Nathaniel Langford Clapton

by Chris Meakin (KES 55-62, then Keble, Oxford)
NLC 1953

There were two Nat Claptons at King Edwards, the real Dr Jekyll and his alter ego Mr Hyde. In the junior forms you only ever saw some distant, intimidating figure, and listened in awe while slightly older boys told lurid tales. This tyrannical figure swept into Assembly each morning, an Indian file of self-conscious sub-prefects and full prefects stomping ahead of him, his academic gown in full flight behind. Nathaniel Langford Hyde mounted his little stage, barked out that morning's hymn number and then left it to music master Norman Barnes, seated also with flowing gown in the organ loft just above the stage, to thump it out. It was gothic, in its own little way Sheffield's answer to Gormenghast.  While the assembled lads of the school belted out the chosen hymn, each in his own particular key, Nat Hyde sat hunched and glowered at them.

The only boys who encountered this fearsome version of their headmaster one-to-one were those unfortunates sent for him to countersign their caning slip. One particularly sadistic young history master - let me tactfully overlook his name for now - managed  to single out at least one boy from his first or second year classes almost every lesson for caning, or so it seemed at the time. He thereby managed to deter more boys from the study of history than a couple of dozen Henry Fords.  We may never know what Clapton privately thought of that constant demand for caning slips.  The history master concerned - I know his college quite well - only survived four years.

But there was also a quite different Nat Clapton at the school, the real Dr Jekyll version.  I met this person for the very first time at the beginning of my final year, that confusingly labelled the Second Year Sixth.  I was summoned to his study.  It seemed unlikely to be for some punishment, for NLC and Co had just made me a sub-prefect. They were the second-raters who performed exactly the same duties as a full prefects but were denied the fancy blazer with its bright blue trimming round the edge.  We subbies were just given the superior school badge on our lapels, the one with interwoven letters 'KES' in place of the ordinary school badge with its rampant lion.

Like the rest of our year, I had taken my "A" and "S" levels in  July, in my case missing distinctions in both economics and geography by a narrow margin. No matter. For it was now a fresh term and, for better, for worse or for just plain indifferent, all those A levels of July were well behind us. There were now more important fish to fry.

It was time to think about universities instead. "Have you thought about a university, Meakin?"   asked Dr Jekyll.   "Yes, sir - Oxford."   "That's it?"   "Yes, sir".  "Hmmm.  I see Mr Robinson would like you to try for a Social Studies scholarship, there are several colleges to choose from, while Mr Towers would like you to try for the Geography Scholarship at Keble.  You'd better think about that.  Now, I know you really want to go to Oxford and probably will but, just in case, let's also have an insurance policy. Manchester is good for economics. I'll apply for a Place for you there as well."

My simple diplomatic compromise was to try for the Geography scholarship at Keble, a subject in which I felt I had marginally less competition, but to ask to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics if I got in.  In fact Keble's geography exam was recognised by three other colleges as well - Jesus, St Edmund Hall and Hertford.  I was required to put them in order of preference.  How was I supposed to know then that Jesus would be awash with the Welsh, and Teddy Hall with hearty sportsmen?  No-one in my family had been anywhere near Oxford University.  Arbitrarily, I put Hertford third -  "College" sounded slightly superior to "Hall".

I was summoned to the presence once more. "Meakin, why have you put Hertford College in third place?"  "Grunt, er, ER, cough."  "I think you should put it fourth.  I realise it was my own College, but you wouldn't like it at all.  Full of small public school boys".  When I arrived in Oxford I discovered that Hertford was one of only two, out of the 23 men's colleges, with no Old Edwardians.

That December a whole carriage load of us caught the one through train a day to Oxford.  The Great Central route out of Sheffield Victoria, shortly to be obliterated by Dr Beeching, was still functioning - just.  At  Keble I sat twelve and a half hours of geography exams during 11-12 December - I have the papers still.  Apparently  my scores were far from scintillating, but no matter. I wanted to read PPE anyway, so was sent for a additional and lengthy interview with two Oxford dons in the College, Basil Mitchell and Uwe Kitzinger.  Both figure rather prominently in Who's Who nowadays. I discussed Plato with Mitchell and Keynes with Kitzinger, just about able to keep my bat straight thanks to the way Tick Robinson had taught us.

The offer of a place at Keble arrived a week later, dated 19 December.  I was later  to discover that of the nine or so boys who sat that Keble geography exam in December 1961, five made it to the college in October 1962 including the future managing director of Dan Air and then Cunard, and a future senior partner in Nabarro Nathanson.  And little old me.  Clapton sent for me once again.  He wasn't finished with me yet.

"Meakin, well done on your place at Keble, but I wonder if you'd now be willing to try an experiment for me.  I've just found a General Scholarship at Corpus Christi College Cambridge, and I wonder if you would test it out.  We've never done it before.  I've already agreed with Keble they will hold your place for you while you do so."  He knew, as I then did not, that I had gained the school's only alpha in the General Paper the previous July.

The Fens are even colder than Oxford at that time of year, and the winter 1961-2 was a particularly bitter one.  Shivering, I caught a train to Cambridge, change at Retford and Peterborough, and sat twelve more hours of exams on 9-10 January.  I still have those papers too.  Corpus was a curious little college, quite unlike the broad expanses of Keble, and every notice in its Lodge seemed to be signed by the same one man, the college's Principal Tutor.  For all one could see, he probably did the cooking as well. He alone invigilated all twelve hours of the exams and interviewed each of the candidates.  It was a one-man show.

The results appeared in the press days later.  Corpus had awarded three General Scholarships, but none of them was for me.  There were no places on offer either; my rejection letter was dated 12 January.   One of the lucky winners was called Antrobus, I recall, but it was to be a further three years before I discovered his fictional namesake in the short stories of Lawrence Durrell, to this day still my favourite examples of wit and humour in the English language.

Clapton sent for me once more.  He had now received my marks from Cambridge, question by question, and wanted an explanation.  "Why did you get a gamma plus here?  I thought you knew your British Constitution."  "Yes, sir. I rather suspect Mr Robinson would have my guts for garters if I couldn't turn out a pretty acceptable essay on that."  "And what was this one here - where you got a beta double plus?" I peered over.  "That's ridiculous,  sir.  It was only a half-finished answer, fourth on the paper, last minute waffle, barely worth a mention."

Nat Clapton pondered a few moments, then picked up all papers and threw them contemptuously in the waste paper basket.  "I don't think we will be bothering with that one again, Meakin.  You go and enjoy your time at Oxford."

As clearly as he could show it, NLC was backing the judgment of his eighteen year old sub-prefect in preference to that of the Principal Tutor of a Cambridge college, a man called Michael McCrum.  He's in Who's Who  too.  Nat Clapton, unofficial member of the Headmaster's Conference, could not possibly know it at the time, but that Cambridge don whose sense of academic judgment he so ostentatiously dismissed was to leave CCC the following September to become Headmaster of Tonbridge School. In 1970 he became Headmaster of Eton.

The offer of a place to study economics at Manchester University, no interview required once they read NLC's letter, arrived shortly afterwards, dated 19 January 1962.  It had all taken just about six weeks, start to finish.


Jim Gunson (KES 55-62, followed by University College, Oxford) adds:

My experience of the Head agrees with that of my contemporary, Chris Meakin, whose memory for detail far exceeds mine. I recall the solicitude shown me when I was ill and waiting to be picked up and taken home.

The Head's humour, perhaps apocryphal, was cherished as being at odds with his stern image. I have two stories: the first concerns a boy being interviewed about his future. When he said that he was "interested in becoming something in oil", the Head was reputed to have replied "Like a sardine, eh?". The one statement I can vouch for occurred in assembly, at a time when there was snow on the ground and snowballs had crossed between KES and the Girls' High School. The Head's admonition was that we should "resist the temptations of the High School girls". At that time we thought that we were clever to spot an unintended interpretation of the Head's words. Now I give credit to the speaker for this bit of drollery.

I'm prompted to write by the chance that one day I read about the Head and the next started a biography of Evelyn Waugh. I was struck by the fact that both were born in 1903 (two months apart) and must have been contemporaries at Hertford College, where both were scholars. Waugh matriculated in the Hilary Term of 1922, a term later than would have been customary. I cannot see the pair as likely companions, but perhaps they exchanged the odd word. Perhaps someone with literary aspirations could attempt to insert the Head as a minor character in Brideshead Revisited.

Jim Gunson, Kwantlen, Jan 2005


Dr W C Hall adds:

I was interested to find your web site. I taught physics and chemistry at the school between 1960 - 1964: the Clapton era.

I was responsible for getting the school's opposition to becoming comprehensive into the morning newspaper's headlines (acting as the staff/newspaper go-between).

I became quite friendly with Mr Clapton, visiting him when I was in business (for a period I was science and maths editor of the Oliver & Boyd Publishing Co). He was a deeply unhappy man, never recovering from his wife's death. The school was his life, even working there on Boxing Day. He had intended to retire and live at Norwich.

He had an intense interest in films. So did I, running two film societies at the school, and so we spent hours discussing films. He would pay for the screening of an expensive film to the entire school at the end of term, and got excited if the sun shone, thereby dimming the screen image.

Of my nine jobs, the one at King Ted's was one of the most fulfilling and I have happy memories of my four years. Now my wife and I live in Adelaide.

(Dr) William C. Hall