Bert Towers was born on 20 May 1914 and educated at Magdalen College School, Oxford. There he won a history exhibition to Keble College, Oxford, which he entered in October 1932, aged 18. He collected a second in history in 1935, then went on to collect a second in geography in 1937, eventually becoming an MA of the university in 1946. At Keble he rowed in the college's first VIII in 1933 and 1934, and was president of the College dining society, Tenmantale, in 1935. By any standards that must have been one of the best careers of any undergraduate through Keble for many years.
R N Towers in May 1963
Bert Towers served in the Royal Navy during the war, as a young officer on destroyers. Many generations of boys at KES were regaled with his war stories, but let no-one underestimate the sheer hardship of escorting the Murmansk convoys, one of the toughest jobs the Navy had to offer. Well might Lieutenant Towers remember having been sent out with an ice pick in a gale to chip off the ice which was rapidly accumulating on the superstructure of his ship: there was a real chance she would turn turtle if he and his shipmates failed.
There was even an inkling of physics in his teaching too. "The Officers' Mess sent me out with a boat hook and told me to shove the ship, all several thousand tons of her, on my own, a little further off the jetty. You might well think they were taking the mickey but it is a fact of physics that if you push hard enough and long enough, even a whole destroyer will begin to shift. She eventually did." Clearly those years spent heaving an oar for the honour of Keble College Boat Club had not been spent entirely in vain.
Bert Towers taught geography from his beloved epidiascope, permanently and prominently installed in the centre of Room 27. He not only possessed an unparalleled collection of text books, but knew them all and their many illustrations off by heart. It was a fully-operational Random Access Memory, hard at work when Bill Gates was still in diapers, and Intel was yet unheard of.
Most of his lessons were conducted with black blinds drawn and the lights out. Many boys took this as an excuse to entertain themselves and ignore his teaching, but I happily admit that what Bert said as he rabbited on about his pictures on screen fascinated me. It was far and away the easiest way of learning I have ever encountered. You were listening to an alpha mind, fully illustrated, complete with geographical and historical insights to put most university dons in the shade.
A change in the A level syllabus for 1959-61 threw him completely. Until then he had always managed to meet the requirements of the examiners in regional geography by teaching just Western Europe and North America, and nothing else - but they eventually caught him at it. Suddenly the Oxford and Cambridge examiners required a different combination of regions, so we, and Bert, had to learn all about South America instead.
Where RNT had previously been able to chunter on about the mid-west, or California or the Great Lakes on autopilot, now he had to learn and teach something entirely unfamiliar. It was a voyage of discovery. Senior geography master and sixth-formers alike explored an entire new continent together. Despite the novelty of it all I still managed to get my highest mark, well over distinction level, in that regional geography paper. Come July 1961, that particular "S" level paper was an absolute breeze. Physical geography, on the other hand, as taught less expertly by his assistant Rhodes was anything but. Oops, there was another distinction missed.
Bert bunged me off to Keble nevertheless, as he systematically nominated one KES geographer each year. Technically speaking the geography scholarship at Keble was open to schools all over the country, except Peter Cave (KES) won it in 1960, Tony Kelham (KES) won it in 1961, Chris Meakin (KES) won a place in 1962 and John Kirkman (KES) won a place in 1963. Hmmm. Such was the respect it commanded with his old college's geography fellow Charlie Smith, Bert Tower's KES writ at Keble was the Oxford University equivalent of a Safe Seat. Bert had his own way of stacking the pack: those same four boys also took seven KES sixth form prizes in geography from 1959 to 1962.
I last saw Bert Towers in late 1978. A friend of Russ Sharrock's at Sheffield Polytechnic called Geoff Wood (if my memory serves me right) had somehow spotted I had lately become a Director of the Confederation of British Industry. I was all of 34 at the time but apparently this was judged old enough to dish out the KES Speech Day Prizes at the City Hall; a sad case, I suspect, of a barrel being well and truly scraped.
A good friend from my national Chambers of Commerce days, Stan Speight, former President of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, had just been made Master Cutler. So with Stan riding shotgun for me, I did the Speech Bit to an audience of 2,000 invisible parents, out there somewhere in the gloaming of the City Hall. My wife Angela then handed out all the books. Mrs Mingay, mother of Bob and David (he who had acted the title role in St Joan so brilliantly in 1959) was chairman of the governors. Those Mingays get everywhere; little sister Helen Mingay worked on the staff of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry when I was upstairs at the Association of British Chambers of Commerce. At the same time David Senior, also KES and Keble College Oxford, was doing the exactly similar policy job at the LCCI that I was then doing at the ABCC. Piccolo mondo, as they apparently say in Mafia circles.
No Latin Address of Welcome at Speech Day in 1978, of course, but there was a bit of a knees-up afterwards and Bert Towers was there. He had a long chat to my mother, just four weeks his senior, rather than with me. They could both talk the Sheffield schoolteacher talk ad infinitum, she having lately retired from the staff of Ecclesall Infants and become a governor of High Storrs. I gathered afterwards Bert was delighted that one of his lads had put all the teaching from Room 27 to good use. And I hope now, peering with his eternal epidiascope from somewhere in the heavens, he would approve of what I do next: with a bit of luck editing a monthly magazine on, wait for it, travel. Yet more unreconstructed Bert Towers of course. I am branded for life, and all the better for it.
[By Philip Robinson, KES 59-66, June 2004]
Having enjoyed reading Chris Meakin’s piece about Bert Towers, I thought I would add a few recollections of my own.
Bert would never have remembered me. I gave up geography at 13 in favour of technical drawing, but in retrospect I should have kept it up - if only because it would have allowed me to enjoy more of Bert’s lessons. I well remember a few of his favourite phrases - he would often end a sentence with the words “…do you follow?” and of course, he always gave us “prep” rather than homework. During lessons he would often give the impression that his mind was elsewhere, and after giving us some written work to do, would sit at his desk, deep in thought, no doubt pondering some enigmatic point. He always had the air of a true academic, a man who might have been an Oxford don, occupying an oak-panelled study in an ivy-mantled building off the quad. He would tutor his undergraduates in a caring, paternal way, treat them to the occasional cup of Earl Grey tea with shortbread biscuits, and break off to watch the first VIII practising on the Thames.
In my first year at K.E.S. (1959-60) I had Bert for both history and geography. It was not widely known at the school that Bert was an accomplished historian, but he taught history in the same rather idiosyncratic but nevertheless effective way in which he taught geography. His vivid account of the Norman conquest and its place in history, and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket - “… it’s all right for you people, you are used to horrors, but imagine the effect it had in 12th century England…” - have remained with me.
Chris mentioned Bert’s “beloved epidiascope”. I remember him proudly showing us this technical marvel during our first geography lesson. Hardly did a lesson go by without Bert finding some excuse to switch it on and demonstrate some geophysical or cartographic point with the help of an illustration from one of his weighty tomes, using the “epi” feature of the scope. Some of these works of literature had been relegated to the role of supporting the huge machine and directing its beam. I remember the title of the one at the front left-hand corner - it was “Thrice Through the Dark Continent”. Thanks to abebooks.com I learned that this book, by “the Dutch Reformed Church minister and noted early African traveller J. Du Plessis”, is a record of travels across Africa during the years 1913-16, and a copy is available, complete with “author’s unsigned dedication on front end-paper” from a Brighton bookshop for Ł65. I am almost tempted…
Earthquakes. No - not what happened when Dusty Rhodes lost his temper, but actual earthquakes. On one occasion, Bert wanted to give us some idea of the amount of energy involved in the movement of landmasses in a severe earthquake. Perhaps he succeeded, to judge from the fact that, 45 years on, I can remember exactly what he did. He took out a box of matches and stroked a match gently against the sandpaper on the side of the box. He asked a boy in the farthest corner of the room if he could hear the sound made by the match, which he could. Bert then asked us to imagine just the sheer noise of the earth moving. We were, of course, suitably impressed.
Bert died aged 83 in November 1997, having moved to Devon. I quite agree with Chris that his epidiascope will be with him in the Great Beyond - he could never survive a week without it, let alone eternity.
[By Giles Orton, KES 70-77, Jan 2006]
The appended letter from "Bert" Towers says much about the man and I trust will strike chords with others whom he taught.
By way of background I was at KES from 1970 (the second comprehensive intake) until 1977. In my final year I was Head Prefect and departed with a Hastings Exhibition to The Queen's College, Oxford. During my time at KES I was involved in chess and cross country. This meant that even though the first three years were spent in the dreadful buildings (now demolished) at the Crosspool site, I had a lot of contact with boys from the grammar school intakes and masters who had known KES as a great grammar school and still expected us to aim for the same standards.
Foremost of these was "Bert" Towers. I could talk of other teachers who probably had a much greater impact on me in matters academic, sporting and otherwise. In geography under Bert I had relatively modest success, but I retain a great affection for him. I particularly recall his departures onto other subjects dear to his heart, the pride he had in school and country and frustrations expressed in very politically incorrect terms as to what the politicians were doing to his beloved school, or their failure to send in the Royal Marines to sort out Northern Ireland in 48 hours.
I wrote to him in the summer of 1979 on the occasion of his retirement; here is his response.
34 Wilson Road
Sheffield S11 8RN
Very kind of you to write. If they were all like you I could go on for years, had it been allowable, but the hoodlum element are so exhausting & the frustration they cause is past belief!
You, like me, are blessed. We've had the finest education in the world and can never be bored & I will not be. I have loved Oxford, always, for I was a boy at school there too, at the MCS [Magdalen College School] & for me there was never any other loyalty. Nor were they then the idle rich and they went willingly to war & many of those who survived are now in positions of power and influence - the Bishop of Peterborough was my closest friend & another, Raynor, is a Fellow of the Royal Society & a metallurgist of European repute. I rowed & played rugger with the Deans of Ely & Lichfield, & this one small part of one year of a college [Keble] not then in the front rank.
What I do regret is the passing of a great heritage of games - I never thought to see an Oxford XV beaten 70 - 0. Half the England team that beat the All Blacks in 1936 was of current O & C blues. I played against Univ in the Cuppers semi-final of 1936 - they had five internationals in their team including the captains of Wales & Scotland. The dons have a lot to answer for. My nephew rowed as a freshman in the Isis crew & after the Boat Race was ordered to stop!
I was amused that at least you remembered the rowing lesson even if the Geog is long in limbo. I have often been accused of irrelevance but at least it helps to get a hold on the kids & that is half the battle. It is strange how many you grow to love & there were times last week when I was near to cry-cry. I think it is a time of hope. Five or six years ago I was disgusted by so much - the flour bomb, the mindless wrecking & vile graffiti, in the 6th Form Common Room & worst shock of all the Prefects room itself. With your P & Q forms there was such a change for the better & it seems to be gathering momentum.
I see little change in the lower streams though, indeed the CSE fifths this year have been appalling. I still think the whole principle is wrong & born by class war out of envy. It has always angered me that youngsters like you, & even more the girls, should have to pick your way through vileness. Youngsters conform & for uplift to come from mixing the good must far outnumber the bad. MCS was a direct grant & the mix was 3 to 1. It DID change our lives.
In this present system all depends on having caring parents. As you say, KES was a great school & it is still perhaps the best comprehensive. I don't think education will ever recover though until discipline is brought back. "Learning" is a crime & yet in reality kids enjoy it.
Latin verbs are great fun if you've been conditioned to work and the "curiosity" the new methods were supposed to bring ends up in practice with "It's boring". Indeed the whole Philosophy of the Left is based on a fallacy that "man is born good". It is all this that made me send my own son to Blundell's. He has not played for its 1st XV or 1st XI but he has learned that duties come before rights &, in a sense, to "Fear God & Honour the King" - all the things that are laughed at.
Sometimes I think that I have been lucky. I have seen England when it was still "a green and pleasant land" and when the derided "middle class values" still prevailed & I have seen "its finest hour". We, in our day, would argue with our parents but we never tried to destroy the system like the young of the late sixties did. Perhaps your generation & the ones who come after can bring it back.
Anyway - good luck to you, & once more thank you to you and your family for their wishes.