Obituary – John Dancy



John Dancy was not just an exceptional Master, which he was, but he was also an exceptional man. Immensely gifted intellectually, he revelled in the challenge of guiding forward what he described as the powerhouse of Marlborough, making it the leading public school of its time.

Born in 1920 he won scholarships to both Winchester and New College Oxford. At both he was right at the top as a classicist, winning most of the available prizes, as well as a First in Mods. War interrupted what could have been a glittering career at university at Oxford, and he was commissioned into The Rifle Brigade in 1941. While at Winchester he had taught himself German so as to compete with his younger brother, and had maintained the language by, among other means, singing German love songs and soldiers’ songs. As a result of this childhood rivalry he was made Intelligence Officer in his battalion. When they deployed to Normandy in June 1944 many of his contemporaries were killed as platoon commanders, whereas he survived at Battalion HQ. This was particularly so during the assault on Hill 112, where they were pitted against the Hitler Youth of 12th SS Panzer Division. Interrogating some of these as prisoners was a formative experience as he realised the effect of Nazi education on them. It was one pointer towards teaching. A second occurred before going into battle. On leave in Cornwall he partnered Angela Bryant in a tennis tournament. After a whirlwind courtship they were married, and she remained the biggest influence in his life. University life would not have suited them as when he was lecturing at Wadham, Oxford, she was only allowed into the college once a year!

There were three key events before he became a headmaster. The first was the murder of his mother by her brother, suffering from PTSD as a result of injuries in World War I. The second was his war experience. Thirdly was catching polio, probably while swimming in Cornwall, in 1949. Six months in hospital in Oxford, leaving Angela to cope with two small boys in Winchester, where he had gone to teach in 1948, was difficult enough. To be told that he would never walk again was even more challenging. Through deep determination he recovered the use of his legs, and I never saw him walk with a stick until the last few years of his life. At the age of 98, after two years in a wheelchair, he became determined to walk again, and managed a few steps, calling it the greatest achievement of his life.

He returned to teach at Winchester and in 1953, at the early age of 33 he was appointed headmaster of Lancing. Here, in his own words, he learned much, and made many mistakes. In 1961 he was appointed to Marlborough. He had the great good fortune to inherit a school that had been made humane by George Turner (CR 1919-39), and given a good Common Room by Tommy Garnett (Master 1952-61). His first impression of Marlborough, made at the end of his first term, was one of “virile liberalism”.

Readers of The Lanchester Tradition would have recognised in the Marlborough of the 1960s a few Mr. Chowdlers. However, there was also an intellectual power house that simply needed steering. When he arrived the centre of power was the housemasters. Very soon he transferred that to the heads of departments, giving them the opportunity for curriculum development. The College had a number of Oxbridge Maths firsts on the staff and they were already at the forefront of the Schools Maths Project, started in 1961. Dancy was an early enthusiast for the Nuffield Science Project and for Technology. Above all he helped introduce the new subject Business Studies. All of these developments were aimed at more practical, as opposed to theoretical, applications of their subjects. While many of these developments undoubtedly came from within Common Room, the lead very definitely came from the Master.

Dancy also started to reflect the liberalisation that was occurring throughout society in the 1960s in his social reforms within the school. He abolished corporal punishments by pupils, abolished fagging, abolished compulsory cricket, abolished compulsory CCF (aside from the first year) encouraging the MoD to lean more towards self-reliance, which it did, abolished compulsory daily chapel and freed up the uniform to some extent. He also introduced a tutorial system and Adventure Training for all. Not all of this went down well with Common Room and led to some famous debates. One housemaster held to the point of view that the polishing of shoes was paramount “It shows a tidy mind. I don’t imagine Einstein had dirty shoes.” From a comfy chair at the back a voice was heard to say “I knew Einstein and he had the scruffiest shoes in the university.”

As a boy who had benefitted from scholarships himself, Dancy’s ambition was to widen the base of entry to schools like Marlborough. He served on the Public Schools Commission, set up in 1966 by the Labour government, which recommended compulsory integration of independent and state education systems. However, the Labour government was never likely to act on it since it had just introduced comprehensive education. His first stab at this broader entry was what came to be called “The Swindon Experiment” whereby 21 boys from grammar and secondary modern schools in Swindon became boarders at Marlborough for two years in the VI Form. It was funded by an American foundation. While not a failure, the experiment was not renewed. Far more important was his decision to introduce girls in 1968 (see three articles in The Marlburian Club Magazine, Number 119, 2018). It was a brave decision, which changed the school, if not overnight, then certainly within three months.

The Master did continue to teach, both Classics and Divinity. He tells the story of observing a student teacher who was struggling to teach a theology lesson on ‘the problem of suffering’ to a Shell set. He took over, saying “The problem of suffering is comparatively easy to understand if you analyse it like this …”  When he had finished, a boy had his hand up. “Yes, Pelham. What is it?” “It’s only that I have always thought it’s terribly easy to oversimplify the problem of suffering!” “Always” from a twelve-year-old, now a double first in Natural Sciences, an F.R.S. and a knight of the realm! Such are the rewards of teaching.

I can recall him saying later that his priority at Marlborough was always the staff. “If they’re happy they’ll teach well. If they teach well the pupils will be happy. If the pupils are happy, their parents will be too.” It sounds simple, but it seemed to work. Of course, there were difficulties: the pupils of the 1960s were not always easy, and many of their parents and some of the older staff resented the changes he introduced, and indeed the whole liberalisation of the 1960s. One battle he did lose was over hair, a particular bug-bear of prep school headmasters, which was apparently affecting our reputation. He announced one day in a Mem Hall assembly that our hair was to be kept off the collar and off the ears, but if we couldn’t accept that he would be happy to discuss it with anybody in the Adderley after lunch. When he entered the room there must have been upwards of 400 boys in the room. He gracefully accepted defeat provided the hair was neat and clean.

The Master was constantly imitated, always his words and inflections, but never his walk, which says a lot about Marlburians, and never better than by Christopher Martin-Jenkins (B3 1958-63). A standard imitation would begin, as apparently an early sermon did, “As Socrates once said…” He was probably best known by his Senior Prefects, who were always asked to stay in the holidays. However, he was less well known to the body of the school, viewed rather with a degree of awe for the famous intellect. That said, he always made himself available to boys after Chapel and lunch, when he would wait in Court for those who needed to speak to him.

The appointment of staff can rarely be faulted, and the values he inculcated into them can be seen in the fact that 13 of his appointments went on to be headmasters, plus another 4 who were on the staff when he arrived. Just listing some of the names (taken largely at random and from memory) gives an indication of the quality of the staff he appointed: John Mills (CR 1962-91), John Roberts (CR 1963-74), Roy Chapman (CR 1964-75), John Osborne (CR 1964-2002), Terry Rogers (CR 1964-2014), James Sabben-Clare (CR 1964-68), Andrew Carter (CR 1965-70), Ian Davie (CR 1965-68), Chris Joseph (CR 1967-2000), Graham Smallbone (CR 1967-71), Richard Barker (CR 1967-81), James Flecker (C1 1952-58 and CR 1967-80), Mike Preston (CR 1967-2001), Robert Avery (CR 1968-90), Rupert Lane (CR 1968-82), Andrew Davis (CR 1969-88), Tim Holgate (CR 1970-90), Oliver Ramsbotham (CR 1971-85), David Whitaker (CR 1971-85), Tim Child (CR 1971-92) and many more. All learned from him.

The opening of Dancy House in 2018 was a fitting tribute to both John and Angela Dancy, and how good it was to see him in such good form at the opening. He saw his time at Marlborough as the pinnacle of his career. Certainly, it was a time when Marlborough was at the pinnacle of the independent school pyramid. That it was so high is due in large measure to the man who led it through that period, John Dancy.

Robin Brodhurst (PR 1965-70).