Michael Gover

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

Thursday 06 October 2011 02:03

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

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