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Obituary by Peter Fletcher

It is with very great sorrow that we hear record the peaceful passing of Walter James Langford, at South Cary House, Castle Cary on 18th December 1996 at the age of 91 years. He leaves a widow Doreen, daughter Andrea and son Malcolm.

He attended Windsor County Boys’ School and was awarded a County Major Scholarship. At Reading University he graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Mathematics in 1925 in two years instead of the normal three. An athlete of distinction, he captained Reading University at rugby football. He was able to run 100 yards in 10 seconds dead, and was also a cricketer of no mean ability.

He had an attractive tenor voice, and, as a choirboy, a training in musicianship that enabled choral singing and oratorio to be a major interest in his life.

His last year at Reading was filled with private study, and he busied himself being President of the University Union of Students and, at the same time, President of the National Union of Students. Walter Langford was the first non-Oxford and Cambridge man to hold the post.

His first teaching appointment was in September 1926 to the Bec School in Tooting, where, with Stanley Gibson, his former headmaster from Windsor, the pupil numbers at this newly founded school were built up from 100 to 500 in six years. At Bec Langford was Senior Maths master, 6th Form master, Games master and Housemaster, carrying out all those duties, as Gibson wrote, “with distinction and apparent ease”. This ability to manage different responsibilities concurrently was a hallmark of his life. It was during his time at Bec School that he obtained his MSc in 1930.

Langford applied for the Headship of Bideford Grammar School and, one of 423 applicants for the post, he was selected and appointed in April 1937. There began eight years of happy involvement of he and his family with the life of the school and the society of the town. It cannot have been easy taking over a school at the age of 32, with several of the staff senior in years to him, and with a governing body containing Old Boys and leading figures in the town.

To summarise the activity and challenges of those eight years at Bideford is difficult. He built up the pupil numbers from 160 to it target of 275, enlarged the sixth form, established broader links with parents and with the community. At the outbreak of war, just two years after his arrival, the scene at Bideford Grammar School changed. Staff were lost to the armed services, children evacuated from London swelled the intake into the School. Whole schools with staff were transferred to the provinces, and for a while Langford hosted both staff and pupils from Highgate, as well as Selhurst Grammar School, Croydon, and Peckham Central School – sometimes using the school in shifts.

The district desperately needed a billeting officer to arrange the reception and housing of evacuees – Bideford and Northam received 1500. For two years Langford took on that role, meeting the trains, arranging medicals and refreshments on arrival, and negotiating accommodation with families in the district for each child – not always an easy task.

As well as Chief Billeting Officer for Bideford, he also became a Justice of the Peace, helped found the Bideford Music Society, he commanded 1022 Squadron of the Air Training Corps, and was a playing member of Bideford Rugby Club.

In 1945 Langford moved to Streatham in South London to take up the appointment of Headmaster of Battersea Grammar School. He spent much time at London County Council Headquarters, and was involved in the debate upon educational change, both of the implementation of the 1944 Education Act and its introduction of Secondary Education for all (which in him naturally found favour), and later in the fifties the growth of the Comprehensive movement, upon which he reserved his judgement.

During those years he also spent much energy as a Justice of the Peace for the County of London with the Juvenile Courts, and it is reported that, when questioned on solving juvenile delinquency, his response was of the need to persuade parents of their responsibilities.

In 1960, at the young age of 55, whilst Headmaster at Battersea, his devoted service to education and the young of the country was recognised with the award of his CBE.

He was involved with the Mathematical Association and the Secondary Heads Association becoming President of both in 1959 and 1960. He was also elected to personal membership of the Headmasters’ Conference, and in 1971 he was elected to Honorary Life Membership of the Mathematical Association.

In 1965 Langford retired from the Headship of Battersea Grammar School. He was already working for the Schools Council (the first government body to over the development of the secondary school curriculum), a body which he served for 11 years, and finished up as Chairman of the Steering Committee which sanctioned all curriculum projects.

Upon invitation of Lord Hailsham he served as the schoolmaster member of the University Grants Committee at a seminal time in the creation of new universities, from 1964 to 1967.

In the summer of each year Langford would take his wife Doreen to New England or Florida, where he lectured in mathematical summer schools.

His enduring effect on the lives of the boys in his care, the example he set before them, the trust they learned to have placed in them, the ambitions that he identified for them – always more demanding than those which they would have set themselves. What began as a dependency would grow into independence; mutual respect would grow into lifelong friendships.

Langford was a dedicated teacher. His discipline was never in question, for all those he taught were aware of his scrupulous fairness. All recognised his command at school and his determination to draw the very best in the charges entrusted to his care. He always had friends and admirers among all who him – fellow teachers, old boys and others outside the scholastic world – many regularly visiting him during his retirement, to his great delight.

We are greatly saddened by his passing, but his influence will live on in the lives of those whom he came into contact with at Bideford Grammar School. He will be remembered for many years to come with affection – a lasting picture of him at morning assemblies, dressed in cap and gown as he led his staff onto the stage. And for those who had the privilege of studying mathematics with this man of such great ability, the benefit of sharing his love and enthusiasm for the subject. And above all his gentlemanly manner, his fairness and his courtesy and consideration.

Bideford Grammar School was indeed privileged and indebted to him.


(The above was kindly provided by Mr Langford's son, Malcolm)

Old Windsorians

Ernest Bevin College (ex Bec)

National Archives - Bideford Grammar School

Old Grammarians, Battersea Grammar School




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