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Henry Cephas Wilkinson

Epithet: Director of education (1908-1995)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Henry Cephas Wilkinson's mother was a teacher of tremendous drive and enthusiasm. As a woman at the beginning of the 20th century, her close interests in the classics, biblical study and music were not too easy to pursue in depth, but her ambition for her small son was boundless. It was largely her decision to have him christened 'Cephas', a rock, and in view of his early development and later characteristics, not an inappropriate name. As it was unusual, however, his friends called him `Ceph' and many of his colleagues knew him as 'ITC', as he will be referred to in later passages.

Several of his paternal forebears had been noted in the cotton industry, but the family had fallen on harder limes so his father, a traveller for Singer Sewing Machines, had to move them to a modest house in Wigan while HC was still a small boy. This was a happy event for the young Cephas, as it was at primary school that he met his future wife. He was an exceptionally bright pupil. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Manchester Grammar School, which he attended as a day boy, travelling to and from Wigan on the local train. His early promise was confirmed when he gained a Kitchener Scholarship to Oxford. Despite his scholarship, the shopping trip to Lewis's store in Manchester to obtain the minimum equipment for his sojourn at Jesus College strained the family's resources. Cephas completed his Latin and Greek finals under some stress, as his father died suddenly during the examinations, but he obtained a Double First in classics, followed by an MA.

After a very early introduction to Shakespeare, he developed throughout his school and university days a lifelong love of amateur dramatics and of a full range of music from symphony and grand opera to musical comedy and jazz. Partly because of family circumstances, and with a sister fourteen years his junior, he decided to return to his home ground, so on leaving Oxford in 1933 he took up a post at the well-known Botier Grammar School, Stockton Heath, in Warrington, where as well as teaching the arts, he spent evenings and Saturday mornings coaching soccer, rugby and cricket, and his great love of bridge. One of his students, John Moreland, and a later entry, Ian Masterton, were also to make their mark on Manx education. After three years he was able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Elizabeth Grundy, butshortly after the birth of their daughter Jennifer war broke out, and he joined the RAF.

After initial training, HC was sent on a long course with the Intelligence Corps and subsequently to North Africa as a codes and cipher officer with the rank of flight lieutenant. He was in the Egypt and Libya area for nearly all the ups and downs of the North African campaign, and was obviously closely involved with it. He was mentioned in dispatches for his part in one of Winston Churchill's visits to the war area. During the advance north he transferred to Italy as a liaison officer with the Americans, whom he held in high regard.

When demobilised HC was almost tempted into the diplomatic corps but felt that his first duty was to education, though by now, with his RAF experience, he had become interested in administration. After returning to teaching in Warrington, he kept his eye on educational publications.

The opportunity arrived when he saw an advertisement for the post of deputy director of education to H.L. Fletcher in the Isle of Man. A deputy had become necessary for the pioneering work of establishing comprehensive education on the Island. Manx education was in a sense a guinea pig for what was to be a new and much-debated way of moving into the future. It required a thorough knowledge of the principles and practice of teaching, a combination of diplomacy and determination, management skills and endless patience. All children on the Island over eleven years were to leave their primary schools and be 'bussed' to secondary school, the school leaving-age having been raised from fourteen to fifteen. The principle was, of course, that everyone should have better use of centralised facilities and a more even opportunity in secondary education. The Douglas buildings were partly ready, having beenerected just before the war and temporarily occupied by the navy, and new schools or departments were to be opened in Douglas, Ramsey and Castletown. The numbers involved, whilst smaller than those to be involved in English local authority comprehensives, were sufficient to create large secondary schools.

The Island Civil Service Commission and Education Authority put their faith in H.C. Wilkinson. It was a Herculean task, but they had chosen well. HC had a tall, well-built figure, and a considerable presence, with a genial but authoritative air, reminiscent of some of the best of legendary headmasters. Perhaps his voice was his outstanding characteristic, deep and resonant, educated as befitted his scholarship, but with a definite north of England intonation, so that, with his hearty laugh and his fine sense of humour, he was able to get on with all kinds of people whilst avoiding the temptation of over-familiarity. It can be said that his vital part in establishing the new pattern of Manx education, whilst maintaining the traditional standards, laid the foundations for the rest of the 20th century.

It was no surprise when H.L. Fletcher retired in 1952 that HC was appointed to the position which he was to occupy for sixteen years
until his retirement. With a loyal but very small clerical and advisory staff, it was fortunate that he possessed so much versatility and vitality. From the mid-1960s on numerous courses were introduced which brought together teachers from all levels of education; he enthusiastically maintained good relations between teaching staffs and 'The Office' and was a regular visitor to all schools. He also supervised the establishment of what was to become the Isle of Man College.

His wife, Elizabeth, a former infant teacher, was a charming lady with wide interests in the Island, especially in music and drama. HC was fortunate that she could accompany him to many official events, and deputised for him at many events in smaller schools.

Listing only some of his extracurricular activities shows his unusual influence in local affairs. He was deputy chairman of the Arts Council, chairman of the Manx Museum and National Trust, a member of the Friends of the Gaiety and the Gaiety Consortium, which bodies helped to prevent the beautiful theatre from being destroyed - a real possibility in the early 1970s. He was a longtime member of the Manx Music Festival Committee, being its chairman for several years. He was presidentof the Rushen Dramatic Society and belonged to Probus and Rotary, of which he had a period as president, and was an active member of St Peter's congregation in Onchan. The fact that he held so many chairmanships was further proof that he was no cipher or rubber stamp, but a businesslike participant wherever he moved. He maintained most of his outside interests after he left the Education Office; indeed his wife used to remark that whereas when in harness he had managed to keep most of his Friday evenings free for bridge, after retirement even this sacred evening had disappeared!

During the 1960s, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson initiated the Open University. In his retirement HC was largely instrumental in introducing it to the Island, coordinating much of the background preparations and supervising the first exams.

Although he had been much in the limelight in education, few people realised the amount he had done behind the scenes when in office for such organisations as Blind Welfare, the Red Cross and Meals on Wheels. One of his special interests was the Children's Committee, which he had instituted for keeping a close eye on individual children with difficult backgrounds. It was a highly deserved honour when he received the OBE in the New Year Honours List of 1976 'for services to the community'.

It has been remarked that Henry Cephas Wilkinson was christened with an appropriate classical name. He himself liked to say that he had been born on 'the Ides of March'.

He died on New Year's Day 1995, some two months before his 87th birthday, and is buried with his wife in Kirk Onchan Churchyard.

Biography written by Henley Crowe.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.457-9.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Male

Date of birth: 15 March 1908

Date of death: 1 January 1995

Name Variant: Wilkinson, H.C., Mr


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