Donald and Janet Mathewson 1974 - 1983
When Donald was appointed Headmaster of Allhallows in 1974, in succession to Gethyn Hewan, the School had been through a dynamic period of expansion, and it was widely assumed that the Governors had chosen a headmaster with different talents to cope with new challenges – among them; inflation, a subsiding bulge and the insistent demand for ever higher academic standards.
Donald’s credentials were impressive; he had a first in chemistry from St. Andrew’s; he had undertaken research and was the author of several learned books; he had been a naval officer; he had taught at Gordonstoun and been head of science at Wellington College, where he was also a housemaster.
I am sure Donald will forgive me, if I say that what struck us initially was his fertile mind and bubbling enthusiasm, and it was no surprise, when he instigated a complete review of sixth form curricula and encouraged the development of a new third form course, which placed special emphasis on environmental and physical science and was designed to give newcomers an exciting start to their academic career at Allhallows.
One of the first major changes that Donald brought about in the life of the school was the re-integration of the house system. For various reasons a sixth form study block, the Lillies Building, had been built in 1968, primarily to give the upper sixth formers extra studies to enable them to live a more adult life away from the juniors, but Donald thought strongly that seniors should play a leading part in their houses and one of the results of the Appeal, in which he played such a prominent part, driving far into the night to speak at numerous meetings, was the purchase of furniture for the bed-sits. I vividly remember the day that Donald suggested to a housemaster that he invite his boys “to pick up their beds and walk”, to carry them downstairs and vice-versa, thus giving each pupil more space in which to cocoon himself. Within a fortnight every housemaster in the Main Building had followed suit – such was the clamour from the boys.
The burdens of administration are so great nowadays that headmasters rarely teach as much as they would like, yet Donald, who is a gifted teacher himself, was determined to raise academic standards and he found time to share the teaching of chemistry in the sixth form to the great benefit of the pupils. Two sixth-form scientists appeared in the “Young Scientists of the Year” programme on television and owed much to his encouragement. Soon after his arrival, Donald founded “The Peek Society” to sharpen the wits of our intellectuals, “to chase hares and split hairs”, according to Jennie Spurgeon, one of his early members, papers were read on such esoteric matters as “Resistentialism (sic) and the Revival of Medieval Morality” and heated discussions took place, in the headmaster’s house with a glass of wine in hand, on the precise meaning of concepts like “chose-en-soi” and “chose-pour-soi”. With increasing numbers going to university and obtaining places on degree courses, Donald could justifiably boast in his last Speech Day Address that “our academic results” were “firmly on the right side of the dividing line laid down by the H.M.C.”
Donald immediately realised that schools had a duty to familiarise pupils with the scope and use of computers, and it was because of his persuasive lobbying of the Governors that we were quickly provided with the necessary equipment. Similarly, he saw the exciting prospects of creative film-making offered by video and again thanks to his support and John Cloke’s expertise and enthusiasm, documentaries are regularly produced and Allhallows has a well-equipped film studio in the Rousdon Church.
Recently an expensive automobile workshop has been opened, which has a magnetic attraction for boys of a mechanical bent. Another of Donald’s ideas was that of the artist-in-residence, a young graduate from one of the top art schools, who would live with us for a term and working alongside the director of art, stimulate an already lively department. Measures were also taken to exploit the wonderful resources of the undercliffs. The biology staff was increased, and special courses held for preparatory schools on the geology and natural history of the landslip.
One of the most successful of Donald’s innovations was the School Auxiliary Coastguard Unit, the first in England, which received the unanimous approval of pupils and the outside community.
Both Donald and Janet love music and did their utmost to foster it, and it was no coincidence that during their time here the department expanded and numerous concerts, choral works and musicals performed. Who will forget Donald’s “Holmesian” playing of his violin in his study or Janet’s own musical talent and her flair for languages, whether tutoring German or joining G.D.S.’s Spanish class and gaining the inevitable grade “A”?
During the last eight and a half years, plays of all types have been staged by a bevy of eager producers and expeditions have gone to Arran, the U.S.A., the U.S.S.R., Greece, France and Austria. Pupils have trekked across Dartmoor and gone parachuting and gliding with the services. Indeed, Donald gave every encouragement to our flourishing C.C.F. and strengthened our already strong links with the services – and on one notable occasion braved the icy blasts of Norway on an exercise with the Royal Marines.
Although Donald cheerfully confessed, he was no games player – boldness itself at Allhallows – as Headmaster he cheered on the touchline and was as proud as the rest of us, when our 1st XV beat Blundell’s or felled some other giant.
It would be impertinent of me to recount in such a short space the many activities and departures of his headmastership – the re-organisation and re-styling of Chapel arrangements for example – but as Donald said in June 1982: “we are living in a time of great change. But I think at Allhallows we have kept pace with those changes.”
As a housemaster, under three headmasters, I can testify to Donald’s consummate skill in dealing with pupils, who for some reason were sitting forlornly by the wayside, having reached an impasse either in their work or some aspect of their social life. Often over a period of weeks, perhaps by means of one of his famous letters addressed to the boy or girl, to which he expected a reply – many boys and girls were persuaded to pick themselves up and proceed profitably in a new direction – to their lasting gratitude and that of their parents.
To be headmaster of a public school subjects one to pressures which would make the managing director of a sizeable public joint stock company or perhaps a football league manager blanch, but I must not pursue the analogy too far. We are grateful to Donald and Janet, with her charm and great knowledge of schools, for all the hard work and concern they put into the running of the School. We wish them both, together with John and Polly, all happiness in the years ahead.