Roger Ellis (Master 1972-86)

The Marlborough College Community was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Roger Ellis, Master of Marlborough 1972-1986, who has passed away at the age of 93.

As well as quadrupling the number of girls in the first half of his 14 years as Master, Ellis laid the groundwork for full co-education. Former college archivist Terry Rogers considers Ellis also managed to fulfil his brief to improve the school’s largely run-down buildings and facilities, including turning Victorian dormitories into bedsits, building new classrooms in Heywood Block and adding a Design and Technology building to the Science labs. As for the Common Room? “He was universally respected by his staff who liked him and knew that he cared for them,” says Terry Rogers. “He ran a happy ship.”

Portrait courtesy of Mark Wickham 

ROGER ELLIS: a daughter’s tribute
By Hattie Ellis

The last assembly of the school year has a certain atmosphere, febrile with the anticipation of freedom and the possibility of pranks.  In the summer term of 1975, the Common Room found their door name-plates had been carefully unscrewed and placed on crosses that turned Court into a WW1 cemetery, complete with tolling Chapel bell.  As the whole school packed into the Memorial Hall, hundreds of eyes waited for the Master to appear. “Good morning everyone,” said Roger Ellis, my father. “Here I am:  proof of the Resurrection.”

The ability to calm a crisis, often with humour and a well-timed conversation —‘write good things, talk through difficult ones’ was one of his mottos —is valued and needed in boarding schools.  Dad succeeded John Dancy, an educational reformer of charisma and drive who had transformed the school’s academic reputation and brought girls into the Sixth Form of a traditional male public school.  The task was to steady the ship and continue the liberal modernising of a Victorian institution.

As well as quadrupling the number of girls in the first half of his 14 years as Master, Dad laid the groundwork for full co-education. To his frustration, the money wasn’t available then for the boarding houses needed for this; but it began three years after he left, the ground prepared.  Former college archivist Terry Rogers considers Dad also managed to fulfil his brief to improve the school’s largely run-down buildings and facilities, including turning Victorian dormitories into bedsits, building new classrooms in Heywood Block and adding a Design and Technology building to the Science labs. As for the Common Room? “He was universally respected by his staff who liked him and knew that he cared for them,” says Terry Rogers. “He ran a happy ship.”

I think Dad’s belief in education was influenced by the positive role that school played in his own childhood. He was born in 1929, the son of a solicitor. It was his prep school headmaster who told him of his father’s death of cancer, at the age of 11, wartime petrol rationing having kept his mother in London. The kindness and camaraderie he encountered both there and subsequently at Winchester College, combined with singing in school choirs, playing games, and a relish of good history teaching, were formative and fortifying.

After 19 months on the lower deck of two aircraft carriers for his National Service, an important broadening experience, he went to Trinity College to read history on an open scholarship and continued his approach to life as an all-rounder.  “I was ready to have a go at things I wasn’t necessarily going to be much good at, and had great fun doing that,” he said.  Acting, as well as music and golf, his clubs slung over his shoulder as he cycled eight miles to the course. But the quality of the teaching was a big step down. Perhaps understanding the value of good lessons ‑ and the opposite – steered his choice of career. Or was it mysteriously genetic? When Dad told his mother that he wanted to be a history teacher rather than going into the family firm as a solicitor, she revealed that his father had always wished he’d been a teacher himself.

Dad went straight from Finals to teaching a Sixth Form at Harrow School. He’s remembered by many as an inspiring teacher and continued to teach a Sixth Form class at Marlborough. If being Master of Marlborough was the pinnacle of his career, his love of teaching was central to who he was. His acting ability, plus the timed phrase of a chorister, helped deliver an image or idea that lodged in the mind and sparked the imagination.

After two years as a housemaster at Harrow, Dad married my mother, Margaret Stevenson, the daughter of a Harrow housemaster. Everyone I’ve spoken to at Marlborough almost immediately says that it’s impossible to think about Dad without Mum; as constant and as interested in people as him, she gave considered and discrete counsel with a steadiness and sense of perspective. They were a side-by-side team for all of their 58 years together, and Mum ran the selection and oversaw the pastoral care of girls at Marlborough College.

After his first headmastership, at Rossall School in Lancashire, Dad was headhunted to come to Marlborough. A member of the Council, Sir George Abell, asked if he could drop by to meet them on the way back from a shooting weekend. Before supper, he asked Dad to show him round the school. An hour or so later, the pre-dinner drinks poured, he realised that he’d effectively just had his first interview.

One of the first things my parents did when they came to the Master’s Lodge was to make the entrance hall into a suitably welcoming place. The original Victorian tiles were uncovered and cleaned and some warm rush-matting put down. A round table in the centre had puzzles and games to occupy those waiting. Every morning, anyone in the College could come and see him without an appointment; the headmaster’s equivalent of a doctor’s surgery.

Communication was important to Dad; the feeling of being listened to is important in any community.  I have an image of him sitting at his desk after supper writing letters, the anglepoise light on the paper and history books lining the study walls as he bent to his task. He wrote to parents who were anxious or upset; he wrote to heads of department; he wrote to congratulate a beak who had put on a play, made a musical event, pushed forward a project. Many of the letters of condolence that Mum has received specifically mention Dad’s letters; all these pieces of paper symbolise something solid, good, lasting.

It wasn’t easy to be Master of Marlborough. As the headmaster of a boarding school you are to some degree in loco parentis and I remember Dad saying once, long after leaving Marlborough and almost as an aside, that he had rarely slept through the night during term-time. There was always something to work through that mattered; it was a serious responsibility. He had a gentle manner and an essential kindness, understood the rogues, the stars and the regulars; he was also very strong.

And Dad had a great sense of fun (and of the ridiculous);  a zest for life. He and Mum, warmly hospitable, liked to gather people around a table – more talking, this time over good food cooked by Sarah Bernays. As well as parties that made full use of the garden at the Lodge, Sundays centred on lunch for visiting preachers and speakers, be it women from Greenham Common protesting nuclear arms or the Bishop of Salisbury, George Reindorp, the latter is imprinted on my childhood memories by his purple wellies, his gifts of purple boxes of Quality Street, and his grace before we tucked into the roast lamb and apple pie: “God bless this bunch as they munch their lunch.”

Breadth as well as depth continued to run through Dad’s approach to education. I’ll give a few examples that are close to me; others will have thoughts on different fields, not least sporting ones.

At Winchester, Dad had been told by his headmaster that a school play was ‘not desirable’. How times changed!  At Marlborough there were house plays, school plays, Shell plays. Everyone should be able have a go and learn. In the Art School, around a third of the sixth form, many with little previous experience and taking it as a fourth A-level, got a strong visual training. Robin Child, the inspirational Head of Art, told me the subject hadn’t initially been a priority for Dad, but he listened and came round to supporting what was widely acknowledged to be a ground-breaking department. Music was always very important to Dad, and he encouraged an exceptional music department with top-quality choirs, a range of orchestras including Brasser, and the revival of the House Shout.

A sense of Dad’s teaching skills, of story-telling, analysis and the apt phrase, can be seen in the books he wrote in retirement, Who’s Who in Victorian Britain and, as a co-author, Britain’s Prime Ministers. He and Mum kept up with many Marlborough friends; their loyalty and pleasure in company made life richly companionable. I remember a full minibus arriving for his 80th birthday party in Ealing.

A good education helps you get the most out of life. Dad’s form of choral worship continued at the Temple Church in London. He went to plays, opera, the Wigmore Hall, watched cricket at Lords, played golf, read widely and engaged with today, face-forward. He was a wonderful grandfather, including to two OMs, James Green (Cotton House 2010-15) and Mimi Green (Summerfield 2015-17).

As his children (my sister Katherine was in Preshute 1981-83 and I was in Cotton House 1983-85; my twin brother Alex followed Dad to Winchester), there was never any pressure on us to achieve but unstated encouragement to live our lives to the full. It strikes me now that many of the qualities of a good teacher, particularly leading by example, are those of a good parent. Pupils, staff, family: we were lucky to have him in our lives.

Sarah Hamilton-Fairley (B2 1974-76)

My first recollection of Roger, and Margaret, is still vivid. I was 16 and being interviewed for a place at Marlborough College, over tea and home-made cake, to see if I’d fit the bill. It was relaxed at one level – but focused and testing at another. I clearly remember my relief when Roger, eventually and with that slight, humorous glint of his, turned to my parents, and smiled, ‘it’s your turn now’.

After a strict and exacting all-girls, day school in London, MC was a breath of fresh air. I can hear Roger’s advice, when discussing A level options, ’simply chose the subjects you love most and give them a go’. History – Roger’s subject – was one of them and his wise words turned out fine.

It wasn’t all a bed of roses and a permanent bond was forged – not that we knew it then – on the fateful, tragic day my father, a cancer specialist, was murdered by the IRA (who had planted the bomb to kill the politician who lived next door). I can still picture the chaos in the Lodge – phones ringing from all quarters – pandemonium everywhere. Roger took me to his study – he was calm but I realise now shockingly shaken, and told me the news I couldn’t hear.

Roger and Margaret have remained close, firm and stalwart friends all these years. We’ve enjoyed many an outing – gardens and music usually being the focus of our trips. My memories are like short videos, full of laughter, colour and surprising quips. He had that rare ability to listen carefully, and then, after thoughtful consideration, give his take on whatever was under discussion. Roger was also a keen golfer – when we arrived at daughter Katherine’s for his special 90th birthday celebrations, the first news we heard was that he’d just hit, for the second time in his life, a hole in one!

Margaret tells me that I was the last visitor to have tea with Roger at their home. He was in ‘great form’ as always, still interested and still looking forward to what life had to offer. My heart goes out to Margaret, their children and his wider family and friends. I will miss him enormously for the rest of my life – an extraordinary, special man – who leaves an especially difficult void for many people who were fortunate enough to know him.