F. A. Lepper

Oxford ancient history don who was a link with a more gracious age
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Communities rely for their strength and vitality on a few men or women in each generation who devote themselves unselfishly to them. F. A. Lepper, a Fellow for more than 40 years of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was unusual. Most men who are as much a part of Oxford as he was tend to stay there, but Lepper became the beloved centre of a second community: the tangle of villages and hamlets in a blissfully bypassed triangle of inland Cornwall, where the names create their own nostalgic music - Nanstallon and Rosenannon, Ruthven Bridge, St Wenn and Trewollack.

It was Frank Lepper of Trewollack whom we followed to his (and his wife Elisabeth's) grave on a brilliantly sunny late September afternoon. The fact that St Wenn Church (where Lepper had been a churchwarden for almost 40 years) was overflowing with his neighbours and friends - Cornish whiskers and London bowlers - is testimony enough to his remarkable gift for friendship. He was a man totally without pretension and his friends loved him for it. Yet he had no Cornish forebears: his roots (and Elisabeth's) lay in Northern Ireland.

Lepper's family roots were tangled too. He was born Francis Alfred Lepper in Oxford in 1913. He loved Ulster, but as a family holiday place - he sold his uncle Robert's large loughside house in 1953. His own early years were spent in Shropshire and he went to prep school there. His father, a Church of Ireland priest, died when Frank was seven, so he went to Marlborough on a Foundation Scholarship (for sons of clergy).

Years later, as Senior Fellow of Corpus, he spoke in chapel about his Marlborough years. There was an authentically Lepperian blend of instruction and anecdote. We learnt that the greatest influence on him was A.R. Gidney. He told two stories: one, that Gidney's life had changed when he saw a vision of an angel on Oxford station which said, "Gidney, put away childish things!" (What would Freud have made of that?) Second, how Gidney would invite senior boys to tea in fours and lay out a plate of currant buns with the invitation: "Tuck in, chaps, one each!" Each story ended with the refrain ". . . and Gidney was a Corpus man!"

I once gave Lepper a photocopy of the Marlborough pages of Louis MacNeice's 1965 autobiography, The Strings Are False. They came back annotated with the names and additional notes on every master mentioned.

From Marlborough, Lepper went up to New College in 1932, to read Literae Humaniores, Classics. He never spoke about his Mods tutor, but it must have been E.C. Yorke. He gained a First but his real enthusiasm was for ancient history, taught by Christopher Cox. When Cox was seconded to Sudan, Lepper took on his Greats teaching until, by a strange succession (Alan Blakeway and R.L. Beaumont both died untimely), he became Fellow (1939) and Tutor (1949) of Corpus.

It was in 1939 that he met, wooed and married Elisabeth Crichton, from Northern Ireland. It proved a wonderful partnership, which lasted 55 years. Elisabeth's sense of fun matched Frank's, even when his anecdote or fantasy went too far and she would murmur (to the delight of his pupils, who adopted it as a sobriquet), "Steady, Lepper!"

Lepper's Second World War was, like his roots, tangled. He joined up as a private in the Gloucesters, gained a commission in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and, unsurprisingly, was seconded to Bletchley Park. It was typical of Lepper's integrity that he claimed, having signed the Official Secrets Act in 1941, that he had never been released from his compulsion to silence. Only in 1980, when his son was watching a television documentary on SOE, a map of Yugoslavia was shown and instantly recognised as being in his father's hand.

That son - Patrick - was born during the war. The daughter, Veronica, soon followed. A settled family life ensued, first in Kybald Twychen and then in the beautiful pink house 3 Merton Street (now the President of Corpus's lodgings).

Lepper was, for most of us, the archetypal college tutor. At a time when traditions were weakening, he represented a link with another, more gracious age. He was, for instance, a trustee of the chalet - the Alpine retreat of "Sligger" Urquhart's parents which had become in the 1920s a setting for reading parties for Balliol and New College men. Almost alone of the Fellows of Corpus, Lepper attended Sunday chapel and dined regularly in Hall. It is good to know that the fruit trees the college choir gave him on his retirement in 1980 flourish still at Trewollack.

Nobody who was taught ancient history by Lepper (save the occasional intolerant and rebarbative Wykehamist) could question his skill as a tutor. Ancient history at school had been about learning facts. Lepper taught that facts were slippery things, things which needed qualification and interpretation; he also showed us that learning was about weighing evidence, assessing probability, expressing a partial truth elegantly, seeing the other side.

There were those (like some of the Wykehamists) who pooh-poohed this practical approach: more fool they! In Lepper's richly furnished rooms, under the ancestral portraits, and aided by college sherry, the study of the ancient world became an intellectual adventure. Hypotheses had to be defended; evidence tabulated; ideas crisply and precisely ordered. (His own writing was exemplary.) Lepper was a natural as a lecturer. He knew that lectures had to contain material not found in books (otherwise, as he said, men at any rate would not attend). So he unravelled problems: the dies imperii of Tiberius; the reconstruction of Roman policy on the Danube from the epitomes of Cassius Dio; the chronology of Agricola's commands.

From 1945 to 1980, Lepper held virtually every college office save that of President, although many would have welcomed his election in 1969 or 1976. It was clear, however, that he was the senior member who kept things going, as Dean, Senior Tutor and Vice-President. Many undergraduates knew him through his teaching: Corpus is the smallest Oxford college but had the largest concentration of Mods and Greats candidates - 12 a year over the four years of the course in the Seventies - which thus formed a sizeable percentage of the undergraduate body. Others knew him from chapel, Hall . . . or discipline. As Dean in the Fifties, he was burnt in effigy, perhaps for the dastardly subterfuge of hiding (it is alleged) in a dustbin in Thomas Quad to catch malefactors climbing into college.

Lepper maintained traditional standards and was loved for doing so. Surnames, naturally; gowns at tutorials - even in 1980. He was generally immaculate in a suit of heavy Irish tweed in winter and a don's linen coat and grey flannels in summer. Corpus legend told how his thickest suit (of an improbable blue-green) had stood at the foot of the Dean's bed, ready to be stepped into, like an RAF flying suit, when nocturnal decanal business beckoned.

For all his style, Lepper was essentially a humble man. Best of all, he knew when he was not going to get the best out of a pupil. The Wykehamist Jonathan Powell (CCC 1975-79) had such an experience. Lepper fell asleep as Powell read a long essay on the reforms of Cleisthenes. On waking, he delivered himself of the immortal words: "Look, Powell, it's no good; you're bored and I'm bored. I'm going to send you to someone who won't be bored by your Wykehamical notions." Powell was taught Greek history by G.L. Cawkwell of Univ, got his First and is now Professor of Latin at Royal Holloway.

If Greats really is what it claims to be, the best training for the mind, then it is tutors like Lepper who sustain that claim. True, we leapt (for Lepper) from crux to crux, like classical chamois, because we were expected to fill in the context in the vacation. Very few of us completed the Lepperian challenge of compiling a complete card index to Herodotus in the first long vacation of Greats. (Corpus legend had it that the only man to do so only got a Second.)

Lepper wrote little but his writing has stood the test of time. Trajan's Parthian War (1948) remains seminal for any study of frontier policy. Trajan's Column (with Sheppard Frere, 1988) provides the best commentary on the scenes of the column, and skilfully relates a complex monument to the campaign it commemorates. In these days of narrower and narrower specialisation, let it be remembered that Lepper's article "Some Rubrics in the Athenian Quota Lists" (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1962) broke new ground 10 years before Russell Meiggs's The Athenian Empire.

But Lepper's writing was not confined to classical books and journals. In 1967, for the college's 450th anniversary, he wrote for the Owlets a play (The Bees) which blends Aristophanes, college history and contemporary issues. The play was published very handsomely by Oxford University Press and Lepper even persuaded the great Eduard Fraenkel to take part. Another tour de force was his review (in the college journal, The Pelican, for 1954) of the Oxford telephone directory.

In the early 1960s, Frank and Elisabeth saw, fell in love with and bought Trewollack House. Elisabeth's taste and Frank's practical skills created one of the loveliest small country houses in England and some of us were privileged to spend an annual week with them. It was a revelation to see Oxford's foremost Roman history tutor driving a small tractor at great speed up "the policies" (he loved that term), a Princeton baseball cap clamped to his silver locks. It was a revelation to learn that Elisabeth "wasn't very good at early mornings", so breakfast was cooked by Frank disguised as the irascible Mrs Macpherson, who was said to appear on her tricycle from St Columb to fry the bacon and "crowtons" for the slumbering guests.

After Elisabeth's death in 1994, Frank did - by his own admission - hit the bottle and came near to death. But he came through it and (in fine Lepperian form) assured me: "Look, Smail, I nearly drank my life away. Too much whisky, so the quack's banned it. I'm afraid it's only cider and sherry now . . . except I've found this new drink - virtually non-alcoholic - it's called . . . vermouth!" So we drank half a pint of Martini before dinner each day.

Lepper taught himself to cook. Not being a man of compromise, he started with marmalade and fish pie (although he didn't serve them together). Both proved immediately successful, although I was at first baffled by the marmalade classification: *, ß and *. "Nothing to do with the quality, Smail, it's a measure of the VISCOSITY!"

He was always a very practical man, a good draughtsman and artist, skilled at designing toys and games for his children. He was also fiercely independent: despite the onset of dementia in his last years, nothing was going to stop him dying at his beloved Trewollack.