1930 to 221 in 1939. Academic standards, while not improving overall, did rise among the top echelon of cadets. A slump in world shipping had relatively little impact on the ability of Pangbourne cadets to find employment at sea. Management changes, such as the creation of a Board of Governors at the end of 1931, allowed the idea to spread that the NCP now ranked as a ‘public school’ whose value to the country, and particularly to the British merchant marine, could be measured in its output. And


Right: A boxing competition in the gym in 1937. In the ring: cadets Baring and Stoop.

while no major building projects took place, a succession of small improvements, including the construction of a Science Block, generated enough of a feeling of forward momentum to sustain morale. Many of these positive developments, it is true, occurred early in the 1930s. In 1931, for example, apart from the purchase of Bowden and the conversion of Fawkes House into a specialist Sick Bay mentioned on p.28, a rifle range (paid for by a donation) and extra rugby pitches were constructed. Two new wooden huts opened on Devitt lawns to house the Art and the Model Clubs. The kitchens in Devitt House were refurbished, a new chef recruited and other steps taken to improve the quality of the food offered to the cadets. Drake Hall was extended to give more space to the gymnasium and chapel. A Library with 800 books opened in 1932 and was followed by a purpose-built College Shop in 1936. Shortly after, three houses were built for the senior staff (St Vincent, Rodney and Derwent). They soon became known to first-termers in Croft cramming to pass a general knowledge exam after a few weeks at the College as Faith, Hope and Charity. In other areas of school life, too, there were advances. On the sporting field the rugby 1st XVs of 1934 and 1935, coached by the Science master V.F. Davey, were both unbeaten by other schools even if the fixture list left something to be desired – a perpetual problem for small schools where playing standards may vary hugely from

year to year. Cricket benefited from better coaching once Philip Davey, a former Somerset county player, joined the staff in the mid-1930s. Hockey began to pick up while the fencing team continued to star, taking part each year in the prestigious Royal Tournament. Away from sport, the 1930s were the heyday of hobby clubs and societies and the start of the College’s eclectic music tradition. Among the societies the meetings of the Debating Society in this politically troubled decade stand out for their topicality and liveliness. Items on the agenda included conscientious objectors, naval force reductions, Ireland,

Above: The rifle range today. Far left: The Model Club. Left: The Bates rifle range in the 1930s. It was demolished in 1984.

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Right: ‘Mop fighting’ in 1930. Below: C.W. Jude, Director of Studies 1925–33.

airships, socialism, fascism, unemployment, the future of the British Empire, prohibition and communism. Many debates were characterised by ‘fighting speeches’ from the Scot Jackie Blair, then in his heyday. A Mock Trial was held in 1935, a year which also featured an all-action

NOTHING STARTLING TO REPORT My 11 terms at the Nautical College were not particularly eventful. Yet, with the advantage of hindsight, those years were the making of many of us, inculcating a sense of discipline, comradeship, good manners and sense of fun. The wearing of the King’s uniform helped to instil a lasting sense of pride. Many of the masters in my time had no teaching experience or degrees although several had served in the 1914–18 War which

Keith Evans aged 8 or 9.

general election debate, including apple cores being thrown at the speakers. Teachers came and went. The reasons were the same as in the 1920s – low salaries, lack of accommodation and the morale-sapping impact of the pre-eminent nautical

appealed to us boys. I was average or maybe below. Looking back it was the four or five Instructors, all ex-armed forces, who were invaluable in helping us to develop. In their own individual, lower deck ways they had an enormous influence over impressionable, wet-behind-the-ears teenagers. The poor education standards at the College did not prevent Pangbourne producing some outstanding individuals in the 1930s. Several spring to mind, including Ian McGeoch who became a vice admiral, was knighted, and won the DSO and DSC in the Second World War, and Peter Hellings who was

Chief of the College in my second term and became Commandant General of the Royal Marines. He had the unique distinction of being awarded both the DSC and MC during the war. One memory that stands out now is when I was one of a party of 50 cadets who took part in the cruiser Effingham in the Silver Jubilee Review at Spithead in 1935. The following year King George V died in January. A detachment of Pangbourne cadets, including myself, was positioned in London at Marlborough Gate, St James’s Park, along the funeral route from Paddington to Westminster. The day was very cold and damp and we stood from 0730 to 1400 hours. None of us fainted although several cadets from Dartmouth did. Then at the end of that year I listened to King Edward VIII’s abdication speech on the radio in Croft House. – Keith Evans (33–37)

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regime. The first OP staff appointee, G.A.L. Crozier, took charge of Modern Languages for four years. A new Director of Studies, Stanley Cook, replaced the ailing C.W. Jude in 1934 but lasted only two years before falling out with Blair (‘an uncanny and sinister influence’). He departed with a blast from Sir Philip Devitt who accused him of wishing to become Headmaster. Cook was replaced by F.E. Woodall who survived for ten years with little to show for it. There were exceptions. P.T. (Percy) Robinson, a Rhodesian with a vivid scar on his neck (from a wound in the First World War) who was renowned for his ‘forthright’ teaching methods and hectoring personality, became Second Master in 1931. His subject was Maths and, for a record-breaking 25 years, he was Divisional Tutor (Housemaster) of Harbinger. Max Findlater, known to one and all as Mobbers because of the elongated khaki

shorts he sported on the rugby field, taught Geography from 1935 to 1967 and became the long-serving Divisional Tutor of Macquarie. It was in this decade that College routine evolved into a format that lasted largely unchanged into the 1960s. An OP, Graham Turner, recalling the 1936–39 period, later wrote: The day started with Activity Exercises or ‘Akkers’ which was some ten minutes of intensive PT ( physical training) around 6.30am. The Instructors took charge. Cold showers and ‘Territories’ followed. Every cadet had a task, mostly associated with keeping the place clean, neat and tidy. After that we marched to breakfast. ‘Divisions’ on the parade ground and

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Above: A new cadet arrives: cartoon from The Log, 1935. Left and below: ‘End of term reports’ from The Log, 1930.


SIR PHILIP DEVITT

No single individual in the history of the Nautical College Pangbourne did more to ensure its character, survival and growth, or to guarantee the national reputation it had gained by 1946, than Sir Philip Devitt. The third son and fifth child of Sir Thomas Lane Devitt, Philip was born in 1876, educated at Loretto School in Scotland and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and destined for a legal career. At the age of 30 he changed course, joined the family business and soon became a leading proponent, like his father, of the virtues of sail training for Merchant Navy officers. Three years later, when Devitt & Moore Ocean Training Ships Ltd was formed, he was nominated as one of its directors. He went on to play a key lobbying and organisational role in the creation of the Nautical College. In 1921, with his father in poor health and the global shipping industry in decline, it was Philip who played the leading role in saving the College from bankruptcy when he ignored the advice of the shipping fraternity to close the NCP and instead invested much of the family fortune in the College – a commitment that eventually cost the Devitts more than £2 million in today’s money. From then on, ensuring the future of Pangbourne became a personal crusade for Sir Philip. He made several large loans to the College and wrote them all off. As Chairman of the

Consultative Committee and later the Board of Governors, he was reluctant to delegate and insisted on interviewing every boy before they joined the College. Each Captain Superintendent, Bursar and Director of Studies answered to him – and few subjects were too trivial for his attention. Every month he would visit the school and cross-examine the Captain Superintendent, usually staying overnight. In 1931 his commitment to the Nautical College and to the training of Merchant Navy officers was rewarded with a baronetcy. One of Sir Philip’s abiding managerial traits was tight control of the purse strings. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he proved strongly resistant to ‘unnecessary expenditure’ as defined by himself. This included persistent opposition to the construction of a College Shop on the idiosyncratic grounds that it might tempt cadets to spend money they did not have. For years he obstructed suggestions by the Captain Superintendent that staff housing be built, and rejected all attempts to replace unsightly ‘temporary’ wooden huts dotted around the estate with solid brick buildings. When he lived in Devitt House with his wife and five daughters during the Second World War he even insisted on paying rent and refused to be compensated for his work. As an educationalist, Sir Philip was heavily influenced by his headmaster at Loretto, Dr Almond, and ‘his wise understanding of boys, his keenness on physical fitness and his anxiety to avoid hard-and-fast rules’. Somewhat out of character, this seriousminded man claimed to favour ‘close and friendly association between those who teach and those who are taught’ though he himself had little to do with the cadets. His own record as an employer and judge of character must have been something of a disappointment to him as successive Captain Superintendents (with the exception of William Montanaro), Bursars and Directors of Studies failed to live up to his expectations. Totally committed to ‘the work which I love so much’, Sir Philip barely took a day off during the six years of war and seized every chance that came his way to raise the College’s profile. He retired to Englefield Green in April 1946 at the age of 70. Fourteen months later he died suddenly from a heart condition. His funeral service was held in the Chapel at his beloved Nautical College. A portrait of him, paid for by the family, was unveiled in his honour in 1949 and hangs in Devitt House. His long-time assistant A.W. Reeve, wrote later: ‘Sir Philip’s human qualities and broad understanding inspired affection. He was the very soul of the College and his spirit pervaded every aspect of College life.’

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THE CHIEF’S CHAIR prayers at 8.45am after breakfast were followed by morning studies. The Lunch Parade was 20 minutes’ drill involving the whole College under an Instructor, with the Band turning out two or three times a week. Games in the afternoon formed a familiar pattern – cricket and river in summer, rugby before Christmas and hockey in the Lent term. Once a week there was a curious ritual called ‘Bursar’s Bob’ when each boy was given his weekly pocket money of one shilling. No one was allowed more than two shillings in his pocket. In the evening there was another parade, then tea, more study and bed for most by 9.30pm. A long day, but I don’t think we were any the worse for it! Other insights into life at the College in the 1930s can be gleaned from The Log. Edited in this period by the Geography master, Lieutenant Commander G.E.H. House, and issued three times a year, the magazine included articles by OPs and cadets, reviews, poetry, cartoons and first-person

For more than 80 years the Chief Cadet Captain of the College (CCCC) – today the Joint Chiefs – has had the use of an imposing and unusual chair in the Mess Hall or, more recently, on the platform at one end of the Dining Hall. Known as the ‘Chief’s Chair’, it was presented to the College in 1930 by the father of John Staveley, CCCC in 1928. The back panel and arms are made of oak used in the original HMS Victory. The remainder is teak acquired from a slipway in Devonport shipyard on which 15 warships were built between 1906 and 1929. The original College Coat of Arms, the Blue Ensign of the Royal Navy and the D&M house flag are all displayed in colour. On the back are the names of all CCCCs since John Staveley’s time. According to College records, ‘the chair is for the everyday use of the CCCC and, in his absence, the next senior cadet present’.

accounts of memorable incidents such as an aeroplane crash on White’s Field in 1933 and the death in 1935 of the first OP killed on active service (RAF pilot S.J. McK. Newman (28–29), shot down by tribesmen over the Euphrates). When House left to run a prep school in London at the end of 1934 he wrote a ditty to mark his departure: ‘At times I cursed the page ill-written, With ne’er a comma in position, Which came to me for the next edition. Oh Log, farewell!’ The College, wrote an OP Jimmy Miller (31–34) in the 1990s, ‘served my generation well. I look back with gratitude to the strength of character which I think it managed to impart to most of its pupils and the high sense of duty which it instilled.’ Externally, times were difficult and funds were tight throughout the decade. Sir Philip and his four colleagues on the Board remained resolutely opposed to bank borrowing. This did not go down well with Tracy, a believer in deficit spending. To drive home their parsimonious views, the Governors took to making intrusive visits to the College, including 15 in five months in mid-1936.

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Above: The Chief’s Chair. Left: Captain Greig (left) with the Second Sea Lord Admiral Sir Charles Little on Founders’ Day 1939.


Right: Aboard the power boat Gnome. Below: The College lorry, 1930.

Above: The Log, 1938. Left: Working parties supervised by Charlie Sewell. Far left: Binoculars won by R.G. Smallwood in 1932 and presented to the College by OP Society Chairman Merrick Rayner in 2014.

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Having introduced swingeing cutbacks to stave off bankruptcy in 1921, the Captain Superintendent felt that the College had to improve its facilities to survive. So he rarely missed an opportunity to press the case for more staff housing, a new Mess Room, better equipped classrooms and a Board commitment to a comprehensive development plan. Time after time he was rebuffed, often in humiliating ways. In 1934, when he was at last allowed to submit his ‘definite views of the future’, it was on the strict understanding that his suggestions were unlikely to be carried out ‘for a very long time’ in Sir Philip’s grudging words. In fact, four Tracy proposals were accepted eventually, including the enlargement of the Chemistry laboratory, the equipping of a Physics laboratory and the extension of Sick Bay. As the Board’s general attitude indicates, relations between Sir Philip and Commander Tracy were never close

A SENSE OF DUTY AND PROPER CONDUCT I entered Pangbourne in the autumn of 1927 at the age of 13 years and 9 months as a member of Harbinger term. Being ‘Y’, my name was at the bottom of the list. My term number, H26, was inscribed in brass tacks under the instep of my boots and shoes. Our Cadet Captain was R.H. Page (25–29; killed on active service in 1942). I shall never ever regret going to Pangbourne. It gave me a sense of duty and proper conduct and Christian values (which I did not recognise as such) to guide me through the life which lay ahead, especially when things got confused and difficult. Certainly, it instilled in us cadets the sort of ‘Play up and play the game’ mentality which Henry Newbolt sets forth in his poem. This was the legacy of the Tracy– Blair–Stamper navy era, and that is what the discipline and uniform help to instil … the exact opposite of the permissive society.

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or easy-going. Even when Tracy did get his way, as over the Sick Bay extension and the appointment in 1934 of the redoubtable Sister Brooker to run it (she remained in post until 1957), he was liable to be put in his place soon after by a sharp reminder from Sir Philip that ultimately he was ‘always responsible’ to the Board of Governors. In a revealing memorandum written a decade after Tracy had left the College, Sir Philip perhaps put his finger on the real reason for his seemingly churlish attitude. ‘Tracy had, in my view, always climbed up the social ladder in his position as Captain Superintendent of the College – for his own glorification.’ Exactly what brought matters to a head is unclear as all records for the period have been destroyed. But sometime in 1935 Tracy and

Looking back, I don’t think that my experiences at Pangbourne prepared me in any way for a practical seafaring life as opposed to character building. Little done then at the College related remotely to Merchant Navy practice. There were no standard ships’ lifeboats on the river so we learnt nothing of their equipment, construction or handling qualities. We never learnt how to rig and secure a painting stage, or a boatswain’s chair. We learnt nothing of firefighting nor first aid. The peak of my career with Shell Tankers occurred in 1962 when I was acknowledged as one of the four co-inventors of the ‘Single Buoy Mooring System’ which is now used worldwide. In retirement I established nautical classes for seamen and fishermen in Sarawak. In 1987, 56 years to the month after I first went to sea, the Sarawak government bestowed on me the honour of ‘Bentara Bintang Sarawak’ which means ‘Companion of the Order of the Star of Sarawak’. Yet to this day one of the leadership maxims impressed on cadets at Pangbourne in my time remains

with me: ‘The safety, wellbeing and comfort of yourself must come last. ALWAYS and ALL THE TIME.’ Pangbourne teaches leadership by example. Long may it remain an educational establishment – but with uniform and discipline. – Captain Alastair Young (27–31) writing in the OP magazine in 1992


HARRY SYKES If the Nautical College Pangbourne had a ‘Mr Chips’ during its first half-century there is only one candidate – H. C. Sykes MC and Bar. Arriving as Assistant Housemaster in Devitt in 1919, he soon made his mark. ‘The House very quickly took him to its heart. His tireless activity, his readiness to help anybody and everybody, and his unfailing resource has been of the utmost value,’ recorded The Log. That assessment set a standard for the next 37 years until Harry retired from the teaching staff in 1956, and for the decade after that when he continued as Secretary of the OP Society. He was, remarked the author of ‘College Notes’ in a 1967 issue of The Log, ‘guide, philosopher and friend to every generation of boys and masters at Pangbourne’.

Originally Harry intended to stay at the NCP for a year before moving back to the family firm in Yorkshire. He stayed because he felt there were always cadets who needed him. Mostly, he taught Mathematics, with boundless patience. His approach was ‘far from traditional’, according to a colleague, ‘and his illustrations and examples often verged on the bizarre’. But they ‘drove home the point he wished to make’, and they got results. Or as an admirer put it on his retirement: ‘His lessons were conducted with clarity and simplicity in a remarkable atmosphere of good nature. He never seemed to keep order. There was simply no need.’ Outside the classroom Harry was modest, unassuming and eminently approachable. His many kindnesses to boys and colleagues became legendary. He loved cricket and was a hard-hitting lower order batsman and slow left-arm bowler of infinite guile for the Staff & Cadets XI, Whitchurch (where he lived) and the South Oxfordshire Amateurs. Perhaps his greatest single contribution to the history of the College was his nurturing of the OP Society. In 1925 he became Honorary Secretary of the OP Club (it became the OP Society in 1926). For more than 40 years he was the first point of contact for everyone who had passed through the College. In the early 1960s, making use of his prodigious memory, he was instrumental in compiling a Register of Old Pangbournians. The last event of his life was an OP committee meeting on the evening of his death in 1967. In return, Old Pangbournians gave him their undivided loyalty and affection. On his retirement 140 OPs (a record OP gathering to that point) led by Trevor Turner, the Chairman of the OP Society at the time, held a dinner in his honour in London and presented him with an array of gifts, including a bound book containing 500 letters from OPs all over the world. On his death, ten RN OPs commemorated his memory in a little church on the island of Malta while at Pangbourne 250 OPs gathered in the College Chapel for a Thanksgiving Service. The Address was given by an OP, Captain P.J. Douglas (27–31). ‘Why were we all so fond of him?’ Douglas asked. ‘To me, the most outstanding thing about Harry was his cheerful kindness … He gave out immense kindness at all times and, in return, we loved him to a degree that he found hard to understand. He never failed us or the College.’

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RUNNING THE 100 PER CENT The 100 per cent is a terrible thing; It makes you grow old and it makes you grow thin. It’s part of our sports, authorities say, To run the five miles on a cold winter’s day.

O’er fields and o’er hills we go toiling along, With never a smile nor a word nor a song. With haggard expression and leg-weary feet, The end is in view and we’re nearly dead beat.

At the start of the run – it is hard to believe – We wear only shorts and a vest like a sieve. We freeze to the spot whilst we dress by the right; Then, Bang! goes a gun, and we’re off in full flight.

The last lap of all we break into a run And charge past the tape amidst cheers and ‘Well Dones’. Then flop on the grass, feeling terribly spent; And that is the end of our 100 per cent.

– attributed to ‘A Sufferer’ and printed in The Log, Spring 1930

his No. 2 Commander Blair fell out, most likely over what Lionel Stephens in his 1991 history of the Nautical College described as Blair’s ‘unacceptable social behaviour’. Quite what that meant in practice is a matter of conjecture. Tracy lived in some style in Devitt House which he and his wife had turned into a social hub in the area. Blair, by contrast, ‘spent

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his spare time in the “George” [pub] and was rarely invited to Devitt House dinner parties’. Tracy was keen to promote the College’s Royal Navy association while to Blair the Merchant Navy was the be-all and end-all of the College’s rationale. Tracy focused on strategy and was a remote figure to most cadets and staff. In contrast Blair ran the NCP day to day and knew everything that was going on.

Above: Today the 100 per cent is run for charity.


Left: Cadets on the river in 1938.

Below: Charlie Sewell teaching the Rules of the Road in a Seamanship class in the 1930s.

Antagonism between the pair seems to have grown slowly from the early 1930s. By the summer term of 1935 Tracy was determined to remove Blair and demanded his resignation. Sir Philip intervened, decided that Blair was ‘indispensable’ to the future of the College and forced Tracy out. He left suddenly and without ceremony after 14 years at the helm, having doubled numbers, helped to stave off collapse and overseen some real improvements. Ever after, he maintained a dignified silence. The Bursar, Douglas Leadley, suggested that a collection and presentation be made to which the Governors responded that they ‘could not sponsor or give any kind of blessing to the scheme’. It went ahead anyway, strongly supported by the OP Society committee which had written to the Board to protest Tracy’s precipitate departure. No doubt deliberately, the Autumn Log of 1935 avoided all reference to this sorry affair. To replace Tracy, the Board chose another retired RN officer, Captain A.B. Greig. Alexander Greig had won a DSC in submarine service in the Baltic Sea in 1916 and been

awarded the OBE in 1936 following his last RN posting in HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Aged 48, easy-going and not a great judge of character, he took few initiatives during his time as Captain Superintendent, had little interaction with the cadets and became known as ‘Old Unconscious’. Within a year his dominant wife was entertaining more lavishly than the Tracys and he was advocating new building projects that the Board had already rejected. As time passed he, too, began to regard Blair with suspicion bordering on dislike. In 1937 he managed to rile the Board by pointing out an uncomfortable truth. At the time it was still not necessary to possess a pass in the School Certificate Examination to gain entry into either the RN or MN. In the wider world the exam had become a minimum qualification. Greig undiplomatically emphasised to the Board that the exam should be included in the NCP curriculum since ‘without this educational qualification, approaches to most [other] careers are now closed’. The thorny issue was side-stepped and within two years wartime conditions had obscured the matter. Yet once again the core purpose of the Nautical College had been queried. As early as 1934 Commander Tracy had reported ‘decreasing’ cadet interest in nautical subjects, reflecting doubts about careers at sea, the location of Pangbourne far from the sea and the College’s strong focus on vocational qualifications. Three years later the Admiral Commanding Reserves attempted to alter the description of Pangbourne cadets from Cadet RNR to Honorary Cadet RNR, arguing that the original charter from the Admiralty no longer applied. Soon after this warning shot one of the Second Sea Lords questioned ‘how much personal gain’ Sir Philip had made out of founding the Nautical College. Angry and embarrassed and determined to defend ‘my own College’, Sir Philip fell back on statistics. In 1938, as the Nautical College came of age, he commissioned a study to underline how it had fulfilled its core purpose during its first 21 years’ existence. By that point, so the audit revealed, 1,100 cadets had passed through Pangbourne of whom 524 (48 per cent) had joined the Merchant Navy, 173 (16 per cent) the Royal Navy and the remaining 403 (36 per cent of the total) the Army, RAF or so-called ‘civil life’. It was some vindication of the original Devitt vision if less than a total endorsement.

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Pangbourne College: Spirit in Changing Times  

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