Dom Philip Jebb: Monk who became a leading figure in the Benedictine order and was a perceptive counsellor to lay people


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Dom Philip Jebb was a leading figure in the Benedictine order of monks, as a teacher, archivist, a perceptive counsellor to lay people and religious alike, and a respected headmaster of Downside Abbey, in Somerset.

Jebb took the helm at Downside at a fractious moment for one of Britain's longest-established Catholic public schools. It was a time of pupil disturbances, with "flash mob" events such as a mass midnight demonstration in the main courtyard to demand better school food.

Jebb re-established order by showing himself a strict but fair disciplinarian, and earned a reputation for having a near-psychic feel for where and when trouble was brewing. Even, it was said, an ability to bilocate. This personal myth, his evident self-discipline, and a fair, statesman-like approach to his pupils, combined to get the school back on an even keel.

Jebb was of average height, but had penetrating eyes and an imposing physical presence. He spoke, and preached, with a soft, cooing tenor voice. And when something delighted him he would emit an expressive, sighing "Aaaaah", on a descending chromatic scale. But when order had to be imposed, his voice could take on a withering, steely tone.

To his confrères in the monastery he seemed an indefatigable man of action. He was a keen walker, fencer and canoeist (he once paddled the length of the Grand Union Canal), and he had revelled in the country around his childhood home in Sussex, collecting fossils and Roman pottery. He later collected postcards on a grand scale and made exquisite model clipper ships in a bottle from matchsticks and paper.

The timetable of a headmaster added to that of a monk, and providing counsel to the sick or dying, was taxing even to a man of Jebb's stamina. His solution was to take a nap each afternoon, learning to go instantly to sleep, and awaking refreshed 20 minutes later.

Anthony Jebb was born in 1932 at Spode House (now Hawkesyard Hall), near Armitage in Staffordshire, which his parents, Rex Jebb and Eleanor Belloc, had leased in 1928 from the Dominican Order, to run as a Catholic prep school. "Ant" Jebb was the second son and third child in a family of four children.

Their upbringing in a devout, high-minded household was as unworldly as could be, but each of them achieved a personal renown. The eldest, Marianne, became a nun, one of the Canonesses of St Augustine, of Our Lady's Priory, Haywards Heath, and a witty, much-loved headmistress of its girls' school. The eldest son, Philip ("Pip"), was one of the leading private-client architects in Britain, equally adept at creating new buildings and restoring old. The youngest, Julian, was an ubiquitous figure in the literary world in London, producer of imaginative arts documentaries for the BBC.

When Ant became a novice monk at Downside in 1950 he was asked to take the name Brother Philip. He demurred, given that he had an elder brother of the same name. But the novice master insisted that they were in need of a Philip, guaranteeing a lifetime of confusion for the whole family.

Rex Jebb was Ant's first model of what a teacher, and an exemplary Christian, could be. He was a classical scholar, softly spoken, with a well-populated mind, and had won the MC for gallantry during the Dardanelles campaign. He had owned a successful Anglican prep school, Aldwick, near Crowborough in Sussex. When he married the daughter of the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc in Westminster Cathedral in 1922, he remained in the Protestant faith of his birth. Eleanor Jebb was a strong-willed, mercurial figure, unburdened by exaggerated respect for the clergy. When Rex Jebb eventually became a Catholic himself he felt morally bound to give up the Anglican school and start a Catholic establishment.

After the Jebbs gave up the school at Hawkesyard in 1935, they moved to live with Belloc at King's Land, near Horsham, in West Sussex. Here there was a family chapel and a steady stream of visitors from the Catholic world, among them leading preachers and writers of the day.

After being schooled at home, Jebb went in 1942 to Worth, the preparatory school for Downside School, and to Downside proper in 1944. Like all his siblings, Jebb flowered intellectually in his early twenties. He studied Classics at Christ's College, Cambridge, and became a skilled solver of hidden meanings in Classical inscriptions, and latterly an accomplished historian, archivist for the Benedictine order and the driving force behind the building of the new monastic library at Downside. Jebb was devoted to his siblings, his nephews, nieces, Belloc cousins and the large wider family of Lucy Pollen, wife of his brother Pip. His golden jubilee as a priest in 2006 was celebrated by a large clan gathering at the monastery.

Jebb's vivid accounts of his own experience of religion made him an engaging preacher. And he was a willing public speaker outside the church – his proudest moment in the latter sphere was his address to the AGM of the Women's Institute in the Albert Hall.

One of his most intriguing subjects was his engagement with out-of-body experiences. He enjoyed walks at Downside, knowing that he could pause in the fields, and take himself out of his body, and back, at will. It was at these times of religious ecstasy – standing outside himself – that he felt close to great good but also to great evil. One day he went out as usual and lay down to pray. As he looked back at his body he realised with horror that he could not get back in, and he saw his body growing colder on the hillside. He eventually got back in, but never sought an out-of-body experience again.

Jebb felt he learnt enormously from working with the sick (he took groups to Lourdes as a chaplain to the Order of Malta). And he would visit or telephone his ailing charges not once but regularly. He was as constant and dogged as a counsellor as he was as a schoolmaster, walker or archivist. When helping a dying parishioner, he told her of having once received an unforgettable premonition of heaven, something still so vivid that he wished he could change places with her. It was an offer powerful in the extreme for its recipient both because it was so surprising, and because he meant it.

Anthony Jebb, monk and teacher: born Hawkesyard, Staffordshire 14 August 1932; monk of Downside Abbey, as Dom Philip Jebb, 1950-2014; Head Master, Downside School 1980-91; died Bath 8 June 2014.