Headmaster of Rossall (1967-72)
A number of years ago, I had the immense good fortune to meet one of my predecessors at a dinner held in the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly. A sprightly and highly erudite man in his late eighties came over and introduced himself as Roger Ellis. He exuded both warmth and energy and I was captivated by his engaging manner and obvious wisdom. Although Roger had left Rossall almost fifty years ago, his demonstrable love for the place had evidently not diminished with the passage of time. He was keen to discuss the future direction of the School and, above all else, I felt that he understood better than anyone the challenges that faced me at that moment in time.
Roger’s long and dazzling successful life drew to a close on 14th February at the grand old age of ninety three. He was born in Paddington in October 1929. His father Cecil was a successful solicitor and his mother, Pamela, was descended from William the Conqueror. Roger attended St Peter’s School, Seaford before moving on to Winchester College. Contemporaries at Winchester included the banker Raymond Bonham Carter and former Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe. Academically he excelled and, upon leaving Winchester, he won a scholarship to study history at Trinity College, Oxford.
In 1952, Roger was appointed assistant master at Harrow School and he eventually became the boarding housemaster of the Headmaster’s House. At the time, the Headmaster of Harrow was Dr R.L. James who was himself an Old Rossallian. In 1964, Roger married his wife Margaret and their eldest daughter was born in 1965. A twin boy and girl followed in June 1967 – just months before Roger assumed the Headship of Rossall. Roger was a man of indefatigable energy for while he was at Harrow he found time to serve on the local borough council and edit a version of Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
The late 1960s was a period of rapid social change and the student riots that swept across Europe in the Summer of 1968 were an expression of the post-war generation coming of age. Existing hierarchies were challenged and, in some cases, overthrown and as Derek Winterbottom points out in excellent history of Rossall, ‘The Tide Flows On’, this anarchic countercultural spirit is exemplified perfectly in Lindsay Anderson’s cinematic masterpiece ‘If’ . The dramatic climax of the film perfectly captures the prevailing zeitgeist.
Wilson’s government did not provide a favourable political landscape for public schools but Roger was a reforming headmaster and one with his eyes firmly focused upon the future. Work on the Jackson Schools commenced in 1968 and the refurbishment of the Museum Theatre was completed soon after. It was Roger who created the post of Director of Studies which helped bring organisation and clarity to the academic side of school life. He elevated staff on account of their skills and aptitude as opposed to their longevity of service. This might seem an obvious modus operandi now but, at that time, it was daringly radical. He introduced a new curriculum which provided Sixth Formers with a much greater sense of choice. The School Magazine was abandoned and replaced with a more tabloid style journal which openly questioned traditions such as fagging and the school’s single sex status.
The Asian flu epidemic of 1969 resulted in over three hundred children becoming ill and a fire in the middle dormitory of Dragon-Crescent House provided an additional challenge. Roger dealt with such calamities with a resolute spirit and real sense of courage. Schools tend to be traditional and conservative institutions and some within the Common Room grumbled about the sweeping nature of Roger’s reforms. Of course, the more discerning realised that he was a much needed breath of fresh air. In any case, he was always on the right side of history and many of his innovations, such as the creation of a Sixth Form Centre, were welcomed by pupils and parents.
In 1972, Roger was appointed Headmaster of Marlborough College where he remained until 1986. In due course, Roger was elected Chair of HMC and he joined the governing body of various schools including St Edward’s School, Oxford where he served as Chairman from 1992-1999. He published several books including ‘Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian School’ (1981). Upon retiring from Marlborough, Roger served as Barclays Bank graduate recruitment manager.
His farewell notice in The Rossallian recorded that he believed that Rossall was an illustrious and unique school. He was celebrated for his lack of pretentiousness and his sense of style and fun. A member of Council told me the other day how he would quietly slip out of prep in order to meet Roger on the tenth hole of Fleetwood Course for a quick round on the back nine before sunset.
Roger demonstrated a real concern for the spiritual life of the School but was not a prisoner to tradition. The School benefited enormously from his headship and it is clear that he was the ideal appointment given the nature of the challenges of the time. He is remembered by Old Rossallians with a real sense of affection. Kind, resolute, principled and relatable, Roger was the very model of a ‘modern’ head. Our thoughts and prayers are with Roger’s family at this time and we send them the love and gratitude of the community that he served so well. . Roger was the right head at the right time and although his tenure was relatively short, his legacy will endure for generations to come.
Headmaster of Rossall School