Reggie Alton

Palaeographer and English don at St Edmund Hall, Oxford
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The Independent Online

Reginald Ernest Alton, English scholar: born Long Eaton, Derbyshire 24 December 1919; MC 1945; Tutor in English, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1953-87; married 1944 Jeannine Gentis (two sons); died Oxford 15 December 2003.

Reggie Alton won a Military Cross in a series of spirited engagements with the Germans in 1945 while serving with XI Hussars in Holland. In 1946 he returned to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he had matriculated before joining the Army, and served there in various capacities - notably as Tutor in English - for more than 60 years.

Reginald Ernest Alton was born at Long Eaton, near Nottingham, in 1919, educated at Long Eaton County Secondary School under F.E. Roberts MC, formerly of St Edmund Hall, and matriculated at the hall in 1938. In December 1939, he entered the Army, serving in 9 Battalion Sherwood Foresters until 1944 and with XI Hussars, 1944-46.

The war diary of XI Hussars records that, on 22 January 1945, Lieutenant Alton and his troop of armoured cars were involved in a day of hard fighting in and around Maasbracht - some of it almost hand-to-hand, "an operation hardly deemed suitable for ACs". During the action Alton reported that he was outside "a wonderful shop full of tomato catsup" and hoped to return with some. In later life, he varied this story and told those who importuned him for details of his exploits that the award was made because he returned with a car full of cheese and red wine. On 14 February, Alton was awarded the MC. The investiture was subsequently made by Field Marshal Montgomery.

Returning to St Edmund Hall in 1946, Alton completed the School of English Language and Literature in Trinity Term 1948. He served the hall as its only Bursar - Domestic and Investment - from 1953 to 1970, was elected a Fellow and Tutor in English in 1953, served as Vice-Principal, and on his retirement became a worthily dramatic successor as Dean of Degrees to the former Principal, J.N.D. Kelly. His last service to the hall was to act as co-editor with Bruce Mitchell of Graham, St Edmund Hall, Oxford 1941-1999, a volume of contributions by friends and former pupils in memory of his colleague Graham Midgley.

In 1944, he married Jeannine Gentis; they had two sons, Roger and Angus. Jeannine served St Edmund Hall as tutor in French Language and Literature and by making their home a welcoming place for Aularians.

Reggie Alton played a spirited part in various university controversies. He was chairman of the Faculty of English Language and Literature and of the Board of the Faculty. He served on the Graduate Studies Committee and on the Committee for the Ruskin School; the latter reflected his great interest in art of all kinds, which was manifested in the hall, in his private collection, and in the wider world. He was a member of the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, which he served as Awarder and Reviser, and of various government agencies connected with education and examinations. He was also chairman of the Parole Committee for Oxford Prison.

In the hall, Alton was, with Graham Midgley and Bruce Mitchell, one of the troika of dons who taught English together for over a hundred years (collectively). Alton was a polymath in English. He taught everything from Old English to the latest literature with great vigour and enthusiasm; he once drew blood when he stabbed himself with a Biro while dramatically rehearsing a scene from an Old English poem. He had a great love for drama and for prose and poetry. He was once inveigled into reading in chapel a passage from the New English Bible, an experience he never forgot.

He specialised in palaeography. In 1996-97 he visited Washington and Boston to report on the authenticity of a document said to have been found among papers connected with the alleged suicide of one of the White House aides.

For 18 years, Alton single- handedly edited the Review of English Studies for Oxford University Press. The editorial written on his retirement by the editors (sic) who succeeded him includes these words:

It would be difficult to bring to mind a more distinguished period of office, in this or any other major journal. Distinguished firstly, but also less importantly, on grounds of duration; more profoundly, distinguished for discrimination, insight, and shrewdness . . . Reggie's editorship of RES has been enormously influential . . .

An obdurate batsman and medium-pace bowler whose run- up commenced at mid-off, Alton played cricket in the Army, at the hall, and in 1950-54 for Oxfordshire, once topping the averages in bowling and (by virtue of not-outs) in batting. Subsequently, he organised sides for the Cryptics, Occasionals, Incogniti, and Brakspears Brewery, which provided a barrel for each match.

Though always in a hurry - he "moved at great speed with curiously rapid steps . . . executing a sort of flight . . . like some bird fleeing a wrath to come", as one pupil wrote - Reggie Alton was never too busy to be kind. During the long period of the troika there were differences of opinion but no cross words. His only comment to a scout who misguidedly tidied his papers was: "O Mrs B, it's marvellous but I can't find a thing."

Bruce Mitchell

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