09 April 2009

Obituary of George Pierce

GEORGE PIERCE [1923-1974] died on 8th August 1993. The following tribute was paid by Peter May on Wednesday 18th August at George’s funeral in the St Paul’s Church, Weeke, Winchester.
“It is a great honour for me to be asked to pay this tribute to such a remarkably talented man as George. All of us here feel a profound sense of loss at his passing; none more so than Ruth and Jane and their families and Alan, his brother. So also must Tim be feeling at the far side of the world in New Zealand.
George’s death leads us all to reflect on the qualities which he so eminently exhibited as father, grandfather, friend and colleague. As Ruth and Jane have remarked, he was a man who loved his fellow men, just as he loved a good chat, a pipe and a pint. His good humour and generosity of spirit were always apparent, as was his sense of duty.
George Pierce was born in 1908, when his father was headmaster of Owslebury Church of England School. From there he went to High Wycombe to live with his grandparents and was for a time at the Royal Grammar School there. But in 1923 he came back to Owslebury and entered his true and lasting inheritance when he came to Peter Symonds’ School. He went on to King Alfred’s College [or Winchester training College as it was then called] in 1928 and emerged with distinctions, fully fledged as a schoolmaster in 1930. By 1933 he was back on the school staff where he used his learning and his great abilities as a games player in the encouragement of countless generations of Symondians. He remained there for the rest of his working life until his retirement in 1974, except for that memorable period during World war Two when he served as physical fitness officer at RAF Scampton to 617 Squadron, the ‘Dambusters’. Many were the tales George could tell of those days.
There were sadnesses in his family life in the period after the war and George was left to bring up his young family, not entirely by himself but with the support of his aging parents, whom he in turn was to support through their declining years in Hatherley Road. It was through the back garden gate that he went to work over all those years; in the springtime seeing whether his left arm would still ‘go over’ in the various cricket games to be found on the school field on his way.
Probably the most remarkable thing about George was the way in which his talents complemented one another. Two of the outstanding qualities he had were, on the one hand, his profound knowledge of natural history and, on the other, his great ability to write about nature and the countryside. He inherited much knowledge from his father but this only gave him a start. He built on this over his lifetime and became an outstanding naturalist whose learning was nowhere more apparent than in the classroom but also in the pages of the Hampshire Chronicle, the Hampshire Review, the Hampshire County Magazine and The Field. The illustrations were often the work of his old friend and colleague, Jack Northeast.
To these qualities were added his love of literature and poetry and what better way to illustrate this theme than some lines of Wordsworth, which he quoted in a Hampshire Chronicle article of April 22nd 1950 entitled ‘The Poet of Nature’. He was writing of the inspiration and driving force of nature in Wordsworth’s life but surely George was also writing about himself:
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart and soul of all my moral being.
This love of nature communicated itself both to his readers and pupils. His readers wrote appreciative letters to him personally and to his editors, while his pupils gained in enthusiasm and knowledge as they practised their ornithological skills and gardened in the school grounds. They worked on a fine rose bed outside Morys Room on which I chanced to compliment George one summer morning. ‘So it should be’ he said, ‘it’s been well composted…..there are a few dead boys under there!’
George had an extraordinary memory too. Not only could he quote Shakespeare and Housman by the yard [‘Three lines only, George, ‘ Eric Hammond used to say] but he could also recall the events and experiences of his youth as he showed in his articles in The Hampshire Magazine on ‘Village Life in Days Gone By’. These make entrancing reading . The connection between Housman and country life as evoked in ‘The Shropshire Lad’ struck a profound chord in George’s life and learning. He liked his pint, as I have said, and it comes as no surprise that he should often have quoted these lines:
Malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man
As a games player George’s interests were wide. He played Rugby well as he did fives and squash but above all else he loved cricket. He went on playing what was for him the greatest of games into his seventies. He served the Old Symondian Association as Sports secretary for well over a decade and raised many powerful sides against the school. He was largely instrumental in persuading the Canytes’ side, composed of young Old Symondians, to become the Old Symondian Club in the early 1950s and he himself played and toured with them for the best part of thirty years. He also played for MCC, St Cross, and for the Stoats as well as for Owslebury in his earlier years. It afforded great amusement to play for the Old Symondians at Owslebury on his 50t birthday in 1959, when his first ball was hit out of the ground for 6 by one of his village school contemporaries, who he maintained, had ‘cribbed the Lord’s Prayer from me’ in his time. ‘You can’t sink much lower than that’, he added. ‘Many happy returns, George ‘ said his old friend. Three balls later George had him caught. ‘And many happy returns to you too!’ was his comment, as he trapped yet another man beguiled by his craft in a long career of left arm spin. He was a good batsman too and an excellent close fielder.
Just as was the case in his love of nature, so did his love of cricket communicate itself to boys in his charge. His return to teach at Peter Symonds’ in 1947 marked the beginning of a fine period in Peter Symonds’ cricket as he took charge of the under 15 side, many of whom caught his enthusiasm and moved on to very successful playing careers.
So there developed the cycle of the schoolmaster’s life. In George’s case the cycle of nature’s year had its inevitable influence, but so too did the sporting seasons, the form mastering and the examinations. Extremely important to George was the RAF section of the CCF, the Arduous Training camps in the Lakes and the Peak District and the annual summer camps involving meeting Old Symondians serving in the RAF. On one such occasion great surprise was created when the instruction ‘Tell him Tom Pierce wants to see him’ induced the appearance of the extremely busy Paddy Hine, now Sir Patrick, who was commanding the demonstration squadron at the time. Another memory George always treasured was a visit one evening on his way back from watching Hampshire at Portsmouth, to see Brian Brown, now Sir Brian, who was serving on HMS Britannia.
In his retirement George continued to play cricket and bowls, to drink in the Wessex Hotel, in his favourite corner, with his lifelong friend Eric Hammond and more recently in the Roebuck each evening. Pub quizzes and crosswords in The Times and The Telegraph kept his mind active as did the quizzes he set his family and friends, and he continued to take his country walks and his trips to watch Hampshire play cricket. He and Eric always attended OS golf matches. It was with Eric he went on two world cruises. In the winter of 1974-5 this took in the England tour of Australia. A card from west Africa told me, inimitably, ‘We have met two widows and they are teaching us the cha-cha’. Triumphs for the Pierce/Hammond team in the shop’s quizzes were clearly inevitable.
No words of mine can really do justice to this remarkable and splendid man. We all have our memories of his warmth, his charm his impish and sometimes naughty wit. No man was a shrewder or more generous judge of his fellow humans. The news that he would be present at any gathering was welcome news indeed and every occasion that he graced was special for his presence. We thank God that we counted him a friend and none of us will ever forget the memory.

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