George Mackay, Chemistry

[KES Magazine March 1951:]

We welcome to the Staff [...] Mr. G. Mackay, M.A., of Cambridge, to succeed Dr. Hargreaves as Senior Science Master.

[KES Magazine Autumn 1966:]

Mr. George Mackay came to us as head of the science department and senior chemistry master in 1951. During his terns of office some fifteen science masters have come and gone, and few of these would not acknowledge a great debt of gratitude to him. Full of ideas and well grounded convictions himself, he would never try to force others to his own way of thinking; he was always ready to listen with sympathy to problems or suggestions, and could be relied upon to contribute something really constructive to any discussion on science teaching.

As a teacher he presented a highly-coloured and memorable personality; his principle of never telling you anything that you could be left (or driven) to work out for yourself concealed a most diligent attitude towards the task of preparing and presenting lessons. Nothing mattered to him more than that you should ultimately know and thoroughly understand, having arrived at your understanding by the most fruitfully educative route he could devise.

It is not easy to separate his image as a man from that as a teacher (as witness the time he taught the sixth form for a week wearing a bowler hat), but his career with us certainly had its vivid aspects outside the classroom. Like Beethoven, his life here can be divided into three distinct periods. There was the tobacco-growing period, when even smell-inured chemists were known to catch their breath on entering the prep. room. Then came the great stamp-collecting era, when all the wisdom of the ages was shown to be written on the faces of his multi-coloured specimens for those who had eyes to see. And thirdly came the photographic period, which left him with a permanent half-inch depression of the left shoulder caused by the constant carrying of his ever-changing succession of the best camera ever made. (He must have been wrong about all but one of these, but you would never have guessed so from the astonishingly high standard of photography he produced with them all: if he did a job, he did it properly).

He is a small man with a big personality, and has that rare gift that whenever he says anything (which in his case is fairly often) it is invariably worth listening to. There are all too few people in the world of whom that may be said; and whilst K.E.S. has always attracted an unusually large number of them to its staff (which is why K.E.S. is what it is) we feel their loss very greatly indeed when they go.

Mr. Mackay leaves to take up a post as lecturer in the Department of Education at Sheffield University. We offer him and Mrs. Mackay our warmest wishes for a happy future.

[KES Magazine Autumn 1966.]

Chris Meakin (KES 55-62) adds:

I was never a chemist, not by a million miles, but when I lived in Dulwich in the 1990s I had a neighbour who was. He was George Preston, a doctor who spent most of his career teaching at Guy's Hospital Medical School in London. By then I had met a few of his erstwhile pupils as well, and they had a great deal of time for him.

Dr. George Preston in turn had a lot of time for George Mackay. "Did you ever have a chemistry master at King Edward's called George Mackay?" he once asked me, quite out of the blue. We certainly did. "Well, before you had him at your school we had him at my school in Durham. Now Chris, I am a good enough doctor, good enough to teach at Guy's, but I am a superb biochemist and I put that down 100% to the way I was taught by George Mackay when I was at school. Your gain at King Edward's Sheffield was certainly our loss in Durham." Unstinting praise indeed, from a man who was then in his late sixties and recalling his school education of at least fifty years earlier.

Let it not be thought for one moment, however, that George Mackay only won Oxbridge chemistry scholarships, many though he did. He also had hobbies. One of them was stamp collecting, or philately as they say in the better circles.

Now I don't know exactly how Phil Matthews and I ever uncovered this useful piece of staff room intelligence, but we decided it created a golden opportunity to Be Entrepreneurial. The two of us persuaded George Mackay that what the school really needed was a Stamp Club.

And thus it was. Did our embryo KES Stamp Club arrange erudite lectures on the plate numbers of penny reds? No. Did it organise visits to view famous stamp collections like that at the National Postal Museum in St Martins le Grand? No. Did it, in fact, do anything philatelic at all? Certainly not.

What it did was organise Stamp Auctions in the Biology Lab. This suited George Mackay, Phil Matthews (himself a future chemistry postmaster at Merton College, Oxford) and Chris Meakin down to the ground. All three of us, and a few others in the know, had surplus stamps to dispose of. George being a rich adult collector had the best surplus material of any, so we made damn sure his desirable lots were displayed at the far end of the Biology Lab bench when everyone else, save us, had already spent all their money.

I think there were three or four such auctions until Nat Clapton got wind of it. Then they suddenly ceased. KES did not really go in for entrepreneurialism, except by accident. In the wise words of Phil Hetherington (yet another future chemistry scholar of The Queen's College, Oxford) many years afterwards "Clapton turned out Brahmin".

Spot on. Clapton manufactured top civil servants and ambassadors and schoolteachers and management consultants and university dons and every kind of professional by the truckload, but rarely a millionaire. Unlike, say, Eton. One can only speculate what Jock Mackay might have achieved in that broad field as well, had Nat Clapton only let him have his way.

Peter T Barwich (KES 60-66) adds:

Three things stick in the memory which are not mentioned in Chris Meakin's appreciation.

Jock had idiosyncratic teaching methods. Round about Christmas in our A level year (65 I guess) we (his chemistry set) had a meeting. One of us had got hold of the official syllabus for the course, and it appeared that Jock was not just departing from it, but that he had never seen it. We decided to give him a small Christmas gift. Since our raison d'etre was education, we presented him, with some ceremony, with a copy of said syllabus. From that day until the end of the course he asked that we tell him every lesson what we wanted to learn about. Every lesson. Once told he let rip, and most of us got good grades.

Something has been said of Jock's photography habit, but little of what he photographed. He photographed boot scrapers as I recall, almost exclusively. Some had brushes, some bars. Some were set into walls, some were free standing. You name it, he'd photographed it. With Jock's skill at imparting knowledge I dare say most of us could have got a good A level in boot scrapers had we been able to.

Little has been said about Jock's reason for leaving. It was about the time that Russell Sharrock started to comprehensivise the school in line with the People's Republic of South Yorkshire's avowed policy. I remember Jock on local radio vehemently and effectively condemning comprehensivisation as "a political experiment, not an educational one". He was dead right.

David Cook (KES 56-63) adds:

Lack of appreciation of the syllabus did not apply to all of the science staff. Though Charlie Hall [WCH] was a Sheffield Chemistry graduate, he came to the school in 1960 to teach Physics, and taught our group for 2 years to Physics A level. (He then moved to Chemistry and took us in the 'second year sixth' for Chemistry - in effect the third year of A level studies.)

He commented one day he had to find out about 'Mariotte's Bottle.' It was in the syllabus specifically, but he had no idea what it was. He returned the next week, to give us no more than a 5 minute resumé of what it was, building on our previous work on hydrostatic pressure. He explained that it was something he knew about all the time, and had frequently used the technique. He just didn't know it was called 'Mariotte's Bottle.'

Charlie Hall was a first class teacher.