Obituary Brian Ashley (CR 1966-82)

One day in the early 1970s, Brian Ashley, who died on January 31st aged 84, was walking through the rose garden at Marlborough College. It was the school’s summer holidays and it didn’t seem right to him that the place should be silent and empty for two months, with all its facilities going unused. The inspiration came to him that there should be a summer school to make the most of it all. Only his dogged determination got the thing through. Institutions don’t like to be disturbed and there were those who thought that such an event would in some way demean the place: some of his more somnambulent colleagues found it difficult to cope with Brian’s dynamism, but as a result of his tenacity, the first Summer School took place in 1975 over two weeks. There were just 20 classes and the 210 participants were mainly recruited from College parents and OMs, but it was on the way. Thanks to Brian’s vision, the formula was there from the start, a range of courses for all tastes, an entertainment programme and an all-inclusive fee. There was no extra charge even for the ice creams. The advent of children’s activities made it a place for all the family. From these beginnings grew the Summer School as it is today: part of a foundation with full-time staff, four weeks in duration, scores of courses covering virtually everything you can imagine – and more. Over the years, the Summer School has raised huge amounts of money to be ploughed back into improved facilities at the College.


Brian was a product of Mansfield Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Before coming to the College as Head of P.E. and a teacher of History, he taught at St. Paul’s School in London, but, with the Summer School, he caught the entrepreneurial spirit. He began summer schools at Taunton School, Eton College and at Horace Walpole’s magnificent old mansion at Strawberry Hill. On leaving the College, he took over the Henge Shop at Avebury. He must have been the most unlikely New Ager in the business. His tour of the stones was never to be forgotten. He claimed they exuded a mystic force of energy and used divining rods to prove it. I must have looked sceptical, but when he handed the rods to me, they practically leapt out of my hand.


A great believer in community involvement, Brian ran keep fit classes for local businessmen (they usually ended up in the Sun Inn). He served a spell on Kennet District Council. Later he was Chairman of the Marlborough International Jazz Festival, contributing his characteristic energy and vision. Like the Summer School, it brought thousands of people into the town to its great economic benefit. No-one was more disappointed when it was brought to an abrupt end at the peak of its popularity by external forces beyond its control.


It came as no surprise to those who knew him to hear that Brian had been invited to the White House Christmas party as a guest of Barack and Michelle (she kissed him on both cheeks). He later expressed regret that he hadn’t issued the President and First Lady with a return invitation to the Jazz Festival.


Brian died just a month after John Dancy, the Master who appointed him. They had a lot in common, both realising that the public school system needed to move from its image of producing a cultured elite, to demonstrate its use to the wider community.


He is survived by Kathe, his wife of 37 years, his sons, both OMs, Mark and Jonathon, his daughters, Helen and Cathy and his grandchildren..


Brian always felt that his great achievement was insufficiently recognised, but this is the frequent fate of the innovator. There is a lasting monument to him in the two fishing lakes he created down by the Kennet. Some form of visual recognition would surely be appropriate. Few have contributed more to the well-being of Marlborough College than Brian Ashley. How about a plaque on the walls of the Chapel? I’d gladly chip in.


Nick Fogg (CR 1978-1992)