Paul Thornhill was appointed to teach handicrafts at West Buckland in 1967 after 10 years teaching at Scargill School in Derbyshire, shortly before W.B. faced the threat of closure.
He was one of a number of teachers thrust into prominence by George Ridding's determination to save the school. In the days when members of staff could not be sure that their salaries would be paid at month-end, youngsters came from all over the world, including some of a distinctly mature appearance who clearly appreciated that the comforts of Mr. Ridding's resurgent West Buckland were a fair swap for compulsory military service in the war-torn Middle East. And yet the integrity of the staff of those days have assured the return to West Buckland of generations of some of the families whose children first came to WB then.
During the trials of that era there was forged a team of teachers whose fortitude, loyalty, devotion, dedication and professionalism gave a wonderful foundation to the achievements of the following decades.
Decisions were not always easy: the survival of a little boarding school of 233 boys and 20 teachers in deepest Devon can have been of little consequence to any but those who had a stake in making it succeed. And succeed it did. It needed contributions well beyond what any reasonable Head or Governor might expect: Paul Thornhill (amongst many others) stepped up to the mark and gave of himself. Paul's attitude to what was or was not “proper”was formed by the rigours of an upbringing in a war-time mining community in Derbyshire, by the traditions of Ilkeston Grammar School, by National Service in the RAF, (Air-Commodore was one of the titles he modestly assumed in lighter moments), and by his training in metal-work, carpentry, and ceramics under Bernard Leach at Loughborough.
He was proud of his background, of the struggle people made to live decent lives in harsh conditions, of the efforts they made to rise above adversity and to endow hard lives with humour, with caring for others, with dignity and with ambition for self-reliance and self-improvement. He won an Open University degree in the nineteen eighties whilst working full-time as teacher, Housemaster and Head of Department. Paul was conscious of his high mastery of draughtsmanship, ceramics and woodwork: he also taught French and History. His love for these subjects and his regard for the aspirations of parents for their children, allowed his pupils little room for anything but their best efforts, and even small lapses of attention in his workshop could cause his displeasure. Wilful idleness, neglect, disobedience or disrespect were liable to incur wrath of a more potent ilk, and this assured his stern reputation.
And yet, one evening when I was in his workshop doing some project of my own, at the time of the mass cannabis expulsions, Paul wandered in, sat down and wept for the mess the silly children had made for themselves. Few of those who went in awe of Mr. Thornhill can have been aware of just how passionately he cared for all aspects of their welfare.
Paul's notion of propriety guided him and he expected that those about him should strive to display the same sort of integrity. He reprimanded foolish mistakes justly, accepted apologies gracefully but with the clear proviso that it wouldn't happen twice; he apologised gracefully and humbly if he was in the wrong. He was supportive of those in his care, standing up for them with loyalty and vigour. He was extremely perceptive of the characters of colleagues, pupils and parents, and had the courage of his convictions.
I once crossly asked him why certain parents bothered to send their children to us when they clearly had little regard for what West Buckland offered. With an irony that soothed my irritation and convinced me of his sympathy, he drily said, “Faute de mieux, my dear... faute de mieux.” The title “Toad,” could be loaded with contempt for anyone whose conduct fell short of the mark. On the other hand “Idle Toad” could be a much gentler condemnation, showing Paul's understanding of the frailty of human nature!
Paul was equal to any situation: one of my 13 year-old tutees was sent to him one day in a worrying state of behaviour. Interviewed at Buckingham Lodge by Paul and Michael Downward, the boy made an earthy suggestion to the Head and an unfavourable comment on his appearance; Paul reprimanded him for his insolence and was offered, with a recklessness that only unbridled intoxication might explain, the same obscene suggestion plus a vivid aspersion on his parentage and his bulk. Eschewing the reaction of a lesser man, Paul replied, “Got it in one, Duckie! Now, tell us, please... what have you been taking?” concealing whatever amusement, surprise or irritation he might have felt, for the sake of discovering the source of the boy's problem.
Paul's “Duckie” is a term of affection in his native Derbyshire. His preferred use of it customarily suggested rather less warmth than it does in the North Midlands and an implication that one perhaps ought to look to one's ways.
The sobriquet “Mugsy” came from countless editions of staff-room crockery and celebratory mugs, plates and jugs for valiant Exmoor runners and for innumerable celebrations and anniversaries, public and private, all inscribed in his fine free-hand with a flat-tipped nail, marked with his horned helmet stamp, and decorated in his tribute to traditional Devon slipware on Brannam's clay.
There are testamonials to his impressive woodworking skills in several churches, including finely made font covers in East and West Buckland and Clovelly churches, as well as much of the furniture and fittings of his retirement home in France. Even its staircase was built at WB and transported to France where it fitted perfectly.
Paul's command of the Brereton was admirable. He held vast amounts of information about pupils in his head with enviable confidence and clarity. This strength was also important in his contributions to the O.W.B.A. He knew and remembered countless former pupils. One measure of Paul's devotion to the school was the importance he attached to fostering the sense of continuity amongst the wider WB community: it was a great joy to him that many of those whose departure at 16 or 18 was, one might say, timely, could return some while later such pleasant and agreeable young men and women, ready to share happy reminiscences of school days with daunting teachers grown so much gentler in the interim. Paul's dispensing “bubbles” during OWBA cricket matches, his copious hospitality at the bungalow or in his retirement house in France, the warmth of his welcome and his attendance at OWBA dinners all testified to his love for West Buckland and for all who valued it as he did.
He was, without doubt, one of the wittiest men I have known; his choice of the right word at the right time was a strength that enhanced his presence and his conversation. The twinkle in his eye when some witticism occurred to him was a joy to witness and if one was on a similar wavelength, the twinkle could become a roar of laughter. His sense of humour embraced the intellectual and, to put it mildly, the profane. During the hot summer after his hip-replacement in France he commented to me on the décolletage of the attractive nurses who attended him daily to change his dressings. “Can you,” he enquired cheerfully, “get that sort of thing on the National Health?”
This command of language - English, French or the even odd word of Swedish, went into producing many years of his Exmoor Songs: idle toads, wooden legs, bovine residue, the Cleave, ad hoc stolen chicken barbecues, barn-arson, comments on pupils' personal weaknesses... all grist to the mill of his adaptations of Noel Coward, Gilbert and Sullivan, Stanley Holloway, Flanagan and Allen … or simply of his own exuberant invention.
Paul depended on the untiring support of Ann or, as he sometimes referred to her “My friend, the Headmaster's secretary!” Ann was one who could temper his sharpness by her down to earth common-sense. They met at Ilkeston Grammar. Their devotion to each other was apparent in so many ways and they shared that happiness by their generosity and kindness to all who came within their orbit. From his retirement in 1994 to his last weeks he welcomed guests to their home in Crulai.
He died suddenly on Sunday the 30th May of a heart attack. Our thoughts are with Ann, their son Jonathan, daughter-in-law Françoise and grandson Orson. A testimonial for a young Paul from the Headmaster of Ilkeston Grammar School read:
“Paul Thornhill is remembered unanimously for his reliability, helpfulness and integrity, his good influence on younger children.... and with affection, as one of the outstanding personalities of the previous few years.”
Shall West Buckland not remember him in even more glowing terms? Paul Berry, June 2011