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Recollections of our 1980s Headmaster

A summary of John Evans' chapter in "The Best of Days"
12 Apr 2021
Written by Jos Hollington

When the late John Evans began his 12-year stewardship of Brentwood School in 1981, he faced a set of challenges as formidable as any addressed by his predecessors as headmaster. Mr Evans, who died on February 3rd 2021, set out his recollections in "The Best of Days", from which the following has been kindly condensed by Martin Rowland (OB 1951-61).

John felt it was vital to maintain the strength of all areas of school life by which Brentwood had established its reputation, especially in academic standards, sport and the CCF, under the aegis of Virtue, Learning and Manners.  The guiding mantle would “certainly have found favour with Thomas Arnold. Having just arrived after 18 years at Rugby, I felt the need to placate his shade!”

There was a need to improve scholarship and bursary funds; stem the fall in boarding numbers; and bring about the admission of girls. Ensuring the smooth transition from Direct Grant School to full independence was high on the agenda. Brentwood was still benefiting from the 11+ intake but this had dried up in 1977. Many of the academically ablest pupils who would have come to Brentwood might well turn to selective free grammar schools. The goal was to maintain established high standards while developing such an all round quality in facilities and imaginative extra-curricular opportunities that parents would still be willing to pay Brentwood’s fees.

In confronting a welter of red tape in respect of both educational and building matters, John was fortunate in his Governors. Chairman Richard Courage and his successor Hugh Ashton were shrewd operators and highly effective. The Governors’ courageous decision to educate girls separately in their own building was widely approved by the parents of both boys and girls.

Planning and constructing buildings was very time consuming. Each new building released others for new uses, thereby avoiding building on the Chase area or Roden Lawn. Sciences, technology and art,drama and music all badly needed improved facilities. Individual departments required space, computers and IT facilities and extra manpower to support academic and ancillary staff. School House became the administrative hub, housing the Headmaster’s new office. 

It all cost a great deal of money. Two large appeals followed. Proceeds from the sale of the ‘Gaza Strip’ at Glantham’s Road helped to pay for the Courage Hall. Opened in 1985, this proved “a great boon. “At last we had somewhere in which large numbers could meet to sit public exams or produce a large scale concert.” The hall also became a separate business for community use. Much needed funds were raised by selling the enormous painting in Weald Hall which Sotheby’s pronounced was by Van der Hagen of the Dutch School.

John paid tribute to “remarkable and impressive” senior management teams: Second Masters Micky Hall and John Wolters; Directors of Studies Dennis Tarrant and Neil Nuttall; David Dixon, Head of the Sixth form; Bob Jackson, Head of Middle School;  and OBs Jonathan Meadmore and Jim Brown, successive heads of junior sections. They were complemented by many able and inspirational teachers, the number of women increasing as the girls intake grew. 

The Prep School staff, under John Marchant, with Second masters Frank Halford and Roger Gray, proved a very well integrated and dedicated group. Nigel de la Poer and David Bull were in the old fashioned Mr Chips tradition of Prep schoolmasters and much loved for it. Planning for the Pre-Prep came to fruition in 1994. 

Association football remained as strong as ever. Excellent players went on to higher things from the Arthur Dunn Cup to the Premier League. Much was due to the “extraordinary contribution” of Bob Jackson to this success over more than 20 years. The fencing team continued its phenomenal success throughout John’s time, prospering under Olympic coach Steve Boston, Nigel Carr and  Neil Copplestone (OB). Cricket, boosted by John Whitcombe, Ken Preston, Brian Hardie and Robin Hobbs, had to compete with the sheer volume of Summer term exams. New facilities were provided for the girls who soon began to beat the opposition at hockey, netball and athletics.

Intellectual challenges for older pupils were provided by Michael Willis and his History Society meetings. Distinguished figures were subjected to rigorous examination by the Sixth Form: government ministers, left and right wingers, hardline communists, both sides of the South African apartheid line, Thatcherites, trade unionists and Oxbridge Dons. “How much better that our Sixth Formers were stretched and made to think for themselves about national, international and moral issues by hearing articulate advocates of different and opposite viewpoints rather than being allowed to stagnate in parochial insularity.”

On the arts front, John recalled exceptional plays, concerts and musicals. At meetings of the Sixth Form ‘Candlesticks’ group, “we read many splendid plays together which proved an excellent way of getting to know the senior boys and girls.”

The relationship between Town and Gown was “wonderfully cordial” throughout John’s time, epitomised by the School’s representation at the consecration of the new Brentwood Cathedral. Twinning with Roth in Bavaria brought many new friends, with pupils benefitting particularly from music links.

Throughout his headmastership, John talked to junior school classes about the School’s history, encompassing the founder Sir Antony Browne, the martyr William Hunter and more recent OB heroes, including the airman  V.A.W. Rosewarne. “A good school is a most exciting and rewarding and exciting environment in which to live. Children enter at a tender age and leave as adults. This butterfly-like emergence is often wondrous to behold. I so enjoyed teaching 11-year-olds Latin and Upper Sixth formers for University general papers. I am old fashioned enough to believe that heads ought to appear in the classroom.”

Regrets: he had a few

Regrets were inevitable. ”It is perhaps ironic that the three most significant  decisions adversely affected  things about which I cared greatly.” First, was the demise of compulsory Sunday chapel for boarders as most parents wanted their sons home for the Sundays. “The resentment caused by insisting on their early return was not conducive to the right atmosphere in chapel.”

The second regret also concerned boarding.  Otway had given way to a desperately needed staff common room and the continuing decline in boarding numbers made the closure of School House almost inevitable. “I felt extremely sad about this. Godfrey Thomas, the boys and OBs of this distinguished house were remarkably magnanimous.”

His third regret was the “demise” of rugby football. “Over the years, Brentwood had achieved some remarkable feats on the rugger field and produced some exceptional players.” 

Storms, fire and a school not for “toffs”

Natural disasters affected school life. During the Great Storm of 1987, School trees and walls between School House and Roden Lawn and between Middleton Hall and the Heseltine field were all blown down. Snowy winters meant occasional decisions to close the School when the roads were adjudged dangerous---but not necessarily before distant pupils were already on their way.

A fire in Ingrave Road resulted from a crazed rejected suitor throwing a firebomb into a flat between Newnum and Barnard’s . The ensuing blaze was so fierce that large firebrands and debris were blown by a strong wind into Roden garden. Thankfully, fears for the survival of Newnum, much of it wooden, and of Barnard’s and Roden were not realised.

Saturday morning school made for a more balanced and less compressed week. John wrote to Lower Sixth Form parents asking them to discourage their offspring from partying on Friday evenings. However, this produced some ludicrous newspaper coverage. Someone, apparently an irresponsible parent, sent the letter to the tabloids. Next day, a headline described the Sixth Form as ‘Boozy Toffs at £6000 a year School.’ “You can’t win and we certainly didn’t produce toffs!”


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