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News > Obituaries > Peter Watkins

Peter Watkins

Senior School History Teacher 1959-1964
12 Jan 2022
Written by Jos Hollington

Peter Watkins (Former staff 1959-1964)

Peter Watkins - pictured as those he taught at Brentwood would likely remember him -  died on 1st September 2021 after a long battle with Alzheimers dementia. At the request of one of his former students, Stephen Halliday (OB 1954-1960), we publish the tribute from another, The Rt. Hon. Jack Straw (OB 1957-1964), given at Peter's funeral, together with the Valete which appeared in The Brentwoodian of September 1964.


Tribute from Jack Straw

"Peter Watkins was the best teacher I ever had - not just at School, but at University and Bar School too. He had an infectious enthusiasm for his subject - history - with which he inspired and cajoled his students. He gave me a life-long interest in the subject, which turned out to be incredibly useful when I was unexpectedly appointed Foreign Secretary in 2001; and encouraged my appetite for politics.

Between 1960-61, I was in the Fifth Form - with GCE 'O' Levels at the end of the year. Peter took nineteenth century history, the syllabus for that year. I can see him now, pacing around the classroom, gown sweeping behind him, rattling through 1815 to 1914 with speed, thoroughness and energy. I can still recite most of Peter's notes today - 60 years on. I can't say that for chemistry.

In the Sixth Form, Peter taught my set medieval history. It was a smallish group, with the luxury, as I recall, of eight periods a week. Peter made what could appear a distant, dry course, come alive. But more - we were all taking an 'S' Level paper, which was basically about current affairs. We were on the cusp of the 'swinging sixties', with the decay of the old establisment order, the rise of the Beatles, and the Profumo scandal. We all had a wonderful time, in endless debate, gently guided by Peter in an apparently impartial way, though his liberal instincts in what was a conservative institution were never far below the surface. Peter also got me to understand that understatement was much better than hyperbole. One of Peter's comments on a partisan polemic I'd submitted was that I should avoid being 'vituperative'. I had to go to the dictionary to find out its meaning - and his advice stayed with me.

We'd all - Peter included - had such a great time debating the future of the world that, as 'A' Levels loomed, Peter thought he'd better do a check on whether we knew the dates of our mediaeval Kings and Queens. We did - roughly, but not precisely. He was contemptuous of rote learning and instead made the history we learnt from him highly relevant to our present and future.

I was occasionally in contact with Peter for some years after we had both moved on from Brentwood, but then lost touch with him. I owe him a great debt of gratitude for what I learnt from him, and his humanity, and I have never forgotten that."


Valete - Brentwoodian 1964

It is a measure of the School's debt to Mr P R Watkins that now he is leaving we should discover with surprise that he only came to Brentwood in 1959. During those five years he has so identified himself with almost every aspect of the School's life that it is hard to remember a time when he was not at the heart of things.

He came from East Ham Grammar School with the reputation of a first rate teacher of his subject and for activating Sixth Form minds and rousing Sixth Form opinions. This reputation has been justified and enhanced by his tonic effort on his pupils in History in the Sixth and at other levels in the School, and by his determination to present his subject as a challenge to thought and decision and not as an assemblage of facts.

Outside the classroom, a still wider range of boys have benefited from the interests that Mr Watkins has been prepared to share with them: a taste for covering long distances on foot in mountainous country; an awareness of the values of modern literature and particularly modern drama; a desire to relate what we do at Brentwood to the needs of young people in other lands; skill in guiding boys to the right sources of information about their special projects - all these enthusiasms of his have been successfully transferred to many others in the course of the last five years.

For two things he will be especially remembered: his sermons in Chapel and his work for the Brentwoodian. As an example of the value of his words to us in Chapel, the Editor might well consider printing in a later issue a summary of those sermons Mr Watkins preached this term. As an example of the second achievement the reader only has to consider the variety and liveliness of the present number of the Brentwoodian. It has become under his guidance a lively commentary on, as well as a chronicle of, school life.

Now Mr Watkins goes to take over the Department of History at Bristol Grammar School and with greater scope such a post offers we know an even wider deployment of his energies for the lasting good of those he teaches and influences. We wish him well and warmly thank him for his benefactions to Brentwood.


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