Saturday 20 March 2021


On Wednesday this week between 1 pm and 1.40 pm, thanks to the wonders of a webcam installed at a Brighton crematorium, I made my virtual attendance at the funeral of a man - David Patterson - who transformed my life. 

David Patterson was a significant person in my life before I became a systematic photographer - this was the one picture I found in my archives that included David. He is the one wearing the hat. I like its symbolism. He is the self-effacing responsible adult almost indistinguishable from the children whose lives he was shaping for the better. I think this must have been taken on the Devon walking holiday in the summer of 1964. 

David - Mr. Patterson - became a member of staff at Dartford Grammar School (DGS), as a newly appointed history master, in September 1963. History was my favourite subject and I was looking forward to being taught by W. W. Wilkinson, the Head of History, for the next two years leading up to my GCE examinations. Wobbly Wobbly Wilkinson was a legend, as they say these days, and I loved his lessons in which he would dictate his notes on 20th century British history and we would sit in silence for forty-five minutes and copy them to the letter. My A-grade pass was guaranteed and was duly delivered in the summer of 1965. Meanwhile, Mr. Patterson was making his mark in the school. 

My instincts as an historian and archivist - shaped of course by David Patterson as you will discover - have enabled me this morning to trawl through copies of the DGS school magazines for the period from 1964-68 in order to find the evidence of how David made that impact.  

In the 1964 edition of 'The Dartfordian' I discovered a piece I had forgotten all about - an account written by R. E. K. Donovan, 4A,with the title: 'Walking Tour of the Cotswolds'. This would have been

organized for the Easter holidays when I was in the fourth form. Here is how I begin:

'Weeks of waiting were over. The party, which consisted of Mr. Patterson and ten Junior and Middle School boys, started from Kemble in the Cotswolds after travelling from Paddington ....'

My parents never went on holiday. I had travelled no further from Bexley in Kent (now south London) than Canterbury where I had been born and my mum's family still lived. This was my first big adventure and I was having "a really wonderful time". Life at home was not always as peaceful as this.  

Duntisbourne Abbot's Youth Hostel and my post card home in April,1964

 And then this:

'The last day was spent savouring the majestic sights of Oxford and, together with a quartet collecting bus numbers, we toured Central Oxford, the highlight undoubtedly being the view of the colleges from the tower of St Mary's. After a short walk along the Thames, evening saw us on Oxford station after sixty miles and five rainless days of walking. It can only be hoped that the forthcoming summer tour of Devon, also under Mr. Patterson, will be as successful and enjoyable as this Cotswolds' tour has been.'

Thank you, David, for gifting a child with little experience of the world his first glimpse of wider horizons. David - who was known then as Floyd (Floyd Patterson had lost his crown as world heavyweight boxing champion in 1962 but was still a boxing legend) - was the kind of man whose commitment to the art of teaching transcended curriculum time. In that same 1964 edition, I note that he is co-chair of The Junior Historical Society that met every Tuesday afternoon, after school. 

Where had David Patterson come from, before arriving at DGS? From this Wednesday's funeral talks, my picture of David's past life has been deepened. Born in 1935, he won a scholarship to Bristol Grammar and by his teens already had a love for history, guiding his family on holiday in Wales around its magnificent castles. Compulsory National Service in the RAF followed his leaving school and after that came a brief foray into teaching in a secondary modern school. In 1960, he was accepted as a mature student at St Catherine's Society, Oxford, to read for a degree in history. In 1962, Alan Bullock's dream of creating a new Oxford college became a reality when St Catherine's Society became St Catherine's College in its wonderful new buildings designed by the Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen. David graduated from this new Oxford college in the summer of 1963 and joined the staff of DGS in September. He was to remain there until his final retirement I think in 1998, aged 63. Around three and a half decades of service to the students of a grammar school in which he served as both head of department and head of sixth form - and always the organizer of school trips, here in Britain and in Europe. 

In the 1965 edition of 'The Dartfordian', my memory is stirred again by a description of a year in the life of 'The Local History Research Society' whose chairman is Mr. D. J. Patterson. On Thursday afternoons when school ended, I was one of the score of pupils who walked down the hill into the centre of Dartford to spend an hour and a half in the Reference Library learning the skills and secrets of local history under David's auspices. The seeds were being sown for my future doctoral thesis: Drink in Victorian Norwich (2003).

In the 1966 edition of 'The Dartfordian', there is a description of an Easter walking holiday in Somerset, organized by 'Messrs Patterson and Hannam' for members of the Junior Historical Society - and a piece written by D. J. Harris, VA, in the year below me, describing the Lake District walking holiday of the summer of 1965 in which I took part. It was my first experience of mountains. Thirteen boys and three staff, including our leader, David 'Floyd' Patterson. D. J. Harris concludes thus: 

'Throughout the holiday the staff were co-operative and patient, even though they had reservations about our behaviour at times. I wish to thank them on behalf of the party for all they did to make the trip enjoyable.'

Amen to that. Here's a postcard record from my archive, recording this seminal week in my life. By now, I already knew that David would be my A-level history teacher and that I was one of those selected by him for preparation to sit the Oxford entrance exam in December 1966.  

Striding Edge and the summit of Helvellyn - summer, 1965

After four terms of sixth form teaching and the exhilarating experiences that accompanied working through David's reading list for Oxford entrance with my friend and fellow aspirant, Bruce Berrecloth, we were both accepted to read history at St Catherine's College, Oxford - and the rest is a story for another day.  

During the first of the talks at the crematorium in celebration of David's life, words I had written about David around four years ago were read out by the speaker. I am not sure which of these two passages they came from. They are both from the heart. 

"But that Lake District walking holiday - OMG! I remember that so well. I, too, was one of that party of thirteen boys, together with my friend and fellow Oxford aspirant, Bruce Berrecloth. We were being prepared for the Oxford entrance exam by the man who had organised this Lake District trip - none other than our History master, Mr. David Patterson himself, our guide to all things intellectual and Oxfordian, and the man who had created the reading list which was our magic wardrobe into a new land far beyond our family homes. I should add that after a year of studying Wordsworth to be transported from Dartford to see mountains for the first time in my life and then reach the top of Helvellyn, having crossed Striding Edge - that truly qualifies as a numinous experience."  

"Rob Donovan - Scholar and Academic

Having failed the 11+ first time round and scraped into Dartford Grammar School after supplementary tests and interview, my self-confidence was, shall we say, fragile. But I had internalized my parents' concern that I should work hard and do well. And on the whole I did enjoy lessons and learning. I was usually in the top third of the class in most subjects and did take pleasure in doing very well in History.

Going on to a university began to form as a future goal by the time I was following my seven O-level courses as an Arts student. The world of Science had been closed to me for the rest of my schooling by that simple choice: Arts or Science. A new History teacher, David Patterson, joined the staff around this time fresh from Oxford and keen to stimulate young minds. It was he who was to teach me History as an A-level subject; it was he who led the walking holidays in school vacations that gave me my first experience of mountains, in the Lake District; it was he who organised the concert visits to London that gave me my first experiences of symphony and chamber orchestras and the world of opera at Covent Garden; and it was he who provided my friend Bruce and me with the invaluable reading lists we needed for preparing for our Oxford entrance exams. Mr Patterson was an academic talent-spotter too.

Bruce and I competed with one another to see who could assimilate the greater cultural understanding from this wondrous, eye-popping exploration of ideas that had been gifted to us. Much later, In the last five or so years of my thirty-plus years in the classroom, I formulated the following aphorism for my students to hear, grasp and repeat. ‘Who is your best teacher? I am. I am my own best teacher.’ They got it. Yes, without David Patterson none of what happened would have taken the shape it did. The good teacher is priceless. But the ultimate key is turned in the head of one’s self.

If David Patterson’s nurture was critical for progress in the formal academic world, the influence of my teacher, Alan Carter, for my fourth A-level subject, Art, was also vital. He had shown me that I was not a duffer at Art as early as the Third Year and had seen me through my O-level Art course. His voice was the sound of the sixties and all the more precious for the likes of Bruce and me and others. Alan became my best-man in 1969.

In 1966. In my second year in the Sixth Form, I won an Open Scholarship to St Catherine’s College, Oxford. In 1970, I left Oxford with a good second-class honours degree. I worked very hard in the last few months."


I kept in very occasional touch with David over the next fifty years but not enough to know the man as I would wish. I phoned him for the last time just before Christmas a couple of years or so ago in his Yeovil home and by now dementia was beginning to have its effect - but he still remembered who I was and we shared some memories even if the conversation lasted no more than four minutes. The final time I met him in person had been in the summer of 2001 on the occasion of an Old Dartfordian's reunion to celebrate the 425th anniversary of the school's foundation. By now, David was enjoying his retirement. His mind was as sharp and clear as ever, although age had bent the shoulders a little. It was good meeting again. 

My search through my records has produced this find from my archival box of delights. My collection of postcards unexpectedly included this - a card from David in the summer after I left DGS and before I began my Oxford life:

David always took 'the usual tribulations' in his stride. 

The parcel is passed on. The year below me included students such as Mike Wells, who followed me to St Catherine's to read history and also became a teacher and examiner (and my senior in both professions). David references Mike in the postcard message. That year also included Keith Walmsley and Geoff Prout who both went on to successful careers. Geoff followed David as the head of history at DGS and gave a moving tribute to the great man at Wednesday's service. I think I recognized Mike behind a black facemask as he made his exit at the end of the service. Maybe Keith was there in person too or like me watching from afar. 

I did once return to DGS, in 1983 I think, to reconnect with my alma mater and see David. It was when I was teaching in my inner-city, social priority, multi-racial London comprehensive. I remember being so struck by the calm and whiteness of the school. David encouraged me to sit in on one of his classes and I was very impressed. When David had taught my A-level class, he had followed the pattern of his head of department, W.W. Wilkinson, and used dictated notes. The stimulating stuff with David came in the special classes for Oxford entrance and other conversations outside class-time. Now, however, he had become a skilled advocate of the Schools Council history project and was performing at the cutting edge of curriculum development.  

It was perhaps on this occasion that David remarked how difficult it had been back in those Oxford years and for some time afterwards to say anything to me that I did not want to hear. How true! The downside of being a rebel. David was a perceptive man.

Enough of the personal reflections. Let the focus be on David James Patterson as I knew him through the filter of my own Donovan bubble. There will be a Prout bubble too - and a Wells bubble - and a Walmsley bubble - and that's just referencing former pupils from a couple of years in a teaching life that spanned three and a half decades. So many more bubbles. So many more lives transformed. Bronwen, David's sister and two years his junior, will have her memories. So too her husband, Tony Vinnicombe, who provided me with a link to news about David in these last years. 

The idea of the bubble-blower is an interesting one. David taught me to play with ideas in words and in my head. This week, I discovered that my personal David bubble meant I had not realized that when he married his beloved Janet in 1983, he became a much loved and respected step-father to 10-year old Simon and 8-year old Rachel. Our bubbles are profoundly important but so much happens outside them.

The essence of David remains, shaping the lives of so many people. 

My farewell salute from my bubble. Rest in peace, David. Your life was so well lived.      



  1. That's very interesting and lovely to read your appreciation of your teacher. As another ex teacher its nice to think some pupil somewhere has good memories of us. Just occasionally we find this out. 'Teachers don't get old-they just lose their class.'

    1. Thank you, Mary, for this lovely response.

  2. And did David inspire this young teacher who produced such exciting lesson plans which encouraged the pupils creativity, learning, questioning.. and who was then questioned by a new appointment - her first teaching post - as to why he needed to hold so many meetings with his team...

  3. Probably because you were in the team ....!