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News > Heritage > Recollections of Philip Stibbe

Recollections of Philip Stibbe

Teacher, Headmaster and Author of book 'Return via Rangoon'
11 May 2023
1952 Society Meeting (courtesy of Philip Stibbe collection/Giles Stibbe)
1952 Society Meeting (courtesy of Philip Stibbe collection/Giles Stibbe)

It was a casual remark by Giles Alington, the Dean of University College Oxford, who had heard that John Hills [Headmaster at Bradfield] was looking for a form-master, that brought Philip Stibbe to Bradfield. At the time Philip was finishing his studies at Merton College, Oxford. These had been curtailed by his war service after Dunkirk. In 1945 Philip had returned to the same room he had left 5 years earlier. Philip arrived at Bradfield at the same time as Clive Gimson from Clare College, Cambridge. They were welcomed to the Senior Common Room for Michaelmas term 1948. Clive and Philip unknowingly were brought up within a hundred yards of each other in Leicester and had been interviewed for the same post; John Hills with his instinct for the discovery of school-masters who would fit in, snapped them both up. Philip taught English during those first years, but form masters at that time were responsible for teaching members of their form – in Philip’s case the bottom form but one, and a “delightfully brainless lot” – English, History and Divinity, and very often other subjects as well. At interview the question “What can’t you teach?” received the answer “Maths, Science and French.”

During his early years at Bradfield, Philip worked as Stage Director for the 1949 Greek Play Agamemnon. This was the first Greek Play for 12 years after the war period and austerity. For the first time it was performed in the evening as well as in the afternoon. The BBC took interest in it, putting it in the Television News. The music was consciously modern and for the first time a charge was made for guests, with the exception of parents and private guests. All these innovations had their critics, but they were swamped in the volume of praise and congratulations. Among the many distinguished visitors were The Duke of Wellington, Viscount Montgomery and Miss Agatha Christie!

The Greek Play in 1952 was Antigone, the sixth time it had been performed at Bradfield and once again Philip was the Stage Director. In July 1952 the Bradfield Chronicle reported that “Mr Stibbe’s programme of music and poetry, in the Greek Theatre proved very effective. It ought to be done more frequently.” This was a much-appreciated compliment.

It was Philip’s time as a resident house tutor in Army House which gave him what Tim Potts described as the “introduction to the mingled pleasure and pain of house mastering”. This led Philip to what became a twenty-year labour of love as Housemaster in A House from 1953 to 1966 and The Close from 1966 to 1974.

September 1953 saw a number of Housemaster changes when after 28 years John Mousdale resigned from G House to be replaced by Francis Templer. He had been in A House and so A House was succeeded by Mr Stibbe.

Tim Potts said of Philip “Generations of boys have reason to be grateful for his determination to run his houses in his own way; treating each member as a whole person, seeing them in the round, concerned always to develop the standards inherent within and not to impose them from without. Nourished and supported by a philosophy combining lack of worry – in the last resort – with confidence in the order and good sense at the roots of human nature, which was forged during his two years as a guest of the Japanese in the Central Prison, Rangoon.”

In May 1956 the engagements of Mr Stibbe and his colleague Tim Potts, who later wrote his leaving recollection, were both announced. Philip married Joy Thornton, a nurse and Ward Sister at Great Ormond Street Hospital who retired to marry Philip and join him at Bradfield. At that time new houses were being built Up the Hill for Mr Stibbe and Mr Argyle with the note in the Bradfield Chronicle that “this should help the problem of accommodation for the new Bradfield ladies.” Not long afterwards Philip and Joy moved into their new home known as High Wood.

January 1957 saw Philip become President of the Shakespeare Society and Mrs Stibbe was praised for providing excellent refreshment in the intervals while different plays were read in her sitting room. Philip and Joy’s eldest son Giles was born in 1958 and the Shakespeare Society recorded “we apologise for any intrusions that Shakespeare may have made upon the innocent sleep of Master Stibbe”! Twins Claire and Mark joined the family in 1960.

Music was also a passion, and the Music Club enjoyed soirees conducted by Mr Stibbe “in the pleasant surroundings of his garden at High Wood” and “playing music mostly of a conventional nature which was warmly received.”

In June 1964 congratulations were made to Mr Stibbe’s house for winning a number of sporting trophies: the Standards Cup, the Relays Cup and the Sports Cup.

In 1966, Philip moved from A House to become Housemaster of The Close when Alan Young retired, and Eric Oliver succeeded Philip in A House.

In Spring 1969 Mr Stibbe was guest of honour at a “1952 Society” meeting, a club he was credited with being one of the Society’s founders. Below a photo of one of the first 1952 Society meetings led by Mr Gimson and Mr Stibbe. David Owen (A 51-56) remembers Philip as a "kindly headmaster" in his book Time to Declare and the "informal debating club in which masters and boys were for a few hours equals. We would argue with no holds barred on topics like, 'Does the end justify the means? It was a stretching experience where one learnt the art of argument and felt the excitement of ideas" .

The Close Literary Society also met in his study regularly to perform plays.  On 28 February 1970 they read the play Hostile Witness.  “Mr Stibbe produced an impressive performance as the Junior Counsel in a barrister's chambers who is revealed at the end of being guilty of the murder... He read his part slowly and precisely and very realistically at the end of the play when he is exposed in court. His last words, "you clever bastard" were well uttered”. 

When on 5 March 1973 the 1952 Society came of age celebrating 21 years, a photograph was taken for the occasion with Mr Stibbe’s daughter also icing the cake.

In Summer 1975 the Bradfield Chronicle congratulated Philip on being appointed to the headmastership of Norwich School. It also noted other ex-Bradfield masters who at the time headed up other schools including: Mr Clive Gimson (who had joined at the same time as Philip) now Headmaster at Blundell’s School, Mr Michael Ricketts, Headmaster of Sutton Vallance, Mr David Raeburn, Headmaster of Whitgift School and Mr Coll Macdonald, Headmaster of Uppingham School.

It was with regret that Bradfield said farewell to Philip and his wife Joy. The recollections written by Tim Potts which appeared in the Bradfield Chronicle at the time have been used as a source and paraphrased in this article.

Philip and Joy were close friends of Pauline Ingan-Jones the In-College matron. He was nursed by his wife Joy at the end of his life through Parkinson’s Disease, which was the direct result of his two years as a Japanese Prisoner Of War and the very limited diet he was given during that time. He died in Norfolk on 17 January 1997 and a Thanksgiving Service for his life was held on Friday 25th April 1997 at Norwich Cathedral.

Bradfieldian Alasdair Johnston (A 1955-60) became a close friend of the Stibbe family after being Head of A House during Philip’s time at Bradfield and godfather to Mark Stibbe. Alasdair remembers Philip as a wonderful kind gentleman and well-respected teacher. Alasdair first read Philip’s book Return via Rangoon when he was 14 years of age and said “to me it was a great adventure. There were plenty of war reminisces about at that time. Now, having re-read for the first time since then (in Jan 2023) I realise how much I missed about the extraordinary experiences, hardships and tenacity that had been experienced by this 21 year old and his fellow Chindits.”

What a life he led and what a difference he made to so many of the lives of those around him. When Philip was liberated in mid-1945 he also discovered he had been Mentioned in Despatches during 1943.

If you have not yet read Philip’s book Return via Rangoon, it is being re-published by Pen & Sword to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the first Chindit expedition. The book’s title was used by Brigadier Orde Wingate in the address to his men before they set out when he said “The only way out of Burma is via Rangoon”. This is exactly how Philip returned. The book is a key recollection to understanding Philip through his Army experiences as a 21-year-old platoon commander fighting in Burma’s jungle; then his capture by the Japanese and life in Rangoon Jail for two years.

On the cover of Philip’s book The Right Hon The Lord Owen (A 52-56) wrote: “Bravery, in a nutshell, is what the word ‘Chindit’ has come to signify. Orde Wingate and Bernard Fergusson are two of the best-known characters, well-captured in Return via Rangoon. But Philip Stibbe captures something much more – the inner strength of the Chindits which lay in its extraordinary combination of ordinary people, be it the Liverpudlian or Burmese rifleman in the jungle or in prison. The real heroes are unsung, their contribution cumulative, their record that of the whole, their platoon, regiment or brigade.”

Long after Philip had retired a wonderful photograph of him with former Housemasters Michael Ricketts and Murray Argyle was shared with the Development Office by Judy Ricketts. It is reproduced again here in memory of these gentlemen and their huge contribution to Bradfield College life.


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