St Peter's School

Peter Gardiner

Peter Gardiner, 1927 – 2019

 “It has sometimes been said that it is impossible to be both a gentleman and a good headmaster, but at St. Peter's the dilemma has not existed: we remember him as both.”

The above sentence, penned by Leslie LeTocq (Deputy Head at St Peter’s for many years) is taken from his tribute to Peter in The Peterite, published in 1979, the term after Peter’s departure from the school.

Typically for Peter, his next destination was not to add to his distinguished career the glittering prize of headship at a top-name public school, but to return to a senior teaching role in a school where he believed he could make a difference: Stanborough Comprehensive in Welwyn Garden City. One of his pupils there, the yet-to-be-award-winning-poet, Glyn Maxwell, remembered Peter as a teacher who inspired him, writing in a 2010 Guardian article:

“We were different generations: I was the old at their worst: mind made up, black-or-white, full of myself, bad habits. He was the young at their best: open, innocent, self-effacing, eager to share.”

There could be no finer encomium for an educator who, during his twelve years as Head Master of St Peter’s (from 1967 to 1979) in so many ways rejuvenated the school, bringing to it the youthful and forward-looking spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a staunch champion of the arts at a time when academic rigour and success on the sports field seemed to many to be the watchwords in this traditional establishment. Under his aegis, the art department gained a new and expanded home (in a beautiful touch of irony, above the cricket pavilion). Music began to play much more of a role in school life – in the formation of a wind-band alongside the school orchestra, in the promotion of choral singing both in and out of chapel services, in the encouragement of musical competitions and the participation of pupil-musicians in social events. Peter himself often performed or directed, for example becoming a ‘Gentleman of Japan’ in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, or narrating his own performing adaptation of Dickens’s short ghost story The Signalman. Perhaps Peter’s finest contribution to arts in the school was his championing of the creation of a separate Drama Centre in the old school gymnasium, along with the appointment of a drama specialist to the staff. Although his personal love of the arts clearly played a part in this transformation (his 1948 Cambridge first-class degree was in Classics and English Literature, and he was a lifelong devotee of classical music, particularly opera), it is just as clear that his vision for the centrality of the arts as part of a well-rounded 20th and 21st-century education was spot on, as the school’s current generous facilities for these bear witness.

The school’s old strengths, though, did not go unsupported; during Peter’s time as Head, preparations to rebuild the science block and to refurbish classrooms in St Olave’s began, the swimming pool was modernised, and a Sports Centre was built, with a wall for mountaineering – novel at the time. School numbers rose by 16%.

Before St Peter’s, Peter was assistant master and housemaster at Charterhouse. During his time there, in 1963/64, he spent an exchange year at St Stephen’s School in Virginia, USA. This was the period of great social change in America, and civil rights was a major talking point; 1963 was the year of John Kennedy’s assassination and the year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Peter subsequently attended one of Martin Luther King’s rallies). One cannot help feeling the philosophy of the civil rights movement spoke to the soul of this liberal intellectual schoolmaster, as a great deal of his accomplishments in changing the ethos at St Peter’s seemed to come from a profound respect for the dignity of others. During his time there, the old ‘fagging’ system was finally laid to rest to be replaced by a more egalitarian rota of ‘house duties’. The wearing of school caps was abolished, the use of corporal punishment was considerably reduced, a system of parents’ meetings was set up, governors’ meetings became more consultative, staff and pupils alike were treated as individuals, and encouraged to blossom and for their voices to be heard. Critical among these acts of equality was the introduction of girls into the sixth form in September 1976 and – something Peter was particularly proud of – the recruitment of the first full-time female member of staff to the Senior School.

As a teacher, Peter was inspirational. His love of his subjects (particularly English and drama) shone through in his encouragement of pupils to experiment in their reading and theatre-going. Two examples spring to mind: his championing of the translated works of the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn at a point when they were just becoming popular, and his Assembly recommendation to the whole school to go and see Peter Schaffer’s controversial play Equus when it arrived at the Theatre Royal, fresh from its London debut. He had a way with words himself: the poetry seems to be under lock and key, but everyone could delight in the sixth-form dress code being couched in terms of being “of conservative cut and hue”. Who else would have put it like that?

Peter’s astonishing intellect and curiosity – coupled with a gentle but Puckish sense of humour ­ shone through in everything he did, and this can perhaps best be summed up in a small incident one day in school Assembly. Announcing that the Car Club would be meeting that Saturday to receive a visit from the owner of a Jensen Interceptor (the muscle car of the early 70s), Peter leant over to the sixth-form Chairman of the Club, and in a stage-whisper asked “Or is that Yensen, Simon?”: with subtlety and humour, out-nerding the nerds.

Peter died on 5 February 2019, leaving behind Juliet – his wife for nearly 60 years – children, grandchildren and a great grandchild. He will be sadly missed by many generations of Peterites.

Barry Creasy (St Peter’s 1971–1976)

Howard Gatiss (St Peter’s 1971–1976)