Obituary: R.W. Harris

Gerald Hattee
Wednesday 30 June 1999 23:02

R.W. HARRIS was perhaps the outstanding history master of his generation.

Appointed Head of History at the King's School, Canterbury, in January 1946 and Master of Studies in 1954, he was instrumental in an intellectual renaissance which brought academic distinction both to department and to school. During his years there nearly 200 open history scholarships and exhibitions were gained to Oxford and Cambridge - with 13 in one year alone. In addition, he was the author of a series of textbooks and of a major study of the first Earl of Clarendon.

RW, as he was known to his colleagues - Duffy to his pupils - possessed a drive for success which did not make him an easy taskmaster or an easy colleague. Raison d'etat was taught in the classroom; raison d'etat was practised outside it.

Ronald Walter Harris was born in 1916 and educated at Bradford-on-Avon Grammar School and Bristol University, where he was Rome Scholar and gained a First in History. He then went to teach at Wolmer's School in Jamaica, from 1940 to 1943, where he met and married Lesley Fox. Afterwards, he taught at Uppingham for two years (1943-45) before army service in 1945.

Originally appointed to King's by the legendary Canon Shirley - Fred, headmaster from 1935 to 1962 - he was able to flourish in the climate of cut and thrust that provided the springboard for the school's post- war rise to eminence.

The position of history in the timetable was defended with a degree of ruthlessness; while the importance of capturing the cream of the entrance scholars was fully understood. In the early years especially, pupils had to be driven hard to achieve; but the task became easier when the department's reputation acted as a magnet to the able. Harris himself concentrated on teaching the top Oxbridge sets, while appointing a teaching team of quality around him.

In his book-lined, panelled classroom in the Durnford Library, loftily above the entrance to the Green Court, he taught from the high desk of both Archbishops Temple. Immaculate of gown, fit of figure, and rapier- like of intellect, he was able to extemporise for lesson after lesson. The reforms of the enlightened despots, the political philosophy of Hobbes, prints of Giotto and Leonardo came and went with an ease of exposition and an encyclopaedic range of information. The allusions flowed: the relevance was rock-like: the obiter dicta were eagerly awaited.

There were those who felt he crammed his pupils too much and that - ahead of his time - he was too exam-orientated. Yet he conveyed consummately the reality of history as scholarship. First, his passion for the subject came over in a way which enthralled. Secondly, his concern for the evidence, for reading, for questioning and for logic was all-embracing.

What Harris managed to do was to combine his background of university research before the Second World War with the techniques of schoolmastering. The result was that the Durnford became a seminary for future academics; with later Fellowships, for example, to All Souls and Christ Church at Oxford, and to Trinity at Cambridge. He also taught Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher's Private Secretary, and Martin Manser, a Special Adviser to the Taoiseach.

Within the common room, he was a source of dry wit, literary reference, and sharp common sense. He contributed to the school's drama. He produced some memorable Shakespeare for the annual King's Week in the precincts of the Cathedral and directed Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with obvious enjoyment. His love of literature was balanced by his appreciation and knowledge of music, especially of the Italian Baroque. It was an exciting time at King's, with no room for philistinism, and a real love of music and drama. RW was an integral part of this atmosphere.

Harris wrote a series of textbooks, such as Absolutism and Enlightenment (1964). Some reflected his own particular interests, for example Political Ideas 1760-1792 (1963) and Romanticism and the Social Order (1969). But his major work of scholarship was published in 1983 after his retirement.

Clarendon and the English Revolution was the first full biography of Edward Hyde since T.H. Lister's in the 1830s. It was a political biography, which helped to explain in detail some of the contemporary issues such as the activities of royalists in the localities in the 1650s. Inter alia, and perhaps not coincidentally, he highlighted Clarendon's virtues of clear-sighted political and historical perspective.

Ronald Harris retired in 1981, but continued to return to the school to provide occasional lessons. His career was intimately linked with the fortunes of King's Canterbury and reflected its ethos of a respect for scholarship and a drive for success. He was rigorous in his own intellectual self-discipline and expected the same of his pupils. An old-fashioned schoolmaster, with a first-rate academic brain, he had a passion for intellectual excellence which has had a lasting effect on successive generations of pupils.

Ronald Walter Harris, schoolmaster, historian and writer: born Bradford- on-Avon, Wiltshire 19 August 1916; Head of History, King's School, Canterbury 1946-54, Master of Studies 1954-81; married 1941 Lesley Fox (died 1995; one son, one daughter); died London 17 June 1999.

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