Michael Gover

Headmaster of the Dragon School and a guardian of its founding tradition

Michael Gover was universally known as "Guv". With Keith Ingram ("Inky"), he was co-headmaster of the Dragon School, Oxford for 17 years from 1972 to 1989, and an emblematic figure of one of the most successful and the most original educational institutions in Britain.

Michael William Annesley Gover, schoolmaster: born Ottery St Mary, Devon 5 July 1924; Headmaster, Dragon School, Oxford 1972-89; died Oxford 13 May 2005.

Michael Gover was universally known as "Guv". With Keith Ingram ("Inky"), he was co-headmaster of the Dragon School, Oxford for 17 years from 1972 to 1989, and an emblematic figure of one of the most successful and the most original educational institutions in Britain.

Guv and Inky were survivors of a tradition that reached back to the school's founders, C.C.Lynam, always called the Skipper, and his younger brother, A.E. Lynam, known as Hum. (The Skipper was so called because he sailed his yacht round the Hebrides every summer, Hum because he hummed tunelessly under his breath. Ever since, masters have been called by their nicknames.)

The tradition goes back to the school's origins as a prep school for the sons and - since 1904 - the daughters of Oxford dons. The very first she-Dragon was none other than the writer and socialist Naomi Mitchison. Her most famous successor is perhaps Lady Antonia Fraser, one of many Pakenhams to go to the school. One of the Dragon School's proudest boasts is the families who have sent 10 or 20 or, in at least one case, 50 members to the school over the generations.

It was founded in north Oxford in 1877, 18 years after Oxford dons were allowed to marry without losing their college fellowships. For the first hundred years or so, the Dragon School tradition was perhaps best defined as being the centre left of the British upper middle class, although no one there would dream of putting it that way. John Betjeman, John Mortimer, Hugh Gaitskell and Peter Jay all went there, as did Roger Norrington, Hugh Laurie, Rageh Omaar and Tim Henman. It defines itself in opposition to its respected North Oxford neighbour, Summerfields, where the boys (Dragons believe) brush their hair, have double-barrelled names and wear pink blazers.

It is the Dragon School ethos to be scruffy but effective. Dragons wear blue corduroy shorts and only wear ties on Sundays. (For many years they wore denim boiler suits over their shorts so as to be able to roll in the mud.) The atmosphere was and is cheerful and informal, with first names for pupils and nicknames for teachers. The general principle is that every child can be encouraged to find something he or she can do really well, but except for music, rugby and winning scholarships to Eton and Winchester, nothing is taken too seriously.

The Skipper, though, had strong, liberal views about education. He took the position, unusual in 1908, that boys should not be ashamed to kiss their parents in public. In a famous credo spoken in that year, he said the school would have failed unless it showed pupils "the falseness of all the gods of society, gold, sham religion and sham patriotism". The school would have failed, too, "unless we have helped the boy to develop his mind and his capacities in his own way".

Inky and Guv were perhaps the last guardians of this tradition, at once earnest and relaxed, in its late Victorian purity. Since their day, the fees, traditionally modest, have soared to the point that Oxford dons cannot afford to send their children there unless they have a rich wife, a private income or a best-seller under their belt.

The school has now 850 children, one-third of them girls, and is extremely well equipped in every way. Houses advertised as being within walking distance of the school now sell for an average of over £1m. On parents' days, not only Peter Jay and Jeremy Paxman, but investment bankers and the occasional Arsenal footballer can be spotted. Today's mums don't wear dirndl, and the car park is a concours d'élégance for 4x4s.

It was not like that in Michael Gover's day. He came from an era when most Dragons were the children of Oxford dons or (as in his case) country vicars. His own father held a number of livings in rural Devon, and was the curate of Ottery St Mary when Michael was born in 1924. He went on to the Lancashire public school, Rossall, and served with the Royal Artillery and the Devon Yeomanry in Malaya before going up to the Queen's College, Oxford, where he took what was described as a "schoolmaster's degree". He admitted to being relieved by the dropping of the atomic bombs, as he was due to take part in the invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Having replied in the affirmative when asked by Joc, Hum's son and the incumbent headmaster, whether he had considered schoolmastering, Gover was hired first as a "stooge", the Dragon term for a teaching assistant, and then as a master. For the next 40 years he taught Classics and History and coached the rugby XV to some legendary victories, though he also coached the cricket XI. His special pleasure was a laidback cricket team, the pre-puberty version of a beer team, called Snapdragons.

After he became co-headmaster with Inky, Guv undertook responsibility for the day boys. But that gives little idea of his involvement in the life of this extraordinary place. For 25 years he took parties of Dragons to Davos to learn to ski, and for many years he was the housemaster of the boarding house called Gunga Din. (Hum had a Victorian liberal imperialist's liking for the Kipling poem about a dying Hindu waterboy with its envoi, "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.") He conducted the affairs of the staff rooms like a more than decent gentlemen's club.

Guv never married, but contrived to live into the 1970s the life of an Edwardian bachelor uncle, with lots of golf, bridge, vintage wine, and regular visits to the races, especially at Goodwood every summer. Colleagues would sometimes wonder why Guv would say he had to be at a very important meeting in Gloucestershire, until they twigged it was Cheltenham Gold Cup day. He had a house he loved in Cornwall and played golf at St Enodoc.

He loved music and ran a music club where boys could come and listen to recorded Mozart or Sullivan on Sunday after church. He also found time to sing in the Oxford Bach choir, to play the viola and to sing a part once in a while in a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Trial by Jury.

He took an active part in the collective affairs of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, of which he was vice-chairman in 1974. He was generous with his time for everyone, not least for parents who had any worry or decision to make over their sons' or daughters' future. But there can be little doubt that his greatest pride was the affection in which he was held by generations of "Dragons".

Godfrey Hodgson



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable