Reminiscences of C.O. Mackley

P.G. Smith [1946–1951] writes:

I do not know whether he had a nickname since I never had any academic contact; with him. However, I did have a sporting contact, which occurred in the following way: upon reaching the fifth form, on several occasions, I received an ‘invitation’ to make up a four to play a few games of Fives after school.

The other three were Messrs Mackley, Swale and Norman ‘Larry’ Gain. I was extremely flattered to be so treated as an equal, and completely overlooked that my invitation, in lieu of Whisky Haigh and Archy Littlefair both of whom were several classes better players, was simply to run for the ball which was shot out frequently. This was prior to the time when Harry Birchall had the Courts blanked off thus making the game non-spectator.

Now anyone who has any experience of playing or even watching the game of Fives will know that, when a player plays a bad shot or worse misses entirely, often he will make a comment. Indeed, some players have been known to make very fruity comments. The other members of our four fell into this category, though I hasten to add not the fruity one, but C.O.M. had a unique way of commenting, letting off steam by bellowing — and no other word will do — Quelle dommage! Some Old Heathens may have to hunt for the French dictionary; so to save the trouble it means ‘what a pity.’

John Fletcher [1936–1943] writes

... a few more memories of Mr C O Mackley.

  1. Playing ‘a drunken blacksmith’ in the HS Dramatic Society’s production of Til Eugenspiegel (circa 1935).
  2. Visiting pupils’ homes with a large suitcase to collect unreturned school library books.
  3. Introducing my wife to someone as ‘a pupil-in-law of mine.’
  4. Writing in one of my reports ‘An educated man does not despise knowledge that he does not possess.’ What had I said to deserve this?

Stimulated by Wallace Brown, David Bottomley, and Major D.S. Entwistle’s reminiscences about C.O. Mackley in the last two issues of the newsletter, several of this year’s contributors have supplied further anecdotes of that unforgettable gentleman. Speculation has run riot concerning both his Christian name and sobriquet.

As to the former, opinion has been divided between Cecil Owen and Cecil Oliver. We have, however, received two pieces of proof definitive; one, courtesy of Roy Crossly, who sent a photocopy of the Courier obituary of 1961, the other, two books from the library of Mr Mackley, ‘acquired’ by the editor [Rod Eastwood] at the time of the amalgamation, when the school library was mercilessly dismantled. The bookplates inside these volumes, confirming the obituary, state: ‘Ex libris Cecil Owen Mackley, M.A. Sometime Scholar of St. John’s College, Oxford.’

John Fletcher has added a few biographical details. Before coming to Heath, C.O.M. taught at Kingswood School, a Methodist boarding school on the outskirts of Bath. For several years around 1980, when the Heath School choir sang as a locum choir in Bath Abbey, where an old Heathen, Dudley Holroyd, was at that time organist and choirmaster, the boys and their supporters stayed at Kingswood. John says he learned of the connection from Alec Dakin [1927–34] of Bath, who himself taught at Kingswood for many years. He adds that,

Some time ago Alec Dakin, an Oxford Scholar, disclosed via a book Codebreakers (Eds Hinsley and Stripp, 1993) that, as a specialist in ancient languages, he was recruited to Bletchley Park in WWII.

To return to C.O.M., Michael Butler writes,

As far as I know, he had no nickname at Heath — not in my time, anyway. He confessed himself somewhat puzzled about this and added that at his first school after he came down from Oxford, the boys called him ‘Cow’ because of the way he scribbled his initials.

Michael adds that,

Perhaps he was too formidable a figure to attract a nickname. Through kind-hearted and devoted to his pupils, he was not one to be trifled with.

Others have mentioned ‘Rev.’ and ‘Preacher Bill’ as nicknames. The editor, though, never recalls Mr Mackley being referred to as anything but ‘C.O.M.’

The late Geoffrey Morley wrote to say that,

I had a special affection for him — he opened a bottle of red wine when I returned from the war and tried again when he visited my rooms in Christ Church — very liberal for a strong-minded nonconformist!

The editor was a member of Mr Mackley’s last ‘A’ level history set in 1960. At the start of the year, C.O.M. was indisposed and had to be absent for several weeks. He was replaced by Chris Hookway, a brilliant young man straight from Oxford, who looked younger than many of us. Mr Hookway, decades in advance of his time, started us on themes from the Tudor period, which seemed to be his speciality. We were a large and unruly set in the library. However, upon C.O.M.’s return, two things happened. First, about a third of the set, the less academic brethren, disappeared without trace, virtually overnight, never to be seen again - liquidated, apparently. An impressive show of power!

Second, C.O.M. started the course again and talked us through English and European history from 1485 to 1939 only pausing for questions in the final minutes of each lesson. Although he carried a file of notes, he hardly ever seemed to consult it - nor did he ever dictate notes or use a board — there wasn't one in the history room in the School House. This training in guided self-reliance turned out to be the perfect preparation for University.

To conclude, the editor is surprised that no contributors have mentioned C.O.M.’s voice, which may have played a large part in his charisma. In the editor’s day, certainly it had become a remarkable and flexible organ, with sonorous, long-drawn out vowels, so that a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ could be drawn out for several seconds. We all had our C.O.M. impressions, though never in his presence, of course!