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News > Pangbournian Stories > The Naval Instructors - An Enduring Contribution

The Naval Instructors - An Enduring Contribution

From the day it opened its doors in 1917, the Nautical College depended heavily on its naval instructors, writes Robin Knight. An extensive trawl through the Archives reveals much about these men.


Before the first term began in September 1917, Sir Thomas Devitt, the founder, and the first Captain Superintendent, William Montanaro, agreed that to be a success the NCP had to employ several seamen instructors – hopefully Chief Petty Officers RN – to instil naval discipline, values and behaviour into the young cadets. But it was wartime, and such people were difficult to unearth. Montanaro journeyed to Portsmouth in June 1917 and quickly  found two men “who will suit us to a T.”

These were “Little” Molyneux, a small, rather excitable CPO who used to chase boys around the Seamanship room with a rope’s end, and “Daddy” Childs, a tall ex-Marine. Molyneux only stayed until 1920 while Childs left in 1919 setting a pattern until the mid-1920s when few of the instructors remained for long.

“No cadet ever forgot the instructors,” wrote Lionel Stephens in his 1991 history of Pangbourne College. There were two main reasons for this. Most were strong personalities. And they dominated daily life, ensuring that the boys’ existence at the NCP was hectic, supervised and tightly regulated from dawn to dusk. Home comforts for the early entrants were almost entirely lacking. Instead, the first command of the day, bellowed out at 7:00am by an intrusive instructor, was ‘Rise and Shine.’ This was quickly followed by ‘Lash up and stow” – an order to make the hammocks in which all the cadets slept (there were 36 in the first term and about 100 by the start of the second year), in true pre-World War One RN style.

Time for academic study was limited well into the 1930s. Rather, the curriculum was tilted towards maritime subjects leavened by English and Maths taught with a distinct nautical flavour. At every step of the day the instructors were on hand to make sure drills were followed, classes and parades attended, inspections passed. Marching in formation seems to have been de rigueur during the teaching day.  

Several shadowy instructors came and went in these first years. “Harry” Binstead, once an admiral’s coxswain, was a typical old salt who chewed tobacco, had a loud voice and was in charge of boats on the river. Here he taught the boys how to row and to sail a whaler. He was supported by “Shipwright” La Hive – remembered for his sharp tongue and even sharper temper – who presided over the Boat House from 1920-43 when he died, still working, aged 90.

“Tubby” Hall worked at the river, too, but was regarded by the cadets as indolent. He soon left. “Gunner” Marshall – a retired RN 1st Class Gunlayer – turned up in 1919 and became 'Master-at-Arms.' In this role he supervised defaulters’ punishments, apparently with some ferocity, but was well liked by the boys. Having taught Seamanship for five years, he left in 1924 to manage a hotel in Wallingford.

Also on the staff in this era was “Bungey” Martin. He taught boxing, gymnastics, life-saving and sailing from 1922 to 1934. Notorious for never missing anything, Martin was an “upstanding figure” noted for his colourful language. It was Martin who was responsible for the mass gymnastic displays by cadets on Big Side that marked all Founders’ Days at the NCP into the early 1950s.

It was in 1922, too, that the first of the great instructors arrived. His name was Charles Sewell and he was to remain on the staff until 1960 – by far the longest stint on record. Once a Leading Signalman aged 21 aboard HMS Southampton, flagship of the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron at Jutland in 1916, Sewell was involved in a ferocious night action during this battle in which Southampton sank the German cruiser Frauenlob and was lucky to survive.

On Big Side on Founders’ Day, he often organised a mass display by the cadets of the signals depicting the operation of a convoy. He was also behind the formation of a Model Club and ran it for many years, using a display of ships’ models to depict the Jutland battle.

Known to one and all as Charlie, and an able organiser despite always being in a rush, Sewell could recite the Rules of the Road by heart. Over time, he branched out and became the king of working parties directing often recalcitrant boys on afternoons devoted to clearing the woods of nettles, brambles and logs. In the 1930s he took on the task of showing prospective parents around the school. In 1939 he became the Master-at-Arms, dealing judicially with defaulters.

A competent ventriloquist, Charlie nevertheless became famous among the cadets for his malapropisms. One passed into NCP folklore: “There’s two bounders in this College, and you two’s one of them.” When he retired in 1960 the chairman of the OP Society at the time, Trevor Turner (39-43), wrote him a public letter of thanks on behalf of all OPs – “We are so grateful to you that it is difficult to know where to start or finish.”

Sewell was followed on to the staff in 1923 by “Gnarly” Bill Stamper – so nicknamed for his grizzled hair and deeply lined, tanned face. Each day he was at the College Stamper cycled up Pangbourne Hill from the village, regardless of the weather conditions, on an ancient bicycle. After 25 years in the RN, he served almost as long at the NCP thanks to the Second World War, retiring in 1947 after missing most of 1944 through ill health. His insistence on the highest standards of bearing and smartness was renowned as was his prowess as a fencing and swimming coach.

Promoted to Chief Instructor in 1932, Stamper had taught at Dartmouth and Osborne before arriving at Pangbourne. It showed. At the NCP, he revealed a great ability to get the best out of teenagers, both on the parade ground and in the gym, and became widely respected. "A stern figure with a wry chuckle,” according to Lionel Stephens, he took “ackers” (compulsory early morning runs for all cadets) each morning whatever the weather. Many of his fencers went on to achieve fine results at the annual Royal Tournament at Olympia. On his retirement, OPs and the College combined to give him a memorable send-off.

In 1928 a third Instructor turned up who was to play a considerable, if understated role for the next 20 years – “Poppa” Henning. A fit, precise man who coached boxing and shooting, his genial, kind-hearted manner won him plaudits from the cadets, particularly during the difficult war years when the need for some reassurance about the future was greatest among his youthful charges.

From the mid-1920s to the mid-1940s it was mostly Stamper, Sewell and Henning who created the stability of day-to-day leadership and the continuity of values that any young school needs. As many as five instructors were sometimes on the pay roll in this period. But a number, such as W. Nicholl (gymnastics), J. Strait (seamanship) and J. Westlake (shooting) came and left having made little impact.

Joe Daniels, appointed in 1934 when Westlake left, fits into another category. Master-at Arms until 1939, he was known by the boys as “Stinky Joe” (he smoked a strong shag tobacco). Initially, Daniels took charge of the rifle range. But his enduring importance lies in the fact that he became the College’s first Bandmaster, giving much-needed prowess to a small fife-and-drum ensemble. He was recalled to the Services on the outbreak of war.

Another to return to active service in 1939 was “Jock” Emby. He had been in charge of boxing and physical training since 1928. After WW2, he re-joined the staff before finally retiring in 1953. Stamper, Sewell and Henning, however, remained at the NCP throughout the war, in the latter two cases working well beyond retirement age. By then, most of the instructors – even those who were married – usually resided in the purpose-built Instructors Mess (completed in 1938) at the end of Devitt House.

From 1947 to 1969 and the end of the Nautical College era, a quartet of Instructors kept naval traditions and skills alive. Led by the irrepressible Charlie Sewell, the other members – all Chief Petty Officers RN – were Jackie Finch, Pat Paterson and Bob “Tiger” Knights. Jackie Finch’s skills primarily were as a fencing instructor and also as a seaman, sailmaker and rigger. Arriving in 1946, he remained for the next 22 years, in that time coaching the very best fencers the College has ever produced including two Olympians and, in his unobtrusive way, taking on much administration.

Pat Paterson, too, was unobtrusive. A former Gunnery Instructor, he was in charge of square bashing, parades and swimming. During a 12-year spell on the staff, he made no headlines but did his job efficiently and patiently. Another of his roles was to give a lecture on the facts of life, illustrating his talk with cautionary tales from his time with the China Fleet. Retiring in 1960 together with Charlie Sewell, the pair were not replaced. Instead, the Captain Superintendent, Patrick Lewis, opted to appoint a retired P&O officer, Lt Cdr. Colin Rimmer, as Training Officer.

In 1953 “Jock” Emby retired. In his place Bob “Tiger” Knights appeared. A veritable ball of fire who epitomised the very best of the RN Chief Petty Officers, he became a legend in his time. The gymnasium was his personal sanctum. “In this place, you don’t walk, you don’t run, you FLY!” Not a speck of dust was ever to be found on the bars, vaulting horses and ropes. Under his prompting, cadet displays of vaulting and Indian Club swinging reached prodigious heights of dexterity. Many boys, willingly or unwillingly, also learned how to defend themselves in the boxing ring and, if they misbehaved, do the dreaded “Bunny Hops”.

Bob Knights had had a varied 26-year career in the RN before and during World War 2, serving in ships such as Resolution, Arethusa and Repulse. Catch him in the right mood, and he had a string of vivid, often gruesome, memories to recount which were of infallible interest to the cadets. Latterly, he branched out to teach fencing and play a role down at the river. In 1975 he appeared on the television show ‘This Is Your Life’ to greet the OP multiple motor cycling world champion Mike Hailwood (54-56) – one of his boxing successes.

From 1953, Knights slept every duty night in the Instructors Mess. Not surprisingly, his long-suffering wife Dora – a kindly soul who ran the canteen and would always produce an extra cup of Horlicks for the cadet who had the task of cleaning up the place in the evenings – felt lonely.  She had had some prior experience of this solitary existence; in the six years of World War II she and Tiger were together for just six weeks. It was not until the arrival of Captain Lewis at the NCP in 1959 that the role of Duty Instructor was abolished.

On Knights’ retirement in 1976, seven years after the Nautical College had ceased to exist, the boys presented him with a beautifully engraved Wilkinson cutlass as a token of their appreciation. For his part, the head of the English department, Morton Hooper, wrote a memorable valedictory essay. He ended it by quoting a boy from the Junior School: “We were a bit frightened of “Tiger” at first but we loved to go down the river with him. It was hard work, but he made it a game.” Five instructors came and went in the next dozen years after Knights but none had “Tiger’s” dedication.

In 2004-05 about 20 OPs from the 1940s got together to raise more than £350 to purchase a silver-plated bugle in recognition of the instructors’ contribution to the College’s ethos and development. The intention was that this bugle recall for future generations the commitment and importance of these men made over decades. Known as the Instructors’ Bugle, it is presented each year to a member of the Marching Band. The idea came from Michael Penney (43-45), and it was Michael who presented the bugle to the then Headmaster, Ken Greig, during the Founders’ Day parade in 2005.

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