Ken Shearwood, Common Room 1952-1996 (July 2018)

Ken Shearwood

With the death of Ken Shearwood at the age of 96, the independent school world has lost one its most celebrated and dynamic characters.

Until his late twenties Ken had no thought of a teaching career. He would have found the prospect daunting and hilarious. In fact it could be said that he never did become a conventional teacher or see himself as such. What made him such a success as a schoolmaster was the varied and exciting life he had led as a young man and the individual impact of his remarkable, enigmatic personality.

Ken treated everyone he met, of whatever age or walk of life, with equal respect and courtesy. His ease of manner, interest in people and conversational fluency made him very good company. He was not impressed by status or dignity but appreciated people for their own sake. Modest and unassuming, he was a kind, tolerant and reassuring friend. As a raconteur with an astonishing memory, he would regale his listeners with vivid, often self-deprecating tales. In his autobiographical writings (Hardly a Scholar 1999) he includes affectionate thumb-nail sketches and CVs of his multitudinous acquaintances.

Ken could be seen as the embodiment of the argument against early academic selection. He had not much enjoyed the classroom himself and hated school hierarchies. Years later, when a zealous headmaster democratically made his whole staff take an IQ test which the school used as an entrance exam, Ken put down his pencil and walked out. He disliked examinations, yet he was highly intelligent, cultured and knowledgeable. It was his capacity to empathise with pupils who reacted against school and traditional learning methods which made him such an excellent teacher and so effective in pastoral and disciplinary roles. And his sporting prowess was indeed legendary.

Kenneth Arthur Shearwood was born in Derby on 9 September 1921. His father was a doctor in general practice, his mother a noted beauty. It was a comfortable, happy home.  At nine he went to a boarding prep school and thence to Shrewsbury. He struggled somewhat academically but matriculated with five credits in the School Certificate at the second attempt. On the other hand his sporting talents were encouraged and he played football and cricket for the school and later for the Old Salopians. What he learnt by observation was ‘how to treat and teach pupils’. When his housemaster had beaten him (rather gently) for throwing a piece of chalk in class which hit the teacher on the head, he remarked, as the culprit reached the door ‘Ken, it must have been a very good shot’, thus, inadvertently, perhaps recruiting a great schoolmaster.

In 1940 Ken went up to Liverpool University to read architecture. He had some talent for art, but was relieved when the war intervened. He joined the navy and was drafted as an Ordinary Seaman to the destroyer HMS Foresight in Scapa Flow, protecting North Sea convoys against German E-boats. In these dramatically different circumstances he showed ability and ‘officer-like qualities’. He was sent to HMS King Alfred, then based at Lancing College in Sussex. He fell in love with the majestic buildings and incomparable setting of the school to which he would return ten years later for the rest of his life. Commissioned in 1943, he commanded a Tank Landing Craft in the Mediterranean and saw action in Sicily, Salerno and Anzio, winning the DSC.

In 1946, as Senior Officer Landing Craft at Dartmouth, he married Winifred (Biddie) Rowland, whom he had met in 1942. After demobilisation, they moved to Mevagissey, acquired a black Labrador and invested everything in a twenty-seven foot half-decked St Ives gig, the Coral. With his swashbuckling charm, seafaring experience and packets of Woodbines, Ken recruited local fishermen and survived for eighteen months as an inshore fisherman. He played cricket and football at local and county level and this may have been a deciding factor when he secured an interview for Brasenose in 1947. As captain of the OUAFC he became a founding member and brilliant centre-half of Pegasus, the combined Oxford and Cambridge team which won the amateur FA cup in 1951 and 53 in front of crowds of 100,00 at Wembley. It was through Colin Weir, a Pegasus comrade, that Ken was recruited to the staff of Lancing College where he ran the cricket for six years and the football for 22 years with outstanding success. His coaching was based on simple, forward-moving, elegant strategy and fair play. An enlightened Head allowed him to play for Pegasus until 1958 and seems to have overlooked his moonlighting as a sales rep for gentlemen’s clothing.         

Ken and Lancing were perfectly suited. Cultivated, creative, sporty and impressive, if a little quirky and unconventional. The informal atmosphere of the school with its tradition of friendliness and tolerance was what he admired. His teaching was entertaining if at times precarious, especially in Maths. In English Literature he often returned to his favourite novels and poems, making them fresh every time and conveying the magic of words. His own prose is delicate and readable, enlivened with authentic dialogue and idyllic descriptions of natural beauty. Passionately opposed to bullying, unhappiness, undue punishment and injustice, his pastoral work was paramount. He was Housemaster of Sanderson’s for 17 years and ran his House on liberal lines, dependent on trust and high expectations. It was a ‘happy ship’ and its routines had a nautical flavour. Dormitories were woken with cries of ‘Show a leg, show a leg; the morning’s fine, rise and shine; ‘eave-o, ‘eave-o, lash up and stow’.

Ken became Head Master’s Deputy and President of the Common Room. He always seemed older and wiser, not only than his pupils but also most colleagues. Lancing was a pioneer in having a member of the teaching staff attend Governors’ meetings to represent his colleagues. In this role Ken achieved some notable improvements to employees’ pensions and conditions of service. A life-long socialist he had very mixed feelings about independent schools and was not afraid of difficult issues. His left-wing views informed his social attitudes and made him a formidable advocate for justice. ‘I was never much at ease with the established order of things’, he wrote, ‘though must confess I have done little about it, other than occasionally tilt at authority and show an awareness and sympathy for the underdog.’

When he retired at 65, Ken became Lancing’s first admissions registrar. He developed the position with subtle authority becoming a role model for registrars. He knew the independent schools intimately from personal experience and accompanying teams and he became an expert on prep schools (though once mistaking an old peoples’ home for one with near fatal consequences). His charm, human understanding and infectious love of Lancing enticed pupils and their parents even if their names eluded him.

Ken worked at Lancing for 44 years and never really left. He did apply rather half-heartedly for some headships. Once, when Eton came up, he wrote to the Provost saying ‘I’m your man’. This provoked a quick letter from the Head of Lancing: ‘Dear Ken, I should be most grateful if you would discontinue your correspondence with the Provost of Eton – please!’

In those final years, living in a house looking across the valley to the famous Chapel, he contributed greatly to the reputation of the College, kept in touch with former pupils and followed the fortunes of teams at all levels. Biddie died in 2016 after 70 years of happy marriage. Their son Paul (born in 1948) and daughter Vanessa (born in 1954) enabled them both to end their lives with love at home.

Kenneth Shearwood, born 5 September 1921, died 5 July 2018    

(written by Jeremy Tomlinson for The Times)