After the anxiety and the loss, the sorrow and the tears, come the memories and the need for a thanksgiving.
A time to recall one to the other the outstanding quality of Lang’s life and the way in which each of our own lives was enriched by his companionship, his enthusiasms and his generosity.
A life spanning each of the decades of this century. A veritable twentieth century man.
God was generous with his gifts to Lang, almost to the point of prodigality, yet in all that I have read about him, and in the many judgements made in these last few days, I have found no hint at all of jealousy or envy, only expressions of admiration for how generously he used those gifts in the service of others, and of a shared pride in things that he had done or had organised so well.
That he had talents beyond the lot of normal man there is no doubt. He was, for example, an athlete of distinction. He captained his University, Reading, at rugby football, later playing for the Old Windsorian and Bideford clubs. ‘Langford dashing down the wing’, the newspaper report would say, to score the winning try. Bowled out for one in the old boys cricket match by an opponent named Jacobs he retaliated by taking six wickets to ensure a win for his side.
But above all he could run like the wind and the vignette that I like most is the photograph of the final of the 100 yards event shown in the local press of 1925. There he is, breasting the tape, arms raised high. A real ‘Chariots of Fire’ situation. He ran that 100 yards on grass in 10 secs. Dead. ‘And’ said the local pressman, ‘our National amateur record, set up two years ago by Eric Liddell at Stamford Bridge, is only 9.7 secs’.
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.
But it was his mathematical acuity allied to his powers of leadership that would pave the way for his later success. His Professor of Mathematics at Reading, E H Neville, one who was to become a lifelong friend, said of him ‘He was able to learn anything that I could expound to him in detail, and he learnt much more beside because he had the ability to extract a subject himself’. He read the mathematics Honours course in two years, instead of the normal three, and was awarded a first and several University prizes. Later he would take a Masters degree in mathematics, his research topic, if I remembered correctly, being elliptical functions. He filled his final year at university with private study and busied himself being President of the university Union of Students and, at the same time of the National Union of Students. The only non Oxford and Cambridge man at the time to have held the post.
The Warden of his hall of residence commented ‘that he possessed an extraordinarily engaging and tactful personality, and equally unusual powers of leadership among his fellows. I believe he will have a distinguished career’. Prophetic words.
Leaving the University Lang made the choice to go into teaching. He may have considered a University post, but in the 1920s the higher education sector was very small by today’s standards and the competition for lectureships was fierce. Looking back we might judge him a diplomat in the making, but that career was closed to Oxbridge and the right families. Whatever his reasons the teaching profession gained a recruit of the kind that was most need and, as one of his referees said, ‘the school that lands him will be fortunate indeed’.
His first appointment in September 1926 was to the Bec School in Tooting, with Stanley Gibson his former headmaster from Windsor. The school, newly founded, was a challenge. Gibson with the help of Lang and others built it up from 100 to 500 pupils in six years.
By March 1937 Lang, Doreen and Andrea, who had arrived on the scene and was now 4, were ready for a move. At Bec Lang was Senior Maths master, 6th form master, Games master and Housemaster, carrying all those duties as Gibson wrote ‘with distinction and apparent ease’; this ability to manage different responsibilities concurrently being a hallmark all his life.
So Lang looked for a headship and I have read what his referees said of him. How much I admire, by the way, their ability to write an appreciation of a man with a precision in the use of English that is rarely matched today. Listen to his Vice Chairman of Governors talking of Lang. ‘He is a thorough man of business, methodical, fertile in resource, embued with a rare sagacity and with a judgement quick and decided’.
Lang applied for the Headship of Bideford Grammar School in North Devon. One of 423 applicants for the post he was selected and appointed in April 1937. There began eight years of happy involvement of Lang 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, though at least the latter group could take some responsibility for his actions since they appointed him. It is difficult summarising the activity and challenges of those eight years at the school, building up its numbers from 160 to its target of 240, enlarging the Sixth form, which at one time numbered only twelve, establishing broader links the parents and community.
But it was the outbreak of war two years after his arrival which really challenged the scene. He lost staff to the armed forces, children evacuated from London swelled the intake into the school, whole schools with staff were transferred to the provinces, and Land hosted Selhurst Grammar School from Croydon, staff and pupils from the two schools playing Cox and Box with each other and using the school buildings in shifts.
The district desperately needed a billeting officer to arrange the reception and housing of the evacuees, Bideford and Northam received 500. For two years Lang took on that role, meeting the trains, arranging medicals and refreshments on arrive and negotiating accommodation with families in the district for each child, not always an easy task. One has the vision of a furiously busy time, but I bet Lang revelled in the activity of it for he also found time to become a local JP, helped to found the Musical Society and commanded the unit of the Air Training Corps.
When the time came to leave Bideford, the Town Clerk wrote to say ‘Bideford will be much poorer for your leaving it’. True, but perhaps the most enduring effect on the town of his association with it was that upon the lives of the boys in his care – from the example that he set before them, the trust they learned to have placed in them, the ambitions that he identified for them, always more demanding that those which they would have set for themselves. What began as a dependency would grow into independence, mutual respect would grow into lifelong friendships.
And this would be true also of his next school, Battersea Grammar School in south London, to which he moved in 1945. A visitor to that school wrote ‘Lang has an immediate infectious enthusiasm to put life into a community, the boys show an anxiety to please and to progress which is the outcome of respect and admiration for their head’.
Being in London rather than the West Country placed Lang close to the educational decision making bodies of the country. As the years passed by in London he became an almost indispensable part of the debate upon educational change, both of the implementation of the 1944 Act and its introduction of Secondary Education for all, which of course found favour in his eyes, or later, in the fifties growth of the Comprehensive movement, on which, I think, he reserved judgement. He spent much time at the LCC Headquarters, he was fully involved with the Mathematical Association and the The Secondary Heads Association, becoming President of both in 1959 and 1960. He listened to people and he spoke for them, with both ease and authority. I am sure that if there had been a Today programme in the 1950s the BBC van would have been parked regularly outside his Streatham home at 7am.
The other branch of his activity at that time was his work with the Juvenile Courts, one newspaper article questioning him on solving juvenile delinquency. His response being the need to persuade parents of their responsibilities. Plus ca change.
A hectic life as one public responsibility led to another, and so many of them out of school that I believe his staff came to call him the ‘Visitor’, glad to catch a sight of him. Some of my earliest memories date from this time. Certainly whenever I tried to telephone Andrea, who was living at home at the time, I gained the impression that all the establishment telephone calls in southern England were focussed on her number. The line was either engaged or else the call would always be answered by an expectant Lang with his ‘Streatham 7050 Langford speaking’. How lucky the young are today with Orange and the mobile, though come to think of it local calls were only three old pence and timeless.
At the unusually young age of 55, and whilst still in his prime as a Headmaster Lang’s service to education and the young of the country was recognised with the award of his CBE. The investiture on November 8th 1960 at Buckingham Palace was a proud moment for him and for all his family and friends.
Lang retired from Battersea in 1965 and he and Doreen moved to their new home in Winchester. Knowing him you would expect it to be retirement in name only. His experience and wisdom were too good to be wasted. He was already working for the Schools Council, the first government body to be set up to oversea the development of the secondary school curriculum. He served that body for 11 years and finished up as Chairman on the Steering Committee C, which sanctioned all curriculum projects. Dame Diana Reader-Harris, the former Headmistress of Sherborne School for Girls sat on the same Committee and told me that she had never served under a more gracious, understanding yet commanding chairman. A great delight and satisfaction to him also was to be invited by Lord Hailsham to serve as the only schoolmaster on the University Grants Committee – this at a seminal time in the creation of the new universities.
Gradually, however, as the committee work fell away there was more time to share with Doreen, to develop a new circle of friends, to work under her expert instruction as under gardener or to take her off in the summer each year to New England or Florida, where Lang lectured in the mathematical summer schools. How Doreen enjoyed the warmth and friendship of Florida.
Then they retired again to Sherborne, where their warmth and affection brought them many new and dear friends, in the close community of Sheeplands and in the congregation at Trent. They entertained, they gardened, they became expert vintners – with the airing cupboard bubbling with demi johns of elderflower wine. Lang took to helping Claude Rutter with some of his administration, especially as Deanery Synod Secretary. In his work with the church at Trent he found both satisfaction and strength. Throughout his life his Christian faith had been exemplified in his attendance at service, in Bideford, at St Leonard’s in Streatham, at St Cross in Winchester and then at Trent. For nearly thirty years he prepared with care the services for his schools, I inherited his prayer books and used them for years after him. Entwined with his devotion was his love of church music and he lost no opportunity to contribute in this way. I quote from a letter of thanks from the Secretary of the Headmasters Conference for whom Lang arranged the service in St John’s College chapel in Cambridge in 1964.
A friend and former Bishop of Coventry wrote of Lang ‘ I know him to be a profoundly Christian person, a man who believes and transfers that faith to others’.
One of our lasting memories will be of the intense pleasure that he took from helping to serve Communion at Trent. Not so stable now on his feet he would be directed to the altar rail, wearing his old Headmaster’s academic gown, green with age, and not a little tattered – nothing we tried would make him give up that gown. Once there he was certain of his place and perfect in his role.
We are grateful that in these last few years he and Doreen have been able to worship in this church and also to receive their Communion at South Cary House. In that house they received care and kindness beyond that which you could expect to find except within the bosom of the family. They took Lang to their hearts and found him as we have always found him, kindly, courteous and considerate. Always the first to offer his seat to a lady, to offer to carry her shopping, to open the door, to pass the cup of tea. As so many of you have said he was a real gentleman, a Christian gentleman. May he rest in peace.
Walter James Langford
1 March 1905 – born Clewer, Berkshire
1917-1923 – Windsor County Boys’ School,
Captain of School 1921-23,
Berkshire County Major Scholarship 1923
1923-26 - University of Reading
West Exhibition in Science 1925
Haynes Prize for best OTC cadet 1925 and 1926
Postgraduate scholarship in science 1926
President Union of Students and National Union of Students 1925-26
Ist Class Honours degree in Mathematics 1925
University rugby club 1923-26, Captain 1924-25, University cricket club 1926
September 1926-March 1937 - Assistant master Bec School; progressively senior maths master, housemaster, sixth form master and games master
1927-1930 - Queen Mary College, London evening student, M.Sc London awarded 1930
April 1937-July 1945 - Headmaster Bideford Grammar School
July 1945 - Commanding Officer 1022 Flight Air Training Corps 1942-45
Chief Billeting Officer 1939-1942
Justice of the Peace appointed 1944
September 1945-July 1965 - Headmaster Battersea Grammar School
1946 - Justice of the Peace for County of London
September 1957-June 1958 - President Mathematical Association
September 1958-June 1959 - President Secondary Heads Association
November 8th 1960 - CBE Investiture at Buckingham Palace
July 1961 - Elected to personal membership of the Headmaster Conference
1964-1975 - Membership of Schools Council, Chairman of main Steering Committee C
1964-1967 - Member of the University Grants Committee
May 1971 - Elected to Honorary Life membership of the Mathematical Association
By Roger Ketley, Son-in-law, All Saint’s, Castle Cary, Friday 27th December 1996
Kindly provided by Mr Langford's son, Malcolm