John Blakey –John Blakey Boys’ Division Staff, 1944-1976

John Blakey was a much-loved member of the Boys’ Division teaching staff for over thirty years, who is remembered fondly by many Old Boys today.   Below, you can read two tributes to John, both written by colleague Jim Dawson.  The first is the tribute following his retirement, published in the 1976 edition of The Boltonian; the second, the obituary published following his death in the 1981 edition of the same publication.  

*****

The early thirties was not the best time to apply for a teaching post. With hundreds of well qualified people applying for each situation, only those holding the highest academic qualifications could be considered. John Blakey had taken a First Class Honours Degree in Mathematics at Jesus College, Oxford, in 1931, and then decided to stay on and read for a Physics Degree, which he gained a year later! It is not surprising, therefore, that he was able to secure the post of assistant mathematics master at William Hulme’s G.S., Manchester, in January 1933.

A keen rugger player, he became a regular member of Broughton Park’s 1st XV at prop forward, alongside H. B. Toft, the then England Captain. During this period, John developed his interest in fell walking, and most week-ends would see him spending some time tramping over the Derbyshire moors. In those days much of this area was privately owned and hikers were not welcomed.

In 1937 he became Senior Mathematics Master at the nearby Cheadle Hulme School and it was here that John began his long and active association with the Royal Life-Saving Society. Already the holder of the Bronze and Silver Medallions, he turned his attention to instructing boys and girls for the many examinations which the society offers. As most of us know, Bolton School has won numerous life-saving competitions, in addition to the thousands of individual awards, and much of this is due to John’s patient coaching. Now, some forty years after starting his first class, he still comes into school every Monday lunch-time to continue the good work. He is this year’s Chairman of the Manchester Branch of the Life-Saving Association, as well as being a Vice-President.

John’s long and distinguished career at Bolton School began in January 1944 when he became Sixth Form Mathematics Master (later Senior Mathematics Master). In December of that year the School produced its first award in Mathematics in the Oxford and Cambridge Scholarship Examinations! Since that first Exhibition, many boys, particularly in the mathematics sixth forms, have benefited from John’s vast knowledge of a wide range of mathematical topics, coupled with his superb ability in problem solving. His solutions to questions set in the Scholarship examinations remain in the school, so that staff and pupils alike may refer to them when they feel the need. These solutions, carefully written out, illustrate not only John’s deep understanding of the mathematics involved, but show a tenacity of purpose which few people could equal. His standing amongst mathematicians is such that his advice and comments are always sought and appreciated. Twice, John has been elected President of the Manchester Branch of the Mathematical Association and was a founder member of a Sixth Form mathematics discussion group which has done a great deal of work connected with the teaching of mathematics in the Manchester area.

Whilst all this information tells us much of John’s qualifications, career and achievements, it is “JCB.” (as he was affectionately known in the Common Room) the character, that most of us will remember. Someone once said of him that he was not a man of many parts, but rather a man of few parts, each one of which he did well. His chief interests outside school are music, about which he has a very wide and detailed knowledge, although he does not play an instrument himself, and of course fell-walking. John has tramped over many miles of fells in Great Britain and abroad. There is little doubt that the Lake District is his favourite area and it is true to say that there are few people who have such an intimate knowledge of the various routes leading to England’s highest peaks. Last year, many of his friends joined him on one of his numerous (the 93rd to be exact!) ascents of Scafell Pike, and it may well be that by the time the Boltonian appears we shall have enjoyed accompanying him on the 100th.

It is a pity that many of his associates and the majority of boys John has taught have not been able to be with him when he has been out walking or attending mathematical meetings. On such occasions he has been known to make remarks which have become known as “J.C.B. isms” – succinct but to the point! In this short appreciation, only a few examples which illustrate a part of this rather Victorian character can be given.

I have always found John extremely modest when he has been asked to divulge information on topics where he was considered to be an expert. On one occasion, he solved a scholarship problem which had been puzzling me for some time. When I expressed astonishment that he had done this mentally (and whilst driving into Manchester!) he casually remarked, “You must remember, Jim, I’ve done them all before”. Another reply in a similar vein came when I suggested that a research degree must have been within his capabilities whilst at Oxford. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You see, I’ve never had an original thought in my head, merely putting into practice what other people have told me.” – with good effect I might add! Mind you, neither had he much time for false modesty. Not long ago, the Headmaster was approached by a father of a boy who had not previously attended Bolton School and who wished to sit for an Oxbridge award in mathematics. “What would you advise him to do?” the Headmaster asked J.C.B. The reply was typical. “There is only one thing he can do – send him to me.”

Although many of his remarks may not have been made with humour in mind, nevertheless that is how they appeared to the hearer. Whilst returning from an ascent of Scafell Pike, we were approaching Esk Hause when a long, near vertical, drop presented itself. Picking my way carefully down the descent, I was surprised to see John shoot past at high speed, holding himself rigid and more or less “skiing” down. Eventually when I caught him up, I remarked upon his swift and rather unconventional locomotion. “I always believe in letting gravity do the work wherever possible”, was his inimitable reply.

It is not easy to bring this appreciation to an end, for one feels there is so much left unsaid. We at Bolton School will remember John in our own different ways. For some, perhaps, his unforgettable bee-line method of motion, proving once and for all that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line! But I shall remember a scene which took place on almost the last day of the Summer Term when John retired. A boy who was going to read Mathematics at Cambridge came into the room where John and I were clearing up. “Excuse me, sir” he said, “I am having some difficulty with the questions which Cambridge have sent to me, and I wondered if you could help me?” Would it be true to say that on a warm summer’s afternoon, near the end of a busy term, some of us might have lacked the enthusiasm for such a task? As I left the room JCB was already seated at the table, with the boy at his side. Placing a piece of paper before them, he reached deep into his pocket for his only other requirement – that inevitable stub of a pencil. As I closed the door, I heard the familiar opening remark “Now, Smith, the way I see number one is this. …”. Yet another solution about to be unfolded with the usual clarity and dexterity, by one John C Blakey, MA (Oxon.).

*****

When, as a young teacher, I entered my first all-male Grammar School staff room, the place seemed full of characters, men who are still talked about, as Jerome K Jerome wrote, “on winter’s evenings, when pipes are lit and chairs drawn close to the fire”. Stories of their habits, sayings and personal eccentricities are legion and the teaching world has become a poorer place with their passing.

One of these never to be forgotten men is John Clipsham Blakey, MA(Oxon), affectionately known to us on the Bolton School staff as JCB, who died earlier this year at the age of seventy-one. Walking from the funeral service (our manner of locomotion would have had the man’s approval!) a colleague remarked, “We shall each of us remember JCB in our different ways”. How true! His passionate involvement with Mathematics, fell-walking, Music and life-saving, reflected an important philosophy of John’s. Whatever you do in life, do it well, because if it isn’t worth doing well, it isn’t worth doing at all.

As Head of Mathematics, he was always willing to give advice and help to members of his department on “Matters mathematical” (he was also a devotee of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas!), more often than not, writing out the information on the back of an old envelope (but neatly!) with the inevitable stub of a pencil. As a problem-solver he had few equals, although the manner in which he solved certain problems often surprised other “readers”. One such person, who had had difficulty with the final part of a Cambridge Scholarship question, asked John for his solution. He was pleased (nay proud!) to see how his own methods equated exactly with those of the “oracle”, and he eagerly turned over the page to see how John had managed to solve the final tricky part. His ego was much deflated when he saw the one written word, “Obvious”!

Since the very early ‘thirties, John was an enthusiastic fell-walker, in this country and in the Alps. His love for, and intimate knowledge of, the Lake District were well known to his friends and colleagues. Twelve months after his retirement, accompanied by his wife, Edna, and some fifty well-wishers (including a BBC reporter), John made his hundredth ascent of Scafell Pike. This trip, made in far from ideal weather conditions, epitomised John’s determination and tenacity of purpose in virtually everything he tackled. I have always thought that, given his age and basic fitness, he would have been a more than useful member of a British Everest expedition — in the days of Norfolk jackets and Deer Stalker hats, of course.

It was fitting, therefore, that his last day out in the Lakes, was made in the company of boys and ex-colleagues from the School. In glorious weather and amidst magnificent scenery, John savoured every second of the walk. As he levered himself into the School minibus for the journey back, he turned and with a face reddened by sun and wind, said, “By Jove, Jim, I’ve enjoyed that”.

Yes, John, and we enjoyed having you with us.