Retro: Sheffield's dedicated real-life 'Mr Chips'

Inspirational Sheffield teacher E F Watling
Inspirational Sheffield teacher E F Watling
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King Edward VII School master EF Watling was a real-life Mr Chips, although unlike the teacher in James Hilton’s novella he didn’t view Greek and Latin as dead languages but made them ‘breathe and speak’.

Edward Fairchild Watling taught classics at King Ted’s in Sheffield for 36 years until his retirement in 1960, partly because he was losing his hearing.

EFW was renowned for his translation work, especially of Greek and Latin comedies and tragedies, and specifically for Penguin Classics.

As W, he was a regular reviewer of both books and theatre for the Sheffield Telegraph, and, as Marcus, he went on compiling erudite crosswords for The Listener until he was in his 70s.

Old boy David Cook recalls that he gave a hilarious speech on his retirement.

He said: “I remember particularly his story claiming to be the only teacher on King Edward’s staff who had taken the cricket team to Worksop in a pony and trap, a remarkable achievement even for someone retiring in 1960.”

Old boys Peter Arculus and Peter Hetherington wrote the great man’s obituary for the Independent in September 1990, when he died aged 90.

The obituary is reproduced on the Old Edwardians website.

They said: “In that period, the school was – along with Manchester and Bradford – one of the three great northern grammar schools which rivalled the major public schools in their academic distinction, not least in the excellence of their Classics departments.

“Many Oxbridge scholars and exhibitioners will remember EFW with gratitude and affection: as a teacher he had that rarest of gifts – the creative imagination to make ancient learning breathe and speak.

“Educated at Christ’s Hospital and University College, Oxford, Watling was a cultured schoolmaster of a now vanishing breed – an amateur and a gentleman in the finest sense of those words.

“As a young man he was a leading member, both as actor and producer, of the Sheffield Playgoers, which in his time was the principal amateur dramatic society in the city. Later, when there was still a place for the first-class amateur in the professional theatre, he appeared in Geoffrey Ost’s productions at the Sheffield Playhouse.

“With his tall and slim figure, his splendidly resonant voice, his mobile and expressive features, and an impeccable sense of timing his every performance was stylish and memorable, not least his vignettes as Fairy Queen and short-trousered schoolboy in staff pantomime and revue.

“In the late Twenties and early Thirties he wrote sketches for the West End revues of André CharIot, to which Coward and Novello, among others, contributed.

“To younger colleagues EFW seemed an Olympian figure, observing the world, from his considerable height, with a shrewd but kindly detachment, and letting fall from time to time a considered judgement that was invariably pithy, amusing, and felicitously phrased.

“In the last months before his death, his thoughts constantly returned to the stage, as he relived characters and productions of his past.

“A man who played many parts, his life was memorable for its integrity and style.”

There was also a glowing tribute in the school magazine, of which he was editor for many years, when he retired.

“Mr Watling came to KES in September, 1924, and has been an outstanding member of the Classics staff ever since.

“For many years he has been editor of the school magazine; he was housemaster of Haddon; for as long as one can remember has been an impressive figure on the platform at speech day, announcing the prizewinners’ names, and he frequently wrote the Latin address of welcome to the distinguished visitor.

“To the academic world he is known for his translations, and particularly as a member of that select circle whose work is published in the Penguin Classics.

“The passing in his childhood of an astonishing 5+ examination of a standard which would shake many an A level candidate nowadays, led to the compiling of erudite crossword puzzles for The Listener, and the solving of those found in the Times, the Guardian and the Observer.

“He enjoys with relish, and reviews with penetration for the local press, productions at the Lyceum and the Playhouse; he regularly contributes book reviews; he has written comic verse, dramatic sketches, and, with a former music colleague, a short academic musical.

“He is a master of the cryptic spoken word and of the written felicitous phrase, and as a colleague he has enlivened us with his pithy comments upon educational administration and upon pretentiousness. His aloof, detached manner covers a shrewd, embracing mind and a humorous and kindly personality.”