John Thorn, who died on October 20th, aged 98, was one of Repton’s most innovative and charismatic headmasters.

He was appointed as the successor to Lynam Thomas in 1961, when he was 35 years old, and he brought to Repton a youthful and fresh approach to its academic and cultural landscape. As the historian Hugh Brogan noted, it was his “conscious and avowed mission, laid on him by the governors, to raise Repton’s level of scholarship and civilisation.” In this he certainly succeeded, and we reprint extracts of the warm appreciation of his many achievements, written by the Senior Master in 1968, the year Thorn left the School to become headmaster of Winchester, a post he held until 1985:

“When John Thorn became Headmaster of Repton in 1961 it soon became clear that much of his energy would be devoted to stimulating the academic and intellectual life of the school. He achieved this, partly by taking endless pains over the curricular requirements of every boy in the School; and his personal knowledge of every boy and the speed with which he tackled their peculiar problems was remarkable..

What has been written so far fails to bring out John Thorn's charm and brilliance: his lively sense of humour, his remarkable skill and lightning speed in repartee. His complete lack of pomposity. His willingness to listen to others and to appreciate the opinions of others. His sympathy and concern for those around him - whether a master with a problem, or a boy in difficulty. Above all, his kindness.

This concern for others was a feature of the memorable sermons he preached in Chapel. With all their moving eloquence, those sermons were always related to problems of everyday life in a way likely to stir the imagination of thoughtful boys.

During his seven years at the Hall, John Thorn devoted his life to Repton, and Repton owes him a great debt.”

His headmastership of Winchester was equally visionary, encouraging disciplines other than the classics and championing theatre, music and art. After his retirement from Winchester in 1985 he taught at King Edward’s Southampton, and at Portsmouth Grammar School. In 1989 his autobiography ‘The Road to Winchester’ was published, and, in a review, his former colleague at Repton, Michael Charlesworth, wrote of Thorn as having:

“an enthusiasm, a vitality, and a humanity about his approach which I found irresistible…under him I am sure that Repton became more wide-ranging in its outlook, more intellectually alert, much richer in its commitment to The Arts, and much more humane and civilised in its day-to-day-life...never have I felt it more exciting to be engaged in education than under John Thorn’s headmastership.”

Although John Thorn had to battle for some of the changes he introduced at Repton, his autobiography sums up his experience here with his characteristic warmth and generosity:

“But the parting from Repton was sad. It had its beauties too. Many of the staff had opposed me, often rightly so, but many had become firm friends, and were as good as any teachers I had known. The boys were affectionate and responsive. Given good and interesting teaching they were intellectually lively and had fewer home-baked prejudices and less sense of superiority than many Wykehamists I was to meet. Veronica and I had come to love the Hall. It had been a place of battles, but we slipped away from the Trent meadows with many a wistful glance over our shoulders.”