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#22 - 1979

1979 was a memorable year in the College’s history, after 16 very successful years at the helm, John Eggar retired as Headmaster. Coupled with it being the College’s 20th anniversary year, it truly was a year of celebration. The Governors' tributes to Mr Eggar included having his portrait painted and giving a dinner in honour of both him and his wife Pam. A very well attended ‘Old Boys Day’ was another outstanding tribute. Speech day was moved from the Spring Bank Holiday to the last week of term so that the parents’ gathering and the speeches could be a real farewell.

Probably the most talked about event in the Colleges history to date took place in July 1979, in the form of a spectacular river pageant, called “Time and the Thames”.  

In his book ‘Wish and Fulfilment’, Hans Wells-Furby commented on the event:

“It was a good example of JDE's instinct for the correct decision that he suggested that the twentieth anniversary should be the year for an outdoor pageant. Outdoor productions ended in 1966, but we were left with the idea that the lawns in front of Shiplake Court were the ideal site for a major production. Avril Lethbridge and David Welsh were asked to develop the idea to the full. They quickly decided that the lawns were not big enough and re-sited the enterprise on the river banks. Planning began seven months before the production week and it was official policy that everyone in the school should be involved: as a performer, as a technician, helper or manager; this also applied to the staff.

As soon as GCEs finished, other activities ceased and preparations plus rehearsals went on from dawn to midnight. It was felt that the boys gained as much from the experience as from the normal post exam work experience and industrial visits. The boys gained more than just a genuine feeling of achievement. They had experience of being part of a very large team and came to understand the discipline, patience and attention to detail needed for a big show to succeed.

There would have been no pageant without loans, from Victorian costumes to boats. The owners and crews of several Victorian steam launches took up residence on the river banks and they were joined by members of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. The owners of these vessels came to Shiplake at their own expense. The area can rarely have seen such a fine collection of historic vessels. One hopes that the owners took away something in return: a feeling, perhaps, that the young men of 1979 in their drive, energy, interest, good manners and teamwork were at least as good as any previous generation.

In the long term, the value of the pageant was as much as anything in the imponderables. As the pageant developed it became clear that, with such widespread support from boat owners, organisations, ladies of all ages appearing on stage together with numerous familiar male faces from the Henley district, this was a pageant at Shiplake College rather than a College pageant. However, such a magnificent final result was well beyond the College's own resources. There are so many things that stick in the memory. One energetic lady producer gradually lost her voice. The quiet tones of DFKW over the 'walkie talkie' system set each scene in motion and gave orders to each vessel to set out. The dramatic end of the Anne Boleyn execution scene and the magnificent lighting throughout was long talked of. Particularly memorable was the way in which the audience were increasingly gripped as the performance continued; the mood shifted from admiration of the picturesque nostalgic vision of Victorian Henley Royal Regatta to the stark reality of the Dunkirk scene. As John Suchet, the well-known ITV reporter, wrote, 'The Dunkirk sequence crowned the whole pageant'.

There were two aspects of the production which somehow underlined the whole story of Shiplake College itself. First of all there was timing; luck gave us a fine spell of weather, but five years later a repeat enterprise was — on the grounds of expense — impossible. Similarly, looking back, 1959 was the last date at which starting a new independent boarding school stood a substantial chance of success. Secondly, neither the pageant nor Shiplake College would have succeeded without generous help from well wishers”

We have lots of information about the river pageant in our archives: Read Avril Lethbridge's script; the John Suchet review can be found in The Court; and there is also a piece in the latest 2019 OVS Magazine about the event.

As another part of the 20th anniversary celebrations, the Duke of Edinburgh Award organisation received overdue and well-deserved publicity when eight gold holders and two members of staff made an August expedition to the Himalayas. A full write up of the trip can be found from page 13 of The Court.

Also in 1979:

- The Boat Club purchased a ‘Carbocraft' eight
- The art room extension was completed
- The College purchased Plowden Cottage
- In September, Peter Lapping took over as the fourth Headmaster of Shiplake College