Michael Thornely: Inspirational teacher who preserved Sedbergh's ethos in changing times

By Kenneth Shenton
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Michael Thornely was an inspirational schoolmaster, serving Sedbergh School for 35 years, 21 of them as one of its most distinguished headmasters. On the national stage he was a most perceptive practitioner throughout his long and distinguished career, the breadth of his intellect and the warmth of his personality making him an inspirational guide for many generations of aspiring students.

Born in Hampstead, the eldest son of a pioneering aviator in the Royal Flying Corps, Michael Thornely was educated at Rugby, his prodigious gifts, musical as well as academic, winning him an Organ Scholarship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. While reading Classics and then Modern Languages, in tandem with his fellow undergraduate, the singer Ian Wallace, they spent much time revelling in the delights of the university's theatrical scene. Performing together under the guidance of the legendary duo, George Dadie Rylands and Donald Beves, the pair formed an enduring friendship. Poignantly, Wallace died a day before Thornely (Obituary, 15 October 2009).

When in 1940 Wallace went off to America on a pre-war tour, Thornely, unfit for military service, travelled north to begin his long association with Sedbergh School. Initially an Assistant Master, teaching French, and a Tutor in School House, he also made his mark directing innovative Shakespearean productions. Gradually emerging as the protégé of the then Headmaster, J.H. Bruce Lockhart, on Lockhart's retirement in 1954 Thornely seamlessly succeeded him.

Then a boy's boarding school, founded in 1525, Sedbergh is situated on the edge of the Lake District amid the Cumbrian fells. It is this rugged, rural ambience that over the centuries has often proved as character-building for staff and pupils as the curriculum. However, once there, Thornely never wished to be anywhere else.

To no one's surprise, he proved to be a headmaster of high principles and integrity. With a genuine love of learning, he cared for his charges in a naturally inclusive way, presiding over the school like an indulgent paterfamilias. Happily, amid a natural gravitas lay a most important and highly developed sense of the ridiculous.

Throughout his years at the helm, the school enjoyed a period of great growth, in student numbers and improved facilities. New Science and Maths blocks were built, as was a new Design Centre. Boarding houses were updated, the Library and swimming pool both refurbished, and the purchase of Guldrey Lodge as a new Music School allowed expansion of the school's cultural output.

In addition to his sense of direction for the school and its pupils, he also had high expectations for his staff, many of whom went on to distinguished headships. As the swinging Sixties and beyond replaced the more sombre 1950s, he remained steadfast in his resolve to maintain the school's distinctive ethos. That he succeeded is clear not only in the affection shown to him personally by former pupils, but also their response to the financial appeal he masterminded in the closing years of his headship. Having co-ordinated the celebrations for the school's 450th anniversary in 1975, he quietly stepped aside.

He had more time to indulge his interests, notably lapidary and fly fishing. A prominent member of the local amateur dramatic society, for 20 years he served as Organist of the Parish Church. He also kept a benevolent eye on many of his former charges as Secretary of the Old Sedberghians.

A respected elder statesman of both Headmasters' Conference and the Council of the National Youth Orchestra, he also served as Secretary of the Francis C. Scott Charitable Trust. As a Governor of Arnold School, Blackpool, his experience and expertise proved crucial in acquiring a Lakeland outdoor pursuits centre at Glenridding and, helping plot the school on a successful course to full independ-ence. Here, as elsewhere, the keystone of his life and work was the warmth of his abiding friendliness – surely a most worthy epitaph.

Gervase Michael Cobham Thornely, school teacher: born Hampstead, London 21 October 1918; married 1954 Jennifer Scott (two sons, two daughters); died Killington, Cumbria 13 October 2009.