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News > Announcements > Obituaries > In Memoriam: LIONEL STEPHENS (1926-2021)

In Memoriam: LIONEL STEPHENS (1926-2021)

26 Oct 2021
Written by Robin Knight
Obituaries

Lionel Stephens, Second Master of Pangbourne College 1967-86 and Honorary Secretary of the Old Pangbournian Society 1975-2009, died of sepsis in the Royal Berkshire Hospital on August 16th 2021, aged 95. He joined the academic staff at the Nautical College in 1954 and devoted his entire life subsequently to the well-being of the school and its former pupils. He leaves a son Nick (80-87) and a daughter Jenny and three grand-children. Robin Knight (56-61) writes:

“‘Steve’ or ‘Basil’ to generations of OPs was born in 1926 and attended Bedford School. Called up in 1944 during the Second World War, he served in the Army, mainly in India, until demobilised in 1947. Then he went up to Merton College, Oxford University, graduating with a degree in Modern History in 1950 and going into business before settling on a teaching career.

At the College Steve taught History and was Head of the History Department for 25 years in addition to being Housemaster of both Port Jackson and Macquarie Divisions. Among his many other contributions to the well-being of the school, he was master-in-charge of rugby and cricket for lengthy periods, co-founded the Nightowls cricket team, and appeared on the boards in numerous College productions of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas where his acute comic timing and mischievous sense of humour were always on display. Beyond school life, he branched out and became a leading rugby referee, reaching a peak with a touchline role in 1961 at an England international at Twickenham.

This catalogue of achievements, impressive as it is, eventually earned Steve the moniker of Pangbourne’s second ‘Mr Chips’ following in the footsteps of Harry Sykes and his 50-year involvement to 1967. But it in no way gets to the essence of the man. As a former colleague remarked on hearing of his death: “I will treasure the memory of a man whose probity, integrity, sense of duty and commitment were beyond question.” In effect, Steve in his person and his actions came to epitomise many of the values that have lain at the heart of an unusual school since its foundation in 1917.

He was often firm in his views, undeterred by criticism and prepared to be in a minority of one. Nobody, however, ever mistook his forthright positions for anything other than total loyalty to the College and its historic values. It was whilst running Macquarie in the second half of the 1960s that this was best seen at a time when the Nautical College was heading for the rocks. In 1967, never afraid to speak his mind, he was one of three members of the academic staff who, by-passing an unyielding Captain Superintendent, prepared a strong memorandum urging the Governors to de-emphasise the sea-going approach to education and presented it to the Board. Two years later, the NCP morphed into Pangbourne College.

From then on, he evolved into the ‘conscience of the College’ to quote his close friend and long-time colleague Morton Hooper. Various Steve-inspired initiatives emerged, including the first Careers Room at the school for those not wishing to go to sea, improvements to the Library and a heartfelt project to grow hobbies and so-called minor sports one afternoon a week. The arrival of Peter Points in 1969 as the school’s first Headmaster simply galvanised him further, so helping to “liberalise” the way forward in Hoops’ words. Always a believing and practising Christian, he began to deliver eloquent, deeply-thought sermons at chapel. In parallel, he started a lone decades-long struggle to preserve and collate the school archives.

In 1963, aged 37, he married Pat Bradley, then Sister-in-Charge of Sick Bay and a former nurse in the Army who had worked in a field hospital immediately behind advancing Allied ground forces in Normandy after D-Day. In Macquarie Steve and Pat helped in their own distinct ways to loosen the essentially hierarchical system they inherited which, Steve always felt, was self-perpetuating and counter-productive at Pangbourne.

On retiring from teaching in 1986, he settled down in Goring to research and write the first history of the College. This was published in 1991. Some ten years earlier, while still on the teaching staff, Steve had become Honorary Secretary of the OP Society. In this capacity, in the pre-internet era, he wrote countless letters to OPs, wrestled with a computer, visited OPs in Australia and New Zealand twice as well as in Canada and South Africa, edited the OP Magazine 1997-2009, organised annual Founders’ Day photographic displays of College history and attended innumerable OP dinners, meetings, funerals and reunions. As one OP put it, he turned into “the anchor of the Pangbourne ship.” In 2009 he retired as Hon. Sec.; the OP Society marked the occasion and his huge contribution by commissioning his portrait (which, characteristically, he disliked) and staging a fine dinner at the Hurlingham Club in London.

After Pat died in 2012, Steve remained in the family home in Goring for a time before moving into a retirement home across the river in Streatley. Following his death, tributes from OPs and others poured in. He was “a great and unique person who has touched many of us over the years” wrote one. “The omnipresent glue which held the OP system together for which we should all be very, very grateful” reckoned another. “A very special person, always himself. An irreplaceable character” messaged a third. “I had huge respect for his directness and knowledge” posted a fourth. Lionel Stephens, like Harry Sykes before him, lived for the College at Pangbourne. His contribution will not easily be forgotten.”

His obituary was also published in The Times - to read it please click here

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