Written by James Harrison
Monday, 19 July 2021

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. Our next profile is William (Bill) Stewart, Head Master from 1950 to 1963, who would do much to set the tone for the College’s growth and development in the post-war years.

Early Life 

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-round 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. 

In 1937, shortly after his graduation, and just before he was appointed as a member of staff at Brighton College, his family was deeply shocked by the sudden death of his father, who died of pneumonia at the age of 51. 

Stewart joined the staff of Brighton College in 1937, as a sixth form history master, and quickly distinguished himself with 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. 

In addition to his positive academic impact on the school, Stewart immediately began instilling new life into several activities and societies at the College that had previously faded away. The school’s Shakespeare Society became his special project, while the Play Reading Society also benefited from his enthusiasm. 

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Stewart, like so many others, was called up for military service, joining the Royal Artillery. During the war he met his future wife, Jill Sandeman Allen. They married in April 1942, and their first child, also William, was born in 1943. During the War, 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 Tris Ballance had been maintained during the war years, with Ballance serving as best man at Stewart’s wedding. Tragically, Ballance died in 1943 at the battle for Monte Casino in Italy, after he too had been awarded the MC. 

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. The next five years proved to be happy and fulfilling for Stewart as a Housemaster, spending time settling back into civilian life, teaching, coaching the Cricket X1 and enjoying his growing family. He and Jill had two more children in this time, Richard and Rosalind, who were both born in Chichester House. Their youngest son, David was born later, in 1955, by which time the family had moved across the Quad to the Head Master’s house. 

‘The Duke’ 

Following the resignation of Arthur Stuart-Clark, and after long deliberations by the College Council in May 1950, 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. 

It was in this role that Stewart would be able to make full use of his strong personality, and exercise direct leadership over the College. 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 itself, and with the town. 

He opened his study door for regular weekly evening ‘surgeries’ when anyone could see him without 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. 

However, Stewart’s leadership and governing style were not entirely free from criticism. He could be described as a workaholic, even by his children, who can remember long periods in term time when they would see very little of their father. He was also a perfectionist who was sometimes slow to delegate tasks and projects to other senior members of staff. Much of this derived from his impatience to get things done but it merely added to his workload. 

As a man with high standards and a hard working ethic, Stewart expected no less of the staff and pupils at the College. Anyone who fell short of these standards might expect a fierce glare from their Head Master’s ‘steely blue’ eyes, but those same eyes were, more often than not, full of humour and encouragement. His voice and physique provided him with a commanding presence that he was fortunate to be able to exploit thoroughly as Head Master, particularly as a public speaker and on all big occasions such as Speech Day. He was also in demand as a very accomplished after dinner speaker. 

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.  

Balancing the books 

With Stewart as Head Master and retired Naval Commander, Jack Head as Bursar, the College began the task of dealing with its financial difficulties. By 1952, just two years after his appointment as Head Master, pupil numbers at the College were at capacity. More efficient budgeting was introduced, and there was greater continuity in the central role of Bursar. The regular deficits of the late 1940s were soon turned into surpluses every year between 1950 and 1958, with an average profit of £3,824 (£100,000 in today’s money). It had been a long time since the College had experienced such a relatively stable financial position.  

Surprisingly, in 1959, nine years into Stewart’s tenure the College was hit by an unexpected financial crisis. There was a deficit that year, and a shortfall in the College’s appeal for money towards new buildings. This necessitated increased borrowing at a time when interest rates were at a record high. This was compounded by difficulties at the Regency Building Society which resulted in it recalling its Loan to the College. Fortunately, the College was able to refinance with a 25-year Debenture, and the financial situation was soon stabilised. 

Deflation in the National economy in 1961 ruined the calculations of the College Council for what was required to fully recover the College’s financial position. What followed was a period of rising interest rates, increased consumer taxes and industrial stagnation which resulted in the College enduring a financial roller-coaster, at the mercy of the national economic situation, forced to regularly raise fees and impose stricter budgetary controls. 

A return of confidence in the economy and a financial recovery would come about before the end of Stewart’s tenure as Head Master. 

Opening of the new Science Block 

Stewart’s tenure as Head Master 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. 

The study of science at Brighton College had undergone a lengthy period of stagnation, as it did throughout the English school world, but the post-war years brought about a new determination in Brighton College to bring its scientific teaching up to the standards demanded by present-day industry.  

The recently created Industrial Fund for the Advancement of Scientific Education in Schools, an attempt by some of Britain’s most progressive companies to combat a shortage of scientists and technologists by funding new school science buildings, promised its maximum contribution towards the building of a new Science block, supplementing money raised by appeal, and an interest-free loan. This new Science block formed part of College’s 1955 Development Plan. 

In March 1958 the foundation stone for the Science Block was laid by Lord Woolton, President of the College Council, who had risen from his sick bed to carry out the engagement. The Building was opened in October 1958, by Sir Vivian Fuchs, an Old Brightonian who had gone on to become a successful and renowned explorer, and had recently completed the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. At its completion, the Science Block was considered to be at the forefront of design, with its innovative laboratories. 

The space that became available due to the opening of the new Science Block was put to good use, with the creation of a fine new library within the Main Building, and a new home for Aldrich House. The new library proved far more accessible and attractive than the former library in the Dawson Building’s attics. This remains the site of the School Library to this day. 

Stewart’s tenure also saw the construction of new workshops and a modern home for two of the day boy Houses with the relocation of a third, replacing some of the College’s most outdated facilities in the process. 

Academic achievement 

Under Stewart’s leadership, academic achievement and advance became a major feature of Brighton College in the 1950s. The number of ‘O’ and ‘A’ level passes at the College increased dramatically between 1952 and 1962, while there was also an increase in Oxbridge open awards. The proportion of boys who went on to University was also considerably higher in this period. The increasing strength of the College’s VIth form was pivotal to this academic improvement. Other contributions to this improvement was a raising of the Common Entrance pass mark, the introduction of internal half-term reports, a tutorial system and an increase in the number of feeder prep schools. However, the key factor was recruitment of much better qualified academic staff.  

These appointments brought great improvement to morale and to the standards of teaching in the decade. For example, the recruitment of David Hollinshead as the College’s first professionally qualified technical studies master represented a marked advance in the status and quality of the subject. The 1961 H.M.I. Report was the first inspection since 1911 to praise the quality of the College’s academic staff. 

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. But Stewart’s hopes that there would be a long-term bias towards Maths and Science within the College, particularly in the wake of the opening of the new Science Block, failed to take hold. A lack of cutting edge in teaching of the sciences at the College remained, with too much focus on knowledge and too little on method, but strong foundations for continued academic improvement had been laid. 

Cultural activities and sport at the College 

The 1950s and early 60s witnessed a great expansion in cultural and sporting activities across the College. 

Drama at Brighton College experienced an extraordinary phase of success during Stewart’s time as Head Master. It was a time of great experimentation on the theatre stage, led by Peter Gough. The performances at the College became so successful, and so professional, that it even attracted the notice of the London press. 

Visiting lecturers became a common fixture of the College’s social calendars, and the growth of art continued. Pupils now had several opportunities for artistic expression, including the Photographic Society, the 3As Society, the College Press, and The Play Reading Society. The style and content of the Brightonian became far more vibrant and colourful, exhibiting more of the pupil’s artistic and literary talent. The most visible sign of this change was the introduction of a series of imaginative magazine covers at this time. Pupil talents had multiple outlets at this time, with a number of pupil-produced papers and magazines, from the respectable The Pelican, to experimental publications like Gamut, Wallpaper and Satire. 

In contrast to the vibrant cultural life of the period, music would remain a disappointing area in the cultural makeup of the College for much of the 1950s. Stewart’s own judgment was that the department ‘has no ambitions,’ and he was forced to sack two successive Directors of Music. Despite this apparent musical malaise, an orchestra was re-established for the first time since well before the outbreak of the War. The period of musical stagnation came to an abrupt end in 1962, with the appointment of Jack Hindmarsh as Director of Music. Under his direction, the music tradition of the College rapidly improved to become second to none. 

One of the few steps back in this period was the College community’s interest in world and current affairs. While Stewart’s predecessor, Stuart-Clark, had promoted pupils’ interest in current affairs, Stewart did not. Newspapers were, surprisingly, described as ‘not desirable’ in the library, while The Debating Society wasted much of its time on frivolities. The College, much like the country itself, lacked any significant interest in the great changes and events taking place across the world at a time when tensions between the U.S.A. and Soviet Union were high and the Cuba crisis was looming. 

Sport too enjoyed a period of success and expansion. Swimming, water polo, fencing, tennis, and boxing all enjoyed great success under Stewart’s watch, while Fives went through a renaissance at this time. But it would be cricket, Stewart’s favourite sport, which held pride of place at the College, seeing the first unbeaten Cricket XIs since the 1880s. As with the academic curriculum, Stewart oversaw a broadening of sporting activities, with the introduction of sailing, basketball, and golf, the reintroduction of riding, and the first ski trips during the Christmas holidays. However, the ‘tyranny’ of the compulsory, but much loathed athletics competitions remained in the Easter Terms. 

Rugby, in contrast to most of the College’s sports, did suffer during this period. While Stewart had appointed two soccer blues to the staff, despite the fact the College did not play the sport, he didn’t manage to select a quality rugby-playing master until 1958, and even then, this appointment made little difference. Stewart himself was forced to admit that ‘College rugby was sluggish’ in this period. 

The Royal Visit, 1962 

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 headmaster’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. 

As a fellow cricket enthusiast, Stewart had got to know the Duke of Norfolk (the Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and Earl Marshall) quite well. Stewart had often asked the Duke if he could arrange a visit to the College by the Queen when next she was scheduled to visit Brighton. Convention has it that Her Majesty should be greeted by the Mayor and local dignitaries on her arrival in the Royal Borough (as Brighton then was), but Stewart was able to persuade the Duke that for the purpose of the visit, the College was not part of the Borough! 

Stewart prepared well for such a significant occasion, with his commitment to rigorous rehearsal and meticulous preparations now paying great dividends. 

The Queen’s visit to the College in July 1962 proved to be an extraordinary success for everyone at the College. With understandable pride the Head Master and Second Master took the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh on a guided tour round 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 photographs of the event, several of which are preserved in the College archive, show clearly how much Stewart cared for and took pride in the pupils, teachers and staff who contributed to the immaculate appearance of the College during the visit. The day of the Queen’s visit would always be remembered by those who were lucky enough to be there, and many Old Brightonians from the period consider it their favourite memory of the College. 

Stewart, perhaps unsurprisingly after such a high profile visit, sent a telegram and a letter of thanks and gratitude on behalf of everyone at the College to Buckingham Palace. The response from Buckingham Palace was overwhelmingly positive, commending Stewart for the excellent arrangements, and confirming that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh not only enjoyed their short tour of the College, but were impressed by all that they saw of the School. 

Life after Brighton College 

In 1963 it was time to move on and Stewart was appointed ‘Master’ of Haileybury College in Hertfordshire. For the next 12 years, he continued to use his humanitarian style to enhance the lives of boys, and later girls, at the school. However, whilst he relished the new environment and challenge, he continued to have a great affection for both the town of Brighton and particularly the College. 

On February 23rd 1975, Stewart died suddenly and unexpectedly from acute viral pneumonia while playing football in a staff match against the boys, deeply stunning the whole school community at Haileybury. The blow was also felt by the alumni at Brighton College, with many members of the College community who knew him (including many Old Brightonians), writing to express their shock and sadness at the news, but also their gratitude for having known him. 

Throughout his life William Stewart was a committed and active Christian and regularly preached in the Chapel and elsewhere. Many attended his memorial service at the College, 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 Town. Early the next morning, his ashes were scattered into the sea off Brighton beach as he would have wished. He is gratefully remembered by many, both at Brighton and Haileybury.  

Stewart left Brighton College in the strongest financial position it had enjoyed for decades, with much-needed improvements to many of its facilities, a blooming cultural life, and in a good position to face the opportunities and challenges of the 1960s and 70s. 

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