Maurice Devereux (1923 - 2011)

Teacher: 1954 - 1982
Headmaster: 1982 - 1983


Obituary from the Liverpool Daily Post, 30 May 2011 by William Leece

Known to schoolboys over the years as "Dixie", Maurice Devereux was the last of a generation of headmasters to have served under the formidable J. R. Edwards at the Liverpool Institute.

No less that four Institute heads from the 1960s to the final days of the 1980 were products of the Edwards years.

Maurice Devereux had preferred the life of a classroom teacher of history, but he was persuaded to take up the position of head in 1982 in succession to Bert Parker, at a time when the school looked isolated as Liverpool City Council's last grammar, and the building in Mount Street was suffering visibly from having its maintenance budget slashed.

He was a popular choice among his beleaguered staff, with an acerbic sense of humour - he was prone to answering the telephone as "site manager" at times.

Liverpool education officials in high places did not always see the joke, and it was almost inevitable that after one clash too many he was made an offer he could hardly refuse - to retire at the age of 59.

His eventual replacement was an outsider, Peter Fowler, who had little time to create a future for the school before it closed in 1985.

An old boy of Quarry Bank School in Allerton, Maurice Devereux had joined the Institute in 1953 after National Service in the Royal Navy and a degree at Liverpool University.

As a teacher he could communicate knowledge and enthusiasm, earning respect and affection in equal measure.

Pupils who passed through the school in his years ranged from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Peter Sissons in the 1950s, through Bill Kenwright and Derek Hatton in the 1960s and Art Attack TV presenter Neil Buchanan in the 1970s.

In retirement he threw himself into his golf - he was a director of Caldy Golf Club - and was a keen and knowledgeable bridge player.

He was also a connoisseur of fine wines and an excellent cook, with invitations to the Devereux home in Hoylake being particularly prized.

He is survived by his widow, Ethel.

Steve Pimentil (L.I. 1967-1974) writes:

Unsettled, I pulled one of my oldest books off the shelf that morning and dusted it down. The gold lettering on the spine is so worn as to be virtually illegible, but the plain black cover is enough to make it distinct from its more garish colleagues. There never was a dust jacket, I realize, this being little more than an old-fashioned school textbook. Inside the front cover are three serious clues to its presence in my select library of hardbacks. Its price is denominated in pencil, at 25 shillings; its provenance is indicated by a sticker boasting that Charles Wilson, bookseller, once ran his business at 46 Renshaw Street; and a bookplate attributes it to me, as my form prize from the Liverpool Institute for the academic year 1967/68, my first at secondary school.

I made this book's acquaintance on Saturday 19th October 1968, when my diary records that I went to town, without breakfast, and chose as my form prize, "Lectures on Foreign History 1494-1789." The concept of choosing your own prize was new to me. I had won a couple of prizes at junior chess tournaments, where naturally enough I was rewarded with chess books. At my primary school the only prize I ever received was a slightly puzzling work entitled "The Hornblower Companion," full of maps which purported to show details of the various voyages undertaken by C.S. Forester's eponymous hero. Unfortunately, I had never read any Hornblower, so the "Companion" rather failed to grab my attention.

J.M.Thompson's history lectures were different. They looked quite interesting. Perhaps more importantly, they were the right price. I had effectively been given a book voucher for twenty five shillings, and told to spend it at Wilson's on Renshaw Street. The mechanics of the operation were slightly more complicated than that. I did not possess a redeemable voucher as such, just a printed slip of paper onto which I was required to write the details of my chosen book, which the school would then arrange to purchase from Wilson's; imprint with the school crest; and render to me on Speech Night, at the end of the Winter term.

I suspect that this was my first visit to Wilson's, although I knew where it was, as my mother used to like to shop at Lewis's, the big department store just along the street. At the age of twelve, I was more familiar with public libraries than with bookshops. Such literature as I used to purchase with my own funds mainly consisted of American superhero comics: Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Justice League of America. Proper books, even in paperback, were a shade expensive for the pocket money allotted to me, so for unillustrated material I raided my elder brother's vast collection, and made regular use of Garston library. Once inside Wilson's, I did as I would at a library, and gravitated to the history section, which I found to be half way towards the back, on the right hand side. There was only one relevant bookcase, and not much within my price range. Theoretically, I might have ordered any book in print. It did not need to be one which Wilson's already had in stock, although perhaps I had been given a hint that this might ease the process. But such freedom of choice meant very little to me in those days, having no experience then of browsing catalogues. I would not know what I wanted until I saw it for myself, held it in my hands and bonded with it. I found the Thompson. This was what I wanted.

At school on the Monday, I handed in my completed slip to the teacher charged with administering the prize scheme, who happened to be my new history teacher, Mr. Devereux, known to all schoolboys as Dixie. In the first year, our history lessons had been delivered by a young guy called Mercer, who did not last very long. He tried vainly to interest us in the Domesday Book, but in the end we were reduced to drawing pictures of Viking longships and Anglo Saxon peasants. By the second year we had been academically streamed, and the relative swots in my new class were rewarded with a clutch of departmental heads: Bert Parker for geography, Denis Gleave for chemistry, and Dixie for history. Dixie's lessons were much more to my taste than Mercer's. Crayons no longer required.

Dixie recognized my thirst for history, but he was a little taken aback at my prize selection. Was I really sure I wanted an old textbook, more suitable for sixth-formers? He might even be able to find a spare copy around the school somewhere which he could lend me, so that I could use my prize fund for something more appropriate. But I stuck to my guns. I wanted the Thompson as my school prize, and a couple of months later, on Speech Night, I duly received it.

The annual Speech Nights took place at the Philharmonic Hall, only a five-minute walk along Hope Street from our school. This would have been my second attendance at such an event in my own right, although I may also have been dragged along by my mother in earlier years as part of my brother's train. However, this was certainly the first occasion I had to go up onto the stage. And I muffed it. Collecting a prize is a pretty simple process. You accept the proffered goods or certificate with your left hand, shake hands with your right, say "Thank you, sir," and skedaddle. All those bits I performed satisfactorily, but I got off to a bad start.

We boys were sat in the body of the hall; parents behind us in the rear stalls, or up in the balcony; teachers begowned on the stage, grouped around the Headmaster, the Chairman of the Governors and whichever worthy was Speaking that year. Some pupils might already be on the stage if they were choirboys, but that role still lay in the future for me. The prize-winners were seated together in a group near the exit from the stalls, so that each could emerge quickly from the hall to run up the side entrance to the stage when his name was called. But when my name was called, I found to my horror that the door was stuck. I could not get out of the stalls to go up and receive my prize. I struggled with that wretched doorknob for an eternity with a thousand eyes upon me, until at last it yielded and I ascended, red-faced, to collect my reward. By the laws of time, that tussle with the stubborn doorknob may only have lasted ten seconds or so, but forty-eight years later it is still happening, inside my head. The poet Philip Larkin suggests that what will survive of us is love. With me, I am afraid that what survives is often embarrassment.

Having finally grasped my prize, I threw myself into its 333 pages with gusto. Four days later my diary reports, "Finished prize. V. good." In point of fact, my particular copy has 349 pages, but the extra 16 are merely a bookbinder's error. I remember feeling slightly confused when the chapter on 'the Reformation' abruptly started talking about 'the Turkish threat' in terms which sounded familiar. Then I noticed that the pagination was not sequential: the page number 60 seemed to be followed by page number 45. Again? Investigating further, I realized that nothing was missing, and I just possessed some redundant duplicated pages, so I simply kept on reading, and did not complain. Perhaps the error makes the book more valuable, like a misprinted Victorian stamp. But somehow, I doubt it.

It was not a new book, even then. Created in 1964, my copy is from the third impression of the revised and reset second edition of what the preface describes as, "lectures originally given at Magdalen during the winter terms of 1921-1924. The audience consisted of undergraduates in their first year, many of whom had read little English history, and less foreign." It may have originally been aimed at eighteen-year-olds, but it was perfect for me at twelve. I was hooked. It was in these pages that I first met Henry of Navarre, Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Voltaire. The unashamedly Franco-centric viewpoint shaped my whole subsequent attitude to history, and culture in general.

Why was I so fascinated with history at that age? The heavyweight history textbooks contrast oddly with the lightweight character of most of my other reading. But so it was. Even my other school subjects might find themselves diverted to become handmaidens of history. In maths we were introduced to bar charts, so I created a graph depicting the length of the reigns of all English monarchs since 1066; as a result of which, not only can I recite the list of kings and queens, I can be pretty accurate about all their accessions and deaths. Nobody had to make me learn this stuff. I did it because I was interested.

Dixie was suitably impressed. After one term he wrote on my report "Excellent. He has a most mature approach to his work." For term two he restricted himself to "Outstanding," but by the third term he was more expansive: "One of the most promising boys that I have ever taught." My father never saw these reports, as he was working in Nigeria at the time, but my mother copied out highlights for him in her regular letters. He wrote back to me later that year congratulating me on my success, although, "I had to laugh at the remark of the History master who said that you were one of the most promising boys he has had, because the old joke goes on to say - yes he is always promising to do better!! - but he obviously did not mean it in such a way of course." No, I am pretty sure Dixie was paying me a genuine compliment, one of the nicest I have ever received.

A teacher's role is to correct, as well as to encourage, and Dixie was not blind to my faults. In later years, while still appreciative of my efforts, he was apt to complain that my essays lacked depth of detail. He and my English teacher, Ben Toobe, were at one on this, and my sixth-form reports in both subjects make the same point repeatedly:

"He has learned the work thoroughly, but I would like to see a little more in his essays." "He is always perceptive and responsive, though sometimes on paper a little laconic." "He is so quick to see essentials, that it seems necessary to remind him also of the importance of detail and development in essays."

"...astute, but in essays still too succinct."

"He still tends to be terse in writing..."

And my personal favourite, this one from Ben, who, after a term where I had finally made a bit more effort, acknowledged well-balanced answers on the set books, but regretted that, in the criticism paper, "he reverted to his former embryonic style."

'Laconic,''succinct,' 'terse,''embryonic,' just how many synonyms for 'lazy' could these guys come up with?

During earlier years, spelling was also a potential weakness. In an essay about the Golden Horde, I tried faithfully to follow the textbook's somewhat unexpected usage of "Tatar" rather than the more familiar "Tartar," but at one point my concentration slipped, and I wrote "Tater" instead. Dixie's red pen remorselessly zoomed in on my error, and crowed, "These are Irish potatoes." But generally my surviving historical emotions are of pride rather than embarrassment. I cannot be inventing the memory that during our honeymoon period he read out one of my essays to his 'O' level class, to show them what even a twelve-year-old could produce. It was not his fault I failed to fulfil my early promise.

Dixie remained my history teacher for the rest of my school career, and history remained my favourite subject, although by the time I sat my 'A' levels I had gone off the boil a bit. I took the Oxbridge entrance exam in history during my fourth term in the sixth form. It was the first test I ever failed. Nowadays, I tend to prefer novels to history books, but I still look back on Dixie's history lessons with great affection.

Because Dixie's lessons were not just about history. He shared his whole world-view with us. He was a keen armchair philosopher. The current political issues of the day always reverberated in his room. I think he and I were both inclined more to scepticism than to enthusiasm whenever we ventured outside the comfortable cloister of history, and I found my attitudes often followed his. Remarking once on the relative naivete of some of his younger colleagues, while retaining a judicious anonymity in his comments, he suggested that it were better for teachers to have seen something of the outside world before they returned to the classroom. He himself had spent the war in the navy before qualifying as a teacher. Perhaps this example weighed with me when I was in my thirties, and applied to retrain as a teacher myself, intending to set a fresh course in uncharted waters. But then my daughter's birth bumped me back into the accountancy dock. On another occasion, when Dixie was exhorting us to think for ourselves, he warned us not to rely on somebody else's opinion, but always to make up our own minds. Even a teacher's words should be tested rather than taken for gospel. "Don't believe something, just because I say it." This, I now realize, is a classic teacher's nostrum, but his were the lips I first heard it from.

It was easy for me, even as a child, to spot similarities between Dixie and my father. They were obviously of the same generation, having both been in the navy during the war. I noticed that day that they were born within a year of each other. Both enjoyed the Friday night television series "The Onedin Line", perhaps partly because it reminded them of their youthful years at sea. I remember Dixie expatiating how wonderfully the theme music, borrowed from Khachaturian's "Spartacus," fitted the seascape. Both went to Liverpool grammar schools in the thirties: Dixie to Quarry Bank, Dad to the Oulton. And they had the same physical build, derived from a lifestyle which spurned the ascetic. But my Dad was often absent abroad, whereas Dixie was always there. If all male teachers were potential substitute father-figures for me, Dixie fitted the bill better than most, although it may have been an intellectual more than an emotional fit. He and Ethel never had any children of their own, and he did not come across as a natural nurturer. When I was fifteen, and my father died, two of my other teachers, Bert Parker and Joe Preece, were more able to offer me comfort. But Dixie was there to pick me up when I fell at the Oxbridge hurdle, and guided me through to a good enough 'A' level result to win a place at Cambridge the following year.

I lost touch with him soon after I left the school, which closed down anyway, a decade after my departure. I heard that both Bert Parker and Dixie had taken their brief turns as Headmaster in the school's final, collapsing years. It was difficult for me to imagine either of them in that role. Pupils never expect their teachers to grow up.

By the year 2000 I had grown up sufficiently to be well ahead with my Christmas cards for once. I had the time to take an second turn through the address book, sending cards towards remoter acquaintances: people I perhaps no longer really knew; partly to check whether the details I held were still valid, or should be expunged from the book. The process put me in mind of other names with whom I had long lost touch, and I wondered if Dixie were still in the land of the living. This was before the days of internet search engines, but the local library in St Andrews had a full set of telephone directories, and there was still an "M. Devereux" recorded in Hoylake, where he had used to live when he taught us. So I sent off a speculative Christmas card with a letter, daringly addressed to "Maurice," preambling that he might not remember me, but I believed he may have been my history teacher from 1968 to 1974. I explained what I had been doing with my life since school. I am afraid I was bumptious enough to include a C.V. But I did at least remember to offer my long overdue thanks, for teaching a callow teenager how to think.

Actually, I was pretty sure he would not have forgotten me, if I had found the right man. I had been one of his star pupils after all: Margaret Bryce Smith scholar, Head Boy, Cambridge and all that. And I was not mistaken, although I was amused to note that what was once my most salient quality, had quite slipped my mind. He sent a Hogmanay card by return, with a friendly letter in his recognisable style. "I do, indeed, remember you vividly. Red hair tends to distinguish one."

For the next decade we swapped amicable Christmas cards. I would remark on whatever had happened that year which reminded me of him. One year the politician Peter Shore died, who had been a contemporary of Maurice's at Quarry Bank, occasionally alluded to in his history-cum-politics lessons. Another year Hilary Mantel won the Booker for "Wolf Hall" and I told Maurice he ought to put in for a share of the royalties, having long ago offered Thomas Cromwell as an ideal subject for an historical novel.

I was always intending to visit him and Ethel one time while I was down on Merseyside. I still go to John Fisher's house sometimes, and Heswall is no great distance from Hoylake. Perhaps I could take my mother along and introduce them to each other. But now, of course, it is too late. Idling through the Institute old boys' web-site that morning, I spotted Wally Owen's notification that the funeral of Maurice Devereux would be taking place shortly. But the notice had been posted three months before. I googled the obituary in the Daily Post. Yes, that was Dixie. 1923-2011. Rest in peace.

There are various ways to honour the dead. You can go to their funeral. You can shed a tear. You can look at old school reports and long-forgotten letters. You can share your memories. Or you can settle down to re-read once again that wonderful book by J. M. Thompson: "Lectures on Foreign History 1494-1789."