As part of our commemoration of the 175th Anniversary of Brighton College, we are creating a series of Head Master profiles, covering every Head Master since the Second World War. William (Bill) Stewart was Head Master from 1950 to 1963, and would do much to set the tone for the College’s growth and development in the post-war years.
William Stewart was born on April 5th, 1916, the eldest of three children, and came from modest beginnings in the City of Liverpool. He was educated at Liverpool College, was a chorister at Liverpool Cathedral, and then won a Choral Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained high honours in History. He was an all-around sportsman, playing cricket, hockey and rugby, winning a hockey half blue and later playing at County level for Sussex. He was also an accomplished pianist and singer, performing in the Trinity College choir and with the University Madrigal Society.
Stewart joined the staff of Brighton College in 1937, as a sixth form history master and quickly distinguished himself by his passion for the subject and dynamic teaching style. He and Tris Ballance (Brasenose College, Oxford) were two of ‘Scott’s young men’, a group of young and talented staff, appointed during Christopher Fairfax Scott’s tenure as Head Master, who brought new life and rigour to the College in the late 1930s. Stewart and Ballance were kindred spirits and formed a firm friendship.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Stewart was called up for military service. During the War, he met his future wife, Jill Sandeman Allen. They married in April 1942. Stewart would progress from gunner to Battery Commander, and fight in Normandy, Belgium, and Germany. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1945. His close friendship with Ballance was maintained, with Ballance serving as best man at Stewart’s wedding. Tragically, Ballance died in 1943 at the battle for Monte Casino in Italy.
Stewart was reunited with his family in 1945, and upon his return to work at the College was immediately appointed as Housemaster of Chichester House. Following the resignation of Arthur Stuart-Clark in May 1950, and after long deliberations by the College Council, they took the unusual step of appointing as Head Master a member of College staff. However, despite this unprecedented decision, the reaction to Stewart’s appointment at the age of 34 was overwhelmingly positive and judged to be a wise and fitting choice.
With characteristic energy and enthusiasm, Stewart and his wife threw themselves into the task of running a post-war school, which needed financial security, more pupils, a raising of standards, and a greater sense of community, both within the College and with the town.
He opened his study door for regular weekly evening ‘surgeries’ when anyone could see him without a prior appointment, something he valued and for which he always made time. He also proved to be very empathetic, towards both staff and pupils.
One notable example of this occurred in 1954. After being informed that Mr Maxwell, the Director of Art, wished to resign for personal reasons, Stewart went out of his way to investigate further. He discovered that Maxwell did not really wish to leave the College but was suffering from a sense of isolation in his department. Stewart quickly appointed an assistant to share the work of the department, thus solving the problem.
It was not long into his tenure as Head Master that the pupils came up with a nickname for the new Head, ‘The Duke’. Duncan Stewart (A. 1947-52 and no relation) is understood to be its originator, but the reason for the adoption of the nickname, whilst on the face of it well deserved, is not known.
During Stewart’s tenure, the College’s regular deficits were turned into surpluses every year for most of the 1950s, stabilising the school’s financial situation. This period also witnessed the injection of new life into the sciences at the College and the construction of the first significant buildings at the College since before the Great Depression. In October 1958 the Science Block was opened by Sir Vivian Fuchs and was considered to be at the forefront of design, with innovative laboratories. Stewart would also oversee the creation of a new library within the Main Building, a new home for Aldrich House, new workshops, and a modern home for two of the day Houses.
Academic achievement became a major feature of Brighton College in this period, whilst new staff appointments brought great improvement to morale and standards of teaching. This was also a period of significant expansion in the College’s curriculum, and a move beyond the traditional "chalk and talk" method of teaching. There was also a great expansion in cultural and sporting activities across the College, particularly in drama, societies, and several sports.
Throughout his Headmastership, Stewart had a deserved reputation for providing warm welcomes, with numerous visiting preachers, lecturers, governors, parents, and Old Brightonians welcomed and entertained in the Head Master’s house. However, he would face by far his greatest challenge to his organisational skills when the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came to visit Brighton in 1962.
The Queen’s visit to the College in July 1962 proved to be one of Stewart’s greatest challenges as Head Master and one of his greatest triumphs. With understandable pride, Stewart took the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on a guided tour around the College campus, with excited rows of boys lining the route. During her visit, the Queen unveiled a plaque to commemorate the day, which can be seen on the outside of the east wall of the Chapel. The visit was deemed an overwhelming success, with much of the credit going to Stewart, and his commitment to rigorous rehearsal and meticulous preparations.
In 1963 Stewart was appointed ‘Master’ of Haileybury College, Hertfordshire. Stewart left Brighton College in the strongest financial position it had enjoyed for decades, with improvements to many of its facilities, a booming cultural life, and in a good position to face the opportunities and challenges of the 1960s and 70s.
On February 23rd 1975, Stewart died suddenly and unexpectedly from acute viral pneumonia while playing football with some of the boys, stunning the whole school community at Haileybury.
His memorial service took place at the Brighton College Chapel, with his good friend, and former College Chaplain, Bill Peters presiding. A memorial stone was unveiled within the Chapel he had been devoted to; bearing the inscription ‘He loved this Place,’ an epithet that could easily be applied to the Chapel, the College, and the city. Early the next morning, his ashes were scattered into the sea off Brighton beach, as he would have wished.