The OS Club has received the sad news that Former Headmaster (1975-1981) and Honorary OS, Peter J Attenborough, passed away on 19th February after a short illness.
P.J. Attenborough was born in 1938 and was educated at Christ’s Hospital, where he represented the school in the 1st XV and 1st XI, and became Senior Grecian and Captain of the CCF. In 1956 he gained a State Scholarship and an Open Classical Exhibition to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he gained a First Class in the Classical Tripos. He went on to teach Classics at Uppingham, becoming a housemaster in 1970. He spent a year in Kenya on voluntary service, where he met his future wife Alexandra Page. They had two children: James and Charlotte.
An Uppingham colleague in The Sedberghian of 1975 described Attenborough as ‘king, unsparing of his time and efforts in helping Colleagues, boys, or anyone who needs sympathy or assistance. He is possessed to a high degree of the virtue of diplomacy, which is not to say that he is not a man of strong opinions and strong feelings about what he considers to be right or wrong or educationally desirable or undesirable.
Attenborough was quick to listen to ideas, and quick to get involved. He was seen on the rugby pitch and at Choral Society, promoted the appreciation of music, art and drama in the school, he promoted necessary improvements of the Chapel’s facilities with great enthusiasm, oversaw the gift of the Makin organ in the School Chapel, and set up the Danson Room, promoted a Sixth Form career interviewing course.
During Attenborough’s time at Sedbergh, the lecture theatre was completed, solar panels were added to the swimming pool roof, the Barr tennis courts were opened, and extensive work was carried out on Cressbrook.
Please see below an obituary from Charterhouse School:
|Peter John Attenborough passed away on 19 February 2020, aged 81|
Headmaster of Charterhouse School LQ82-CQ93
Peter is survived by his wife Sandy with their children James and Charlotte
Christ’s Hospital, Horsham
Peterhouse, Cambridge BA Classics 1960, MA 1964.
Assistant Master, Uppingham 1960–1975 (Housemaster, Senior Classics Master)
Assistant Master, Starehe Boys’ Centre, Nairobi 1966–1967
Headmaster, Sedbergh School 1975–1981
Headmaster, Charterhouse 1982-1993
The Rank Foundation, Director of Educational and Community Care Projects, 1994–2004, Administrator, Leadership and Fellowship Schemes, 2004–06
Chairman, Common Entrance Committee of Independent Schools 1983–88
Member, HMC Committee 1986–90
Almoner, Christ’s Hospital 1987–2001
Governor, Ashdown House 1983–93; Haslemere Prep 1986–93; St Edmund’s 1986–94;
Brambletye 1989–99; Caldicott 1990–93; Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools 1996–2007;
Trustee, Uppingham 1993–2002; Inner City Young People’s Project 1989–98; Starehe Endowment Fund (UK) 1995–2008.
Freeman, City of London 1965; Liveryman, Skinners’ Co 1978
The following tributes were paid when Peter left Charterhouse in 1993. Clive Carter, Second Master (BH1965-1996) wrote:
My first official meeting with PJA was about a fortnight before his first term began, when he had been rung up out of the blue by an angry Gownboy parent. He was calm, courteous, understanding and helpful – an approach which has never varied from that day to this. As a Housemaster, I came to feel that I could tell him quite horrific tales of the doings of my errant charges and that he would never indulge in recrimination nor put his position first. The overriding principle in any of the JUNE 1993 crises which we have weathered (and it is a tribute in itself that I think like that) has always been the welfare of the individual pupil – no matter how reprehensible his or her behaviour.
To preserve Housemaster-pupil harmony he has often urged me to put the blame on him for disciplinary action I have thought was needed: he has broad shoulders indeed. When all else has failed, I have watched him take endless pains to relocate those whom he has been obliged to dismiss. Many Carthusians have good cause to be grateful for his care, though they may often be unaware of it, and Peter has never allowed what people might think of him to stand in the way of what he judges to be right for the individual. He takes a deep interest in the doings of all Carthusians. How he knows so much about them is a mystery to me, but he always has a word of encouragement or congratulation for any passing pupil and he has a wide appreciation of their very various activities.
As Second Master, charged with lightening his load, I have tried to deputise for him at events but, though he agrees in principle, he so often feels that he cannot neglect some particular performance that I have very seldom succeeded. When I chide him for over-work, he listens politely and takes no notice. In a School noted for the quality of its beaks’ commitment, he beats us all hands down. Yet he rarely is too busy to see members of the staff, and he cares for them as much as he does for the pupils; taking pains to listen to their opinions, consulting them widely, and appreciating their efforts especially on public .occasions when the School is being praised. We all take access to the HM for granted, but it is becoming increasingly rare elsewhere in this bureaucratic age. Peter’s time is always at other people’s disposal, and where other HMs can be seen enhancing their reputations in the press or on TV, PJA had to be strong-armed into going to the Headmasters’ Conference in Bruges because he felt that it seemed self-indulgent.
When he decided to retire, it was not for personal motives or for promotion – it was because, in his judgement, it was essential for the School to have a new Headmaster well in place by the time of the next election, when he would otherwise just be coming up for retirement. His personal future did not count – and he still doesn’t really know what he will be doing next September. He is also uncharacteristically honest for a Headmaster. To give me a surprise party in Gownboys, PJA was asked to practise a small deception to lure me out of the House: he still apologises for having lied to me – and that was three years ago. Throughout our happy association, I have valued his humanity, his intelligence, his sense of the ridiculous, his humility, courtesy and perception. He embodies all the true qualifies of the real Christian gentleman, and the fact that Charterhouse has been a much more pleasant and effective place in which to live and work during this period is very largely due to him.
Dr Ernst Zillekens (BH1979-2017) wrote: January 1982 was one of the rare occasions when we had an outburst of severe winter weather which coincided with the time of Peter’s and Sandy’s arrival here at Charterhouse. Coming from Sedbergh, such weather conditions were hardly unfamiliar but they were not so used to them being coupled with a breakdown of the central heating system, which occurred almost instantly. Should this not have given rise to doubts about the wisdom of their move, the evening chapel service on their second Sunday here may well have done. ‘Let there be light’ was the theme of the day and it was re-enacted in a somewhat literal manner by plunging the chapel into total darkness very early on in the service. What followed was rather darker in portent than the lighting condition in chapel at that moment – a succession of shrieks and loud thuds which subsided the instant that ‘there was light’. The objects which littered the chapel floor conclusively suggested a hymn book fight – a far cry from the social aspirations of the genteel South. They had a job on.
Looking back over the last decade it fortunately did not resemble that of a circus master taming wild animals: such feats were required rarely. Carthusians proved that they could conduct themselves very well, particularly on special occasions, be it on a Gaudy or a fete to raise funds for the school. Peter made a point of noting such positive behaviour and encouraging it to become a constant feature, an aspiration which was largely fulfilled. He and Sandy also made every effort to ensure a consistently high level of dress by pupils. New guidelines were formulated and occasionally enforced in hot pursuit of an offender from the doors of chapel. But Peter and Sandy did far more than set the tone in general terms. They unfailingly supported every activity in the school, be it on the touch line of a games field, at a school concert, or at the theatre. The way in which they both attended a performance of every play at Charterhouse can only be marvelled at if one bears in mind that the number of plays performed at the BTT had gone well past 100 by the time Geoffrey Ford retired as its first director.
But there is one particular occasion in the theatre, which stands out in my and many other people’s mind – the official opening production. Thark by Ben Travers with a star-studded cast of amongst others Ian Blake as the inimitable, unmistakable Death, Harvey Hallsmith as the hearty, somewhat bumbling Sir Hector Bembow and Sandy Attenborough as Mrs Frush, who enforced the acute awareness of her social standing through strategic employment of a lorgnette, an item of props which she might well have found use for on some occasions outside this theatrical context for rather different reasons. Peter and Sandy made a point of entertaining members of the school community at their home regularly: indeed they invited every specialist in his or her second year to Sunday lunch, an occasion much enjoyed and appreciated by successive generations of Carthusians.
Members of Brooke Hall were regaled on many occasions, one of the opportunities of getting to know people well. They certainly gained an insight into many a character and I hope that some of the more entertaining findings will occasionally still make them chuckle in retirement. Peter coped with the manifold vagaries of his staff with admirable equanimity showing a subtle and deep appreciation of the different talents, which their more theatrical manifestations sometimes obscured. This ability to relate to people in a positive way will be one of the lasting memories of Peter as a Headmaster. The untiring energy with which he addressed himself to all his innumerable duties will be another. I hope he never kept track of the number of hours spent in his study; the total is almost certainly frightening, as might be the number of ‘dispatch-boxes’, which made their way to Herefordshire. Peter’s devotion to an exacting fulfilment of his professional duties is exemplary, an observation, which I know will embarrass him, as he is a genuinely humble person, who naturally prefers to act in an unassuming manner. I will therefore refrain from adding a catalogue of his achievements at Charterhouse, but he can rest assured that his years here were certainly not wasted! All too soon, they will be memories which he and Sandy can look back on as they walk through the Herefordshire countryside with Henry II, untroubled by any cans, bottles or cigarette packets they might encounter en route.
I hope Sandy will not take my suggestion that she should become a district nurse riding on a bicycle though the village in a heavily starched outfit too seriously, not least because I have a suspicion that such outfits might no longer be fashionable for nurses. May the future bring the fulfilment of their wishes to both of them as we bid them a fond farewell!
Dr Chris Ellis (BH1978-2014) wrote: While first working for Peter as Head of Biology I have, over the last six years, worked much more closely with him in my role of Director of Studies. This was a new post that he created and which was first filled by Peter Scott. The need for such a position is an indication of how much more complicated the job of running a major and successful school has become over the last ten years or so. Although initially very much concerned with the changing nature of the examination system, the job has evolved into one which involves assisting the Headmaster in a very wide range of areas on the academic side of the school. This has inevitably meant a close working relationship, and for me, a continuing insight into the demands of the job of Headmaster.
One thing that has continually impressed me has been Peter’s great concern for the individual, whether a member of Brooke Hall, a non-teaching member of staff or an individual Carthusian or Carthusienne. This has manifested itself in, for example, the scrupulous attention to every viewpoint at Heads of Departments’ meetings and a concern for the implications to individuals of any academic decision. Also, many will, I am sure, have received notes of congratulation and celebration of success, however small. Another over-riding impression is that over the last eleven years the atmosphere within the school has become more enabling for the individual.
If a member of the school has come up with a good idea and is keen to pursue it then the Headmaster has been encouraging and supportive. There seems to be much more going on in the school now which has been driven by the enthusiasm of a member of the school than say ten years ago. This has contributed to the very rich diversity of the activities which make the school such a stimulating environment in which to work. Peter also seems to have limitless energy with which he has devoted himself to Charterhouse. He is in his office early and the light often seems to burn into the night. My pigeonhole in Brooke Hall always fills with paper at the end of term as he chases up all those little things which have been sidelined during the Quarter and quite rightly need finishing. I can always tell when Peter has gone away on holiday as my pigeon hole stops filling but I certainly know when he has returned as it is suddenly filled with thoughts for the coming Quarter! I shall miss working with Peter but I cannot imagine him not putting his undoubted energies to good use in whichever fields he chooses in the future.
Dr David Lincoln (BH1976-1997) wrote: Few housemasters will have been lucky enough to have worked with a headmaster as exceptional Peter Attenborough. For me his greatest attributes, among many, have been his absolute sincerity and deep humanity. Peter would be an easy person to underestimate. An essentially modest, self-effacing and gentle person at all times. Always tactful, a remarkably patient person and always very fair. These characteristics were soon spotted by Carthusians in their dealings with him and they did, on occasion, take advantage. He was an especially sympathetic listener and this sometimes made it very difficult for him to be decisive. Yet on certain issues he was very firm and there were never any doubts as to how he would react. Many Carthusians past and present have been fortunate to have had this man as their headmaster. An approachable person, always friendly, even when irritated. His remarkable stoicism in sitting through 12 generations of varied house plays has been impressive. And then after each performance he was always quick to praise and encourage and seldom, if ever, did he criticise. He never lost his composure or sense of proportion. Even when an attempt was made by some very new OCs, at one of this infamous end of year Balls, to ‘blow up’ their headmaster and his guests with CCF thunderflashes, he was still able to maintain his dignity and sense of humour.
A remarkably unselfish person, Peter gave his time freely and willingly to all who needed help. He maintained working knowledge of all Carthusians, believing in the importance of personal contact in their development. As a housemaster I found his detailed feedback quite invaluable. Yet this attention to detail could also be quite exhausting and even frustrating. Somehow, by gentle perseverance and innumerable bits of paper, he kept us all thinking about and contributing to so many aspects of school life. In this way the school has continued to evolve and to run more and more smoothly and successfully. Peter was always a stickler for doing things properly. In many ways he was somewhat old fashioned, yet this was never held against him. This was the nature of the man and all accepted his manner and ways. At the same time Carthusians intuitively adapted their manner and habits as they learned what was expected from them.
Even the method of properly answering invitations was absorbed and tucked away Under Peter Attenborough the school has enjoyed a period of steady consolidation and he leaves it in very good heart. All Carthusians will have very fond memories of Peter even though they were unable to get him out of his suit and into shorts and trainers.
Dr IM Blake (BH1968-1994) wrote: ‘A headmistress is never off duty except when she is in bed and not always then.’ Thus wrote the immortal Angela Brazil in one of her school stories – forty years ago, an age of innocence read it as a sincere compliment – and I suppose that, metaphorically, is how most of us will remember Peter Attenborough. If Headmasters were paid overtime, or received the ‘performance- related handshake’ which retiring Captains of Industry blatantly accept as nothing less than their due, he would depart in a chauffeured Rolls to Barbadian retirement, gold plated bath-taps and champagne by the heated pool. It has been our good fortune to have had, during the ‘Greedy Eighties’, a Headmaster who offered very different values and it is no coincidence that, during his tenure, Carthusians devoted more time and initiative to supporting various charities than ever before in a comparable span of our recent history.
A self-confessed workaholic, he has devoted, literally, his waking hours to Charterhouse, tackling an era of educational change and challenge that was never envisaged even in the worst Headmagisterial nightmares of the seventies. These upheavals – National Curriculum, the changeover to GCSE, constantly altering patterns of University entrance and recently, for boarding schools implementing the new Children’s Act, tactful liaison with local Social Services – will be regarded by future historians as the educational equivalent of the French Revolution. However, the imperturbable courtesy with which PJA kept his head and the School’s affection is reflected in the vigour and buoyancy of the Charterhouse he leaves and, despite recession, by the welcome legacy of bulging Admissions Lists – fitting tributes to wider appreciation of his sagacity and humanity amongst potential parents.
Important work for HMC was never allowed to interfere with his availability, in person, or on the end of the ‘phone, to many a Housemaster at any time, to Carthusians in difficulty, or to their parents – despairing or incensed! At week-ends, inevitably in his study, with beaks, parents, boys, he was absent only when visiting at Prep Schools where he was much in demand. Headmastership of Charterhouse was not a matter of eight-to-five office hours, with days off to play golf and we have all benefited enormously from his efforts and his example. Such dedication can take its own toll.
One of the chief reasons for deciding to leave now, rather than 1996 or 1997, lies in a determination not to spend the last years in harness as a ‘burnt out case’. He leaves, still running at full-throttle, with the school well-tuned. This is no whim of personal pride, but a wish to avoid any possibility of inviting the malaise that so often affects institutions when a respected Headmaster, energy flagging, coasts to the end, unwilling to disturb his benign fin de siecle with the incisiveness essential to the running of a successful school. Sandy encouraged him in his decision, and although we shall miss them both, we celebrate the fact that they leave whilst still possessed of health and energy enough to undertake other challenges, and the chance to enjoy far more time together. She will be fondly remembered by Carthusians for her magnificent Sunday lunches; all Second Year Specialists were royally entertained in the course of their last year. Not least pleasurable was their discovery that she possesses decided and often highly controversial opinions of her own which delight and stimulate her guests. The expected, traditional role of ‘headmaster’s wife’ seems unrewarding in 1993. If she ever exercised cosy, school-wide domesticity like that portrayed by RF Delderfield in his soft-edged To Serve Them All My Days, then it was possible only at small boarding schools and Charterhouse is no Bamfylde.
Nowadays, headmasters’ wives, many of whom have relinquished exacting and successful independent careers of their own, must find frustrating the stereotype of a consort responsible for little more than dishing out vol-au-vent and Vermouth. Unfortunately, except for one occasion in her first year here, Carthusians have had no opportunity to appreciate Sandy’s presence as an actress. Those who saw her in Thark, the opening production at the Ben Travers Theatre, remember with sheer delight that splendidly funny portrayal of the pretentious nouveau-riche, Mrs Frush, teetering her way around the London home of Sir Hector and Lady Benbow, observing how the gentry ‘furnish’, before hoisting her lorgnette and demanding her ‘rights’.
Those in the cast will Mrs Attenborough as Mrs Frush in Thark! recall her absolute professionalism during rehearsal. Actresses with her sense of comedy and comic timing are very rare indeed, far scarcer than comediennes. Sandy’s characterisation was so acutely observed and so precisely conveyed that, although we laughed at Mrs Frush, we feared she was real – the truly dreadful monster who just might turn up as mother-in-law of our own son or daughter if we were really unlucky. The perception of its own headmaster by those within a school must necessarily be narrow, even at times myopic. Appreciation of the man at the top is easily blurred by momentary elation or frustration ‘He’s stopped our Field Trip to Mt Ararat! An ideal opportunity for a joint Geography-Religious Studies-Biology GCSE project, covering five sections of the National Curriculum – seven if they word-process the results and model Noah’s Ark for Design and Technology.’ Great schools, attracting to their staff, as they do, men and women of exceptional calibre, demand of their headmasters the tact of a top diplomat and, above all, supremely unflurried crisis-management. It is a tribute to PJA’s everlasting credit and (almost saintly!) patience that he has so amiably led a gifted (and because of this, sometimes ‘difficult’) body of articulate and highly individual personalities, whose reservations and criticism are too trenchant to sweep dismissively under the carpet.
Those who have been present at his meetings cannot have failed to admire the exceptional sensitivity he brings to the job of chairman, not least his invaluable gift of knowing when a subject is about to become so contentious that it is best left for discussion another day; few felt that they were bulldozed into making a decision which they subsequently regretted. His handling of tricky Housemasters’ meetings was always admirable and frequently masterly. As Chairman of the important HMC Common Entrance Committee (that delicate ‘interface’ between Prep and Public School) throughout the years spent discussing how far-reaching curriculum changes could be fairly reflected in the exam papers, his immeasurable contribution was widely admired and respected by other headmasters who were awed by the workload he undertook. ‘Friendly’, ‘hard-working’, ‘highly respected for his sane courtesy’, it is above all his thoughtfulness and good sense which distinguish our Headmaster in their eyes and that, when we reflect on it, is what most endearingly characterises him for us, here at Charterhouse. They see him as man ‘who does not seek positions of power or ostentation’, and ‘who would always do a job if asked, do it supremely well and do it with integrity’.
Although he has a distaste, one suspects, for the ‘politicing’ which high-profile ambition necessitates, he would have made an outstanding Chairman of Conference. Peter Attenborough is twentyseventh in that line of remarkable men, beginning in 1614 with Nicholas Gray, who have headmastered Charterhouse through almost four hundred years of international and civil war, decades of peace, revolution political, literary and industrial – the best of times and the worst of times. His own, unique, contribution is not to be measured by buildings (although music, theatre and science have changed the geography of the school during his time) nor by increasingly impressive examination results.
Deeply appreciative as he is of opportunities offered to him as a boy at Christ’s Hospital, the clue to his most important and enduring influence lies in a question he so often asked when interviewing Foundation Scholarship Classics candidates: ‘The Charterhouse motto is Deo Dante Dedi. Can you suggest a translation?’ Nothing better epitomises the very essence of his Headmastership than those shy, polite, hesitant, answers: ‘God having given. . . to me. . . I gave…?’ Each of us, at one time or another, has been enriched by Peter’s absurdly generous and unselfish gifts – of his time, of his humanity and, for those in distress, of his compassion too.
Revd SJ Harker (BH1981-2016) wrote: In the first few days of the OQ there are always some Yearlings not knowing where they are supposed to be going next, while everyone else who does know seems to be too busy getting there to notice; except for Peter Attenborough, whom I have observed each year stop to enquire what the trouble is. Sometimes the Yearling is so overawed at having the Headmaster offer to explain where to find, say, room 007 that there is a slight hiatus. Understandably; who would expect a Headmaster – who has many important things to concern himself with – to bother himself about something apparently so trivial? It is, however, characteristic that whenever someone was in difficulty, status was irrelevant; once he decided that something needed to be done, he would take the time to sort things out.
Only recently I was speaking to a parent whose son had coasted through school, achieved mediocre ‘A’ level grades, drifted around the world for a time, and only then had realised what he wanted to do; those unflattering ‘A’ level grades, however, seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle. He was full of praise for the efforts which Peter Attenborough had made to help his son achieve his new-found ambition in the face of apparent hopelessness. A personal memory concerns my Black Tuesday (June 11, 1991) when BJR came into my hashroom waving a copy of the ‘A’ Level RS paper and saying ‘Your candidates claim they haven’t been prepared for this paper!’ I had taught Matthew as the set book; it should have been Mark. I wished that the ground would open and swallow me up, and although the error was quickly and simply sorted out (I set a paper for them; they did better than we predicted), this did little to assuage the humiliation I felt, nor did it stem the barrage of jibes from colleagues and pupils.
After doing duty in House in the evening, I called in at Brooke Hall to check my pigeon hole, and there was an envelope with the Headmaster’s writing. I opened it with a certain amount of anxiety. What might it say? Something like, ‘I regret we are having to release you…?’ I should have known better; the card read, ‘I feel so sorry for you over the RS business. You must feel dreadful, and I am so sorry for you.’ Even though the memory is one I would prefer to forget, I still have the card. It epitomises Peter’s kindness, sympathy, tact, and genuine concern; traits which have made him very supportive to persons in need, and which I hope will be put to effective use in the future.
F Wiseman (BH1983-2012) wrote: To assess the reign of any headmaster, to evaluate his work, to measure his influence for better or worse is an impossible task whilst the incumbent is still in office and not much easier when he has recently retired. The difficulty lies in the notorious tendency of schoolmasters in general to see things from their own small corner, to fight the battles they are individually concerned with. If a headmaster decides that his school can no longer afford the luxury of a Tiddlywinks C Team or that Biology must cede one lesson a week in the 4th form to compulsory Flower Arranging for all, (following the demands of the National Curriculum), the Masters who run the team or department concerned are going to give a very different and much more partial assessment of their leader than those colleagues who are unaffected.
A headmaster, it seems to me, needs to be a man of vision, with a clear policy or sense of direction for the establishment he presides over. Some headmasters adopt the ruthless ‘I intend to clean up this The visit of Sir Alan Trail (H 1953) as Lord Mayor of London on 19th May 1985. His two Old Carthusian Sheriffs, David Rowe-Ham (G 1954) and Greville Spratt (g 1945), were soon to serve terms of office as Lord Mayor themselves. 26 place’ approach; others, by .a series of subtle often almost imperceptible changes or public pronouncements or exhortations, stamp their imprint on a school, which may well indeed have greater impact than the more bombastic approach.
I suspect that time will show Peter Attenborough’s term of office to be very much in this mould. We who individually may be blinded by our most recent disagreement with the man are not the ones best able to judge what significance these eleven-and-a-half years will have in the 400 year history of Charterhouse. Indeed, sub specie, is it possible for a headmaster to make any impact at all on so conservative, so self-perpetuating and self-managing an establishment as an English public school? The days of headmasters with the powerful character of Dr Arnold, whose values permeated the school on every single level of its structure, have well and truly passed. Arnold knew the innermost thoughts of very single schoolboy in his charge. He handpicked his housemasters and he never left Rugby for a single minute during term time.
His modern counterpart presides over a loose federation of, say, 11 powerful housemasters, each able to run his part of the empire in his own individual style adhering to or disregarding central directives as he chooses. The potential for a modern headmaster to enforce a diktat may be slightly stronger than that of the Queen to influence ministers, but not, I suspect, by very much. Dr Arnold may have been able to stay in School House every day of the term, but then the flow of his life was not interrupted by sub-committee meetings of the HMC. Given the changed nature of a modern school principal’s role, given the difficulty of standing back objectively, and given that all of us feel at one time or another that we could do the job better, how might one discern the influence of a particular holder of the office?
One clue to Peter Attenborough’s style of management surely lies in the fact that it is a very personal one. Like Thomas Arnold the present Headmaster has been totally accessible both to staff and pupils alike. There has never been a problem, however delicate or annoying, which one has not been able to take to him immediately and be assured of time, attention and a fair hearing. Indeed, within the timeless calm of PJA’s study, irritations are suddenly seen in their true perspective, their pressing and impertinent urgency is instantly soothed by the balm of a cup of tea and sympathy. The JUNE 1993 wind has often been unceremoniously taken out of my own personal sails, the proverbial bee has often been silenced in its proverbial bonnet by the gentle reasonableness of Peter’s urbane welcome.
This quality of accessibility probably betokens the frustrated housemaster or pastor in PJA – certainly the pastoral care of people is a gift which the administrative chores of being headmaster has sometimes tried to stifle. It is to Peter’s credit that he has often shown a sensitive awareness of an individual’s worries or temporary unhappiness. Discretely, rather than rushing in himself, he tips off a friend or colleague of the person concerned and behind the scenes invites them to build the bridges necessary. Being available and accessible, putting his whole personality with no pretence at the disposal of an entire school community is a noble and, in this cynical age, a courageous approach to leadership. Peter Attenborough has essentially and at all times been himself.
He has never brought the synthetic PR smile of the career headmaster to his job; trendy professional jargon has never obscured the meaning of his words. There are no barriers between boys, beaks and boss. This open ‘warts and all’ way of dealing with people, the willingness to admit he has been mistaken, half-right or even plain wrong, the confidence to change his mind publicly can be taken by some as a sign of weakness; they fail to realise that these weapons in a headmaster’s hands can be powerfully disarming. They can conjure up a deep well of loyalty and respect in times of crisis which is not necessarily the case with the more politically scheming or bullying sorts of headmaster. What Peter Attenborough stands for as a man is clear enough. He is a straightforward man of a touchingly sincere but unostentatious religious faith.
What is remarkable is his tolerance of those of a different complexion. Peter Attenborough is able to recognise and appreciate talent and beliefs very different from his own. His appointments to and within Brooke hall, for example, show an ability to keep around him colleagues and advisers who may be poles apart from his personal likes and dislikes; but he has made it a point of honour to foster enthusiasms and let people get on which their job in their own way. The positive side of this laissez-faire system has been one of the more refreshing sides of working in Charterhouse. The variety and range of talent within Brooke Hall is often quoted as one of Charterhouse’s strengths: it is also the hallmark of a successful headmaster who is confident enough not to people his Common Room with ‘yes men’ and clones. Time alone, and an era far removed from our own, will be able to place the regime coming to its close in its historical significance. In the meantime, integrity, care, openness to the point of vulnerability, gentleness, a reluctance to hurt feelings, recognition of others’ talents, willingness to listen and take advice on major issues, is not a bad set of qualities to throw into the balance pan when one’s stewardship of a great school is being weighed. More importantly, it is an admirable set of values to offer the young generation as an example.
PGT Lewis (BH1963-1994) wrote: It is impossible to begin to do justice to the bewilderingly many facets of headmastership viewed over a decade and from differing perspectives, particularly when what one may earlier have felt to be pure procrastination seemed later to be mature gestation. So I merely pick on three aspects seen from my pleasantly myopic viewpoint. The Attenboroughs arrived at Charterhouse during a blizzard. I was snowed up in it and missed the whole of the first week of the term. My attempted apologies for this inconvenience to a new headmaster were soon lost in his sincere commiseration over my small worries. As a housemaster I soon found that this was very typical, with immense sympathy and understanding for any difficulties and strong support at all times – even in attending those many house plays, exhibitions and functions, often at his busiest time, to bring encouragement. Secondly, with three sons here, I saw the school through the eyes of a parent and felt it develop as a caring community, reflecting Peter’s concern for each individual.
One report is typical: ‘… some hard and increasingly mature work and a more frequent smile…’ Not only did he read through 700 reports, but also commented knowledgeably and supported with personal letters, quite apart from fostering closer parental liaison. I just wish that more parents could see a final calling-over, with a relaxed identification of some hundred prizewinners interspersed with his reminiscences of varied achievements of theirs and of many others noticed during that Quarter. Finally, there is the day by day routine with those disarming little missives, often on odd scraps of paper, nudging things along – five in my pigeon-hole before this The opening of the refurbished science block in 1991with Sir Greville Spratt OC and John Wakeham OC. term started – low-key but deceptive and inevitably followed up by gentle reminders if necessary. A relaxed but powerful grasp of an amazing range of detail; no wonder he needed to double his secretariat! Despite the long hours he clearly puts in, he always seems to welcome discussion, slow to break off and ever open to new ideas, while in all matters the hallmark seems to me to be consideration and consultation.
Yet amidst all this he always made time for the supererogation, particularly suited to his philosophy, of the headmasterly pat on the back – the only safe portion of the anatomy after the Children Act – with the typical handwritten letter: ‘Thank you so much for…. which I greatly appreciate.’ Paternal – with his deep concern for every aspect and individual. Judicious – with his wisdom through involvement and consultation. Appreciative – with his ever receptive and caring mind. PJA has indeed been aptly named. It has been a privilege and pleasure to work with and for him, even when Coopered and Lybranded, particularly when supported by Sandy’s admirable hospitality. There will be no blizzards at their departure, despite our regrets, just the warmth of our appreciation.
AWA Skinnard (BH 1987-1996) wrote: Peter Attenborough is universally acknowledged by his colleagues, his former and current pupils and their parents as one of the most kind, dignified and personal of men. The dedication to the work of running his school and yet the ability to drop anything to give someone who needs an attentive and wise ear are legendary. Rarely has the light in his study been off during waking hours and should anyone need to disturb him there the welcome has never been less than sincere, considerable and hugely warm. For a young teacher at the start of a career in which anything could happen, the support through letters, phone calls and regular personal contact are hard to imagine doing without. A beak’s career is an odd one in that really only two people can be identified as having direct influence on the passage of one’s progress in a School.
The Head of Department will do much of the nitty-gritty in welcoming and advising a novice. However, the trouble to which PJA goes to settle and encourage, out of a genuine concern for people’s fulfilment and happiness, is tremendous. This is a theme constantly echoed by us young Members of Brooke Hall whose futures, rather unlike other professions, lie in the hands of this one person. Those of us who have undergone any illness or personal crisis will vouch for his true concern and real, practical help. Two years ago I had to miss half of the Cricket Quarter. I was touched by the many messages and cards I received from colleagues, family and friends. In all that time, some 5-6 weeks, nobody got in contact with me more than Peter Attenborough. I also shudder to recall some help I needed with rightly anxious and exasperated parents, and even a bad experience with the London Evening Standard.
Peter was a real haven and had the gift of making me realise that he was not about to remember failings or have his approach and attitude affected by incidents I would prefer to forget. Always he offered a tactical and practical way out of difficulty. I know that I speak for so many of the young beaks he has appointed when I say that we have always felt our futures safe under his guidance and control. His meticulous habit of praise and fulsome encouragement make loyalty easy, and his example and enthusiasm for working with young people helps us realise what a fine choice of job we have made – and when we feel tired and exactly the opposite, he has been there to restore the joy and get us firing again. He will know how sad we feel now that our career-ladder will not be extended or held secure by him any more.