James Sabben-Clare (Coll, 1954-60; Co Ro, 1968-00; Headmaster, 1985-00)

Tommy Cookson (I, 1955-60; Co Ro, 1964-65, 1967-72, 1974-90; Headmaster, 2003-05) writes:

James Sabben-Clare, who died on March 8th aged 75, was one of the most widely gifted schoolmasters of his generation. Outwardly reserved and afflicted in his youth with a stammer so pronounced that his dons hesitated to question him, he shone as classical scholar, author, actor, sportsman, carpenter and cabaret artiste.

His appointment to the headship after several years on the staff was never likely to be easy. But he established himself through quiet intellectual authority, personal integrity and reliability. It was said that he could put more good sense onto a single sheet of A4 than anyone since Tacitus.

He ran the school with a light touch. Although unflappably in control, he recognised the quality, power and independent-mindedness of his staff and allowed them free range. In an age of increasing academic competition, he maintained the school’s place near the top of the league tables although – or because – a quarter of the timetable was devoted to Div and so free of exam teaching. His own wide interests maintained the example of educational breadth and culture set by his predecessor, John Thorn.

His cool mind was matched by a warm heart. As an affectionate family man, he always had time for his two children, of whom he was enormously proud. He was also unostentatiously generous both to his staff and to outsiders. The Head of a special school a dozen miles away was astonished one day to receive a knock on his study door and to recognise the headmaster of Winchester, who had dropped in to deliver a cheque for £750.  

He was firmly against corporal punishment and was quick to abolish it as Headmaster. In schools sometimes referred to by their opponents as secular monasteries, he recognised the contribution of women, appointed a number of women to the staff and encouraged cooperation in drama and music with St Swithun’s.

The son of Ernest Sabben-Clare (Coll, 19-24), himself a distinguished headmaster of Leeds Grammar School, James won the top scholarship to Winchester, where he became Aulae Prae, Captain of College VI and a member of Soccer X1, as well as winning school prizes for Latin and Greek Prose and Greek Verse. After winning a scholarship to New College, he gained a double first in Mods and Greats and was elected a Visiting Fellow of All Souls.

With the world at his feet, he decided to become a schoolmaster, first at Marlborough and then from the age of 27 at Win Coll. He spent the rest of his career here as head of Classics, Second Master and then Headmaster. He wrote a textbook on Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a translation of Aesop’s Fables (copies of which were printed in-house and presented to The Queen and The Queen Mother) and a History of Winchester College.

In 1999, he became Chairman of the Headmasters’ Conference. Previously, when he was a member of its Academic Committee, it had been said that other members, concentrating fully, came to the wrong answer while he, with half his mind elsewhere, came to the right one.

His family included several generations of actors and he had a deep love of the theatre and of music. He enjoyed directing school plays and on one remarkable occasion took over the role of Prospero at short notice on the illness of the boy playing the part.

But his forte was comedy, whether as an ugly sister in the dons’ pantomime, as a late-night cabaret artiste at The Southern Cathedrals Festival or (his party piece) doing his dinosaur impression. This involved his leaving the room and re-emerging with slow, deliberate steps, sharp sideways movements of the head, lizard-like eyes and the flickering of an unnerving tongue. He was a superb writer of lyrics for all occasions and in all styles. A party of Americans doing Winchester in half an hour was written up as a barn dance; and Winchester Cathedral’s sophisticated Tippett/Tournemire festival programme as a calypso.

Performing in The Southern Cathedrals late-night cabaret in Pilgrims’ School Hall, he gently targeted the cathedral clergy. In an Olympic Year, he invented the Ecclesiastical Games in which the Bishop was entered for the Feeding of the Five Thousand ‘and he’s going in the Ten Thousand as well’. During the year of strikes in 1979, he imagined a National Clergymen’s strike: ‘It is our aim to bring this government to its knees.’

A Governor of several schools while he was a headmaster, he continued after leaving Winchester notably at Oundle School and The British School of Paris.  But his major contribution was to join the steering committee of four which set up The Prince’s Teaching Institute. This organisation grew out of the Prince of Wales’s desire to provide the best education for pupils of all backgrounds across the country by inspiring their teachers with a love of their subject. Summer schools attended by Simon Schama, Tom Stoppard and other speakers led to an expansion of the programme, which has now involved and enthused 5000 teachers and head teachers and through them half a million children. He became passionately absorbed in this project and was closely associated with it for 15 years. When he was forced to give it up, Prince Charles saw him privately to express his gratitude.

He contributed generously to local activities, finding the time to chair the governing body of his local primary school at Corfe Castle, to be on the committee of the Dorset Historic Churches Trust and to teach Greek to a local girl who has now completed a degree course in Classics. 

He owed much to his wife, Mary, whose intelligence, sense of fun and generous hospitality made a huge contribution to Win Coll life. Their whirlwind courtship in the summer of 1969 included a now legendary marathon drive to Scotland to attend the wedding of a friend. Normally so orderly and logical, he forgot the keys to his parents’ house in Leeds where they were due to spend the night and decided to drive on to Edinburgh. On arrival at 5am, attempting to put the car into reverse to park it, he managed to pull the gear lever clean out of its socket. They made the wedding with a minute to spare and became engaged two weeks later.

Our deep sympathy goes to Mary, who looked after him so devotedly during his long illness, and to Rebecca (G, 86-88) and Matthew (I, 85-90).
Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

A Memorial Service for James will be held in Chapel on Saturday 24th June at 2.30pm. All those wishing to attend are asked please to email Winchester College Society. Tickets will be issued to help cater for numbers.

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