The Founding Headmaster

A Biography Of Dr. Watson


Robert was born on 8th March 1910 at No 2 Sunbeam Villas, North Road, Hornchurch, Essex to Herbert Francis and Catherine (née Sulman) Watson and died on 16th July 2004. in Baldock. His younger brother, Francis Herbert Henry, was born on 23rd September 1912 in Christchurch Road, Southend-on-Sea, and died on 8th November 1993.

Robert's father. Herbert Francis Watson, was born 20th October 1876 in S. Tottenham. He left school at age 13 and joined the London and North Western Railway as a clerk By age 30 he was in charge of a town office at Smithfield Roberts mother was born Catherine Sulman, on 23rd March 1877, and died on 20th January 1940. Robert's parents married while the Sulmans were still at Southend, in 1898 at Prittlewell Church and must have lived with the parents.

The family moved to Hornchurch soon after 1900. Robert's father commuted to London, while mother did dressmaking and employed two or three women to make collars (fashionable at the time for female wear).

The First World War

Robert's father volunteered, but was apparently deemed too valuable to the railways. Southend had a number of air raids: nothing fell in Robert's part of Westcliff, but it was disturbing at night, when one could hear the throbbing of the Zeppelins. His grandfather took a photo, which appeared in the "Southend Standard', of a collection of bombs that had not exploded. Robert recalled seeing an aerial combat with anti-aircraft shell bursts.

Robert remembered the excitement of Armistice Day and going with his father to their allotment, where he 'dug’ for victory.


In 1917 the family moved to Wellington Avenue, very near to Chalkwell Park and only five minutes walk from Chalkwell Hall School, to which Robert went at age 5. 1920 to 1921 was a terrible year, when the boys caught measles, whooping cough and chicken pox and his parents sent Robert for about a year to a small private school kept by a Mary Willis and her daughter at 1/6d a week, where he progressed rapidly. After the brothers had both been promoted to the 'Big Boys School, Robert won a prize - The Story of Hereward'. but failed to get a scholarship to Westcliff High School at II. He did win a scholarship in 1922. and at the same time a scholarship in the Art School, which was regarded as a record.

Robert travelled by tram to Victoria Circus (one penny) and the school was only 200 yards away.

The Chemistry Lab, was also used for assembly and the stables at the back had been converted to a gymnasium. No Physics appeared on the curriculum, Robert was always top of the form and collected four leather bound prizes.

Robert entered the sixth form to study English, French, German and Latin, but changed to Inter Arts, which demanded three arts subjects and Mathematics, so he dropped English and received extra lessons in Maths. He was successful in the examination and continued studies in French and German.

It was then decided that Robert should enter Kings College, London to take German with subsidiary French.

While in the sixth form he played regularly in the orchestra, played a number of times for the 2nd Rugby XV. captained the 2nd Cricket team and at the school sports day won the high jump for which he received a small engraved cup and a 100 yards race for which he received a chess set.

University and Teacher Training

Robert commuted to Kings with a quarter rate season ticket, sometimes travelling with his father and his bridge friends, arriving at Fenchurch Street with sore eyes because there were usually about eight smokers in the compartment. Travel was slow but comfortable and Robert did most of his reading in the two hours each day in the train.

His teachers at Kings included Professor Atkins (Dean of Arts since 1902). Frederick Norman, later to succeed Atkins as Professor, and Professor Priebsch at University College. The course of study was German literature through the ages. Starting with Gothic and Old High Cerman. Middle High German, the age of Luther and Hans Sachs. Goethe and Schiller, night up to modern times. Grammatical accuracy was imposed in prose composition and essays.

They had no examinations until finals, which meant a fairly lengthy oral, and 6 three-hour papers, taken over three days at the Imperial Institute at South Kensington, 10 to 1 and 2 to . Robert obtained a 'First".

Having decided that teaching was to be his career, he took his headmaster's advice and enrolled for the one year post graduate course at University College, Southampton. The spring term was lectures at the college. but for the summer term he had a luxury term of teaching at Lord Wandsworth School near Odiham. One weekend the school had a visitor who arrived with his wife in a 'Puss Moth, which he had flown to S. Africa and back. Robert was fortunate to have a flight over the Hampshire countryside.

Early Professional Career

At the final exam, he obtained a teaching certificate of the University of Cambridge and an ordinary Teaching Certificate, which included PE and Music. While at Southampton he played a fair amount of chamber music with local people including string quartets.

He had two interviews. One was with the head of Gillingham Grammar

School and took place at Charing Cross Station, where the HM told Robert he would be carrying a white handkerchief - this one was unsuccessful.

A little later came a summons to Birmingham, for a vacancy at Saltley Secondary School. Bilchers Lane. Birmingham in which he was successful. Two other young men were appointed on the same day. Albert Leonard Barnes, who became a lifelong friend, was father of Julian the novelist and Jonathan, Professor of Philosophy at Ballial College, and then at Geneva (1998). Alby died in 1991. The other appointee was Gordon Radford, with whom Robert was still in touch until recently. All three had London "Firsts".

Robert taught German, English and Chemistry (Year 1 in 1932-3). He played rugby in a school team against former pupils, made music with Higgins (French master) and attended Chamber Music classes at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. He had a term's violin lessons from Hytch and bought a new Italian violin (Fagnola) for E39 in 1935. It was later sold to Bears for £75 in 1950 and the same instrument was sold by Sotheby's circa 1985 for £40,000.

After a "General Inspection of the school in 1935, the headmaster suggested that Robert should seek promotion. In May 1935. he was appointed to Bishopshalt School, Royal Lane, Hillingdon to teach German and some French. When the excellent results of Robert's first O' level form were announced in 1936 John Miles, the headmaster, was very pleased and was able to award a special allowance of £30 a year, in addition to the London allowance of £25.

Soon after arrival at Bishopshalt, Robert set about forming an orchestra In 1937. Robert performed the part of Stephen in the school production of "Iolanthe". He attended school Lake District camps at Easter 1936 and 1937.

A pupil wrote to Robert in April 2000 to congratulate him on his 90th birthday, describing his lessons as "fun". because they had a weekly 15 minute session of German drinking songs and folk songs.


In 1939, Vivien Baker arrived at Bishopshalt as the new head of girl's PE. Robert was the only bachelor and before long he was being introduced to Vivien's parents at Hurst House, in Redhill. He was disapproved of by Vivien's mother because of his very skinny legs. Of course, a mother's disapproval often confirms a daughter's choice, and the marriage took place in Redhill on 19th December 1940. The couple moved into Robert's pleasant semi detached house in Swakeleys Road, Ickenham, close to the diminutive River Pinn.

Sons followed after the war had ended. John in 1946 and Peter in 1947. They were encouraged in music and academic life as were Robert's grandchildren when they were old enough. In 1952 the family moved to 32 Parkway, Hillingdon.

Both Robert and Vivien were thrilled to receive their card from the Queen on reaching their 60th wedding anniversary in 1999 and were able to attend a family celebration lunch at the Sandy Lodge golf club.

War Service

Like many of his generation War service was central to his life. He made many life long friends and had a great store of stories about the lighter side of army life. The real work was never discussed until he was released from his security undertakings when the story of wartime code breaking was released into the public domain.

In 1941, he decided to volunteer into the Territorial Army and applied to join the Intelligence Corps as a fluent German speaker. He was called before a large committee and put through various tests and was accepted and received the King's Shilling at Hounslow in July.

Private WATSON No. 10350696 was then sent to Harpenden to a country house (Rothampstead House) and park as Corporal WATSON, Duties were looking at German Radio Messages, and noting the discriminant - first six letters, and if this was a new one to telephone to "Beaumanor" These were messages subsequently decoded (Enigma) at Bletchly Park, though he did not know this at the time.

Alter about 6 weeks he was posted to 109 Special Wireless Section in Essex. The C.O. was Captain Hugh Skillen (Teacher of Spanish and French at Harrow County School).

At the end of June 1942, Captain Skillen called Robert and Sergeant Bob Emerson into his office and told them that it had been decided that each Special Wireless Section should have three officers, and that he had recommended them for the promotion. About ten NC.O's were therefore summoned to London, and asked whether they wished to accept promotion In July, Robert received a grant for officer's Service Dress - made to measure at Austin Reed's on Regent Street and was posted as second Lieutenant to an Oxford College for a short officer" course. His promotion after 331 days of service was dated 25/7/42.

He was then posted as a full lieutenant (two pips) to 104 Special Wireless Section, C.O. Captain Tom Normanton, later to become MP for Rochdale. and subsequently a European MP.

Robert did an Officers Course at Matlock (see photo of the C.100 officers who took part). Former PM Stanley Baldwin's son was one of the participants - hardly an enthusiastic soldier, who had the highest mess bil of those on the course. A few weeks later he was at Cambridge for an "Interrogation Course of two weeks, followed by a weeks interrogation of real Cerman prisoners at the London Cage' in Hyde Park.

He then managed to get called to London, where he worked in Petty France for some time, commuting from home, and working on 3 letter codes. (Haeressignal tapfel). He was now in Army Group H.Q. which moved to Kensington. Monty's H.Q. was now at St Paul's Girls School, which was bombed three or four times.

The Unit was called No L. Special Intelligence Co. As we approached D-Day wives were not allowed to come within 10 miles of the coast. On a free afternoon Robert took a bus into the country in the direction of Midhurst, and found the very pleasant village of Fittleworth where the postmistress directed him to Fulling Mil Cottage (Mrs Saigeman), who received Vivien and Robert most kindly on three or four occasions. It subsequently transpired that the postmistress was the mother of Peter Gosden, first historian at St Nicholas who knew Mrs Saigeman very well, and was a friend of Fred Saigeman who went to Oxford.

Towards the middle of August he embarked on a landing craft at Portsmouth and sailed overnight for Arromanche. His main friends in the unit were Trevor Harvey (musician), who spent many weekends at 109 Swakeleys Road for music -eg. Brahms Violin Sonatas - (he died ca.1990): Lou Iller (a French speaking Swiss). Phillip Brook, ol Moorhouse and Brook. Cloth Merchants of Huddersfield.

They spent 6-7 weeks near Bayeux on the South of the St. Lo road. After the collapse of German resistance, they moved off eastwards to the Chateau de Carcy, not far from Rouen.

Next move was to a monastery just South of Amiens, where the "handy man" dug a fine loo pit only to discover that it was just below an image of the Virgin Mary and had to be filled in. (This must have been the most repeated story in Robert's repertoire.)

Robert had a letter to deliver in Ghent: a member of the French staff at Bishopshalt, Miss Doherty, had friends there from whom she had not heard since 1939. He located the house on the Chausée de Bruxelles where it enters the centre of the city. Madam de Moor and her two daughters, Mio and Genevieve (father (deceased) had been a wealthy lawyer) invited Robert to stay for lunch (the wine was Chateau Lafite).

They became family friends and the Watsons visited them on their first continental holiday in 1960 and again in 1961 after Madame had died.

In February they moved into Germany and took up residence in a very large farmhouse a few miles South of Kempen. Most of the messages picked up in the last weeks were from units reporting how many tanks they had left. of their petrol and diesel stock.

On "Victory in Europe Day Lt. Hornsey (a keen Scout) found some discarded clothes in the loft of the farmhouse and made a Union Jack which they flew from the top of the roof. After that it was a matter of preparing to return to the UK and Robert was given the task of writing a history of the 3-letter codes in the German army and air force, so this magnum opus is now somewhere in the Archives.

After leave Robert was sent on a course in Hampstead to study Japanese wireless organisation preparatory to being sent to India. Fortunately President Truman decided to use the atomic bomb.

After a period of leave he was sent with about 15 other officers to HQ BOAR (British Army of the Rhine). at Bad Oeynhausen near Minden, and Herford, a pleasant spa town. Robert saw a Y officer - 3 colonel he knew, and asked if there was a possible posting. He sent him along to the "Intelligence Bureau". where there was a vacancy for a GS03 - General Staff Other - so he became a Captain with staff pay! He spent about seven months in a small office, where, with a major in charge and three captains they deal with Denazification, dealing mainly with good Germans". whose names were put forward as Germans who would reorganise, with a British office, the various branches of industry.

While he was in conversation on the telephone with a Colonel Wolfe who was IC German Railways, and who was saying: "Every time I find someone who is competent to reorganise the railways, you tell me that he is a NAZI". At this point a telegram was put into his hand to inform him of the birth of John Robert!

He came home on leave while in the Control Commission in April, when he made the acquaintance of John Robert, was given petrol for BP: 72 (AUSTIN 10), and drove down to Benfleet to see his grandmother (then aged 91) and Uncle Fred.

Captain (later Major) Hugh Skillen, worked at Bletchley Park from D day 1944 until he was demobbed. Since the war he has been very active in compiling accounts of Enigma and the Y-service (he has published several books) and has organised several reunions at Bedford (Vivien and Robert attended the 1995 Reunion).

Robert attended Hugh's birthday party (82) in 1997. Hugh died in 2004 and there was a TIMES obituary.

St. Clement Danes

Robert did not resume at Bishopshalt until 18 August 1946. Robert and Vivien decided that he should seek promotion in 1947. so he wrote to James McGil Clouston, his headmaster at Saltley, who had meanwhile become head of St Clement Danes, asking him to update his testimonial. It so happened that he needed a head of German, because the previous head of German had been killed during the War. Robert was appointed to St Clement Danes School in Duncane Road, Ealing, near Wormwood Scrubbs Prison, for September 1947. Robert considered that his main achievement at St Clement Danes was developing a school orchestra.

LGSM (Licentiate of the Guildhall School of Music)

In about 1950 the London County Council offered teachers the opportunity of improving their qualifications, so Robert decided to enrol at the Guildhall School of Music to study for a diploma on the violin The two-year course paid for by the LCC. involved one hour of violin and one hour of theory each week. At the Easter of his second year he took the "Performer's Examination playing the first movement of Concerto No. 2 by Wieniawski. the first movement of Beethoven's 'Spring Sonata and an arrangement of the violin solo in Mozart's Haffner Serenade. Arthur Campbell accompanied Robert thus became a Licentiate of the Guildhall School of Music with a Performer's Diploma.


Still seeking to improve his qualifications, Robert decided that a higher degree would help promotion. After being given some study work on a Middle High German manuscript, he was told that the quality of his work was good enough for a PhD. Professor Norman suggested a study of manuscript 'D' of the Nibelungenlied. The work involved a visit to Kings every two weeks to see his tutor. Dr. Thoma, who gave him every encouragement, and on Saturday mornings a session in the old "Reading Room at the British Museum.


Robert was well on the way towards completion of the study when he started to look for further promotion. The Middlesex Education Committee planned to build two new grammar schools near Hillingdon and Robert was appointed to the Northwood post in February 1955. The building on Norwich Road and Wiltshire Lane, Northwood was partly built on a site which had once belonged to Kings College, Cambridge, which shares with Eton College the dedication of its foundation to the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas, so the school became St. Nicholas Grammar School.

Robert completed the work for his PhD during the first years of his headship. Borrowing the school typewriter at weekends, he completed the typing (364 pages in 5 copies using carbon paper) in 1958.

As the building of St. Nicholas progressed, the first task was to recruit nine teachers, Robert decided that they should each be a 'head of department'. although he was not at that stage able to offer any 'head of department' allowances. John Miles and Robert interviewed candidates at the Education Office in Uxbridge and in due course nine men were appointed.

Among Robert's colleagues at St. Clement Danes was a young mathematician, Ken James, (first class honours, London) and Robert encouraged him to apply for the mathematics post. He was subsequently appointed and over the next months helped Robert plan the organisation of the new school.

Robert's PhD studies with Professor Norman had led to his being appointed in 1953 as Chief Examiner in German (O-level) to the University of London for 4 years. Subsequently, he continued as an Assistant Examiner, first for O-level and then for A-level until after his retirement in 1975. Examining paid for family summer holidays.

Until four years before he retired Robert was able to interview applicants for teaching posts without a committee and he was proud that no fewer than 15 of them became heads of grammar or comprehensive schools.


As Robert was approaching 65, he paid a visit to HMS Sultan at Gosport and was subsequently invited to sit on an Admiralty Interview Board once or sometimes twice a term, a task he continued until 1983.

When it became known that he was to retire in 1975, the Headmistress of Hillingdon Court Convent was instructed to get him to teach O-level and A-level French. He retired for the second time in 1978, when the Convent closed. In the school year 1978-9 he helped Bishopshalt by teaching an O-level class in French because the school had had a very lengthy absence in the department.

During retirement, in addition to his visits to Gosport, Robert worked as the administrator of the Commonwealth Linking Trust, a charity organising exchanges between schools throughout the Commonwealth. He was still giving this organisation some help up to 2000.

He also did some interviewing for VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and for the league for the Exchange of Commonwealth Teachers.

Robert continued to teach pupils until his 90s, including eccentrics such as the professional guitar player who had never learnt to read music and candidates for a variety of A-level subjects, mainly English, French, German, Latin, Spanish and violin.

He also carried on the chamber music. After retirement he spent a couple of evenings a week on chamber music. He owned a near complete set of scores for classical chamber music (nothing written after 1900, of course) and played just about everything written for chamber groups by Beethoven, Mozart. Haydn, Schubert, Brahms and many others from the 18th and 19th centuries. Bach cello suites arranged for viola were a favourite solo when no accompanist was available. In his mid-80s his hearing started to fail and his chamber music companions dropped by the wayside.

Retirement was filled with activity, much centred round his six grandchildren.

After Vivien's death he could no longer live in the Parkway house, needing 24 hour care. He spent his last 17 months in Baldock, close to John and within reach for Peter's visits. He was still able to read some of his beloved French, German and English literature until after his 94th birthday.

He died peacefully in Baldock just as the last bells of the school year were sounding round the country in the early afternoon of 16th July 2004.

Some of Robert's enthusiasms:


Robert had a very unusual gift for language. When he went to Kings London for interview the candidates were asked to write a short exercise in German. The Professor was startled to find that Robert had made no grammatical error. This was Professor Norman, who had been interned in Germany throughout World War I and had come to be able to speak perfect German in any required regional variant. His job during World War 2 was to work out what the German decrypts from Bletchley Park actually meant.

Robert never made grammatical errors and when marking he would pick any mistakes and mark them in red pencil faster than most people could read through the passage in their native tongue. He spoke French to very nearly the same standard, having polished this skill and worked his way through almost all classic French literature after retirement, in order to take the 'A' level French class at the nearby Convent School.


Robert maintained an immaculate vegetable garden and at one stage had brought a huge area of allotment under control on the other side of Parkway. He cultivated most of the family needs in potatoes, runner beans, brussels sprouts, leeks, asparagus, and many varieties of apples and soft fruit. He left the flower garden to Vivien but always appreciated a good display of flowers.

Painter and decorator

Most household repairs and decoration, as well as laying paths all round the garden in crazy paving kept him occupied for more summer evenings and weekends. He was a home owner from the 1930s, first in Swakeley's Road, Ickenham and then for over 50 years in Parkway. Hillingdon.

Mountain walker

Robert had started walking on summer trips to Germany and Austria with his bother and introduced the family to mountains with a summer holiday in 1957 during which they worked up from the Wrekin to Snowdon. Slightly more adventurous trips followed, and he optimistically bought a new set of boots at the age of 65 in the French Pyrenees. Before long there were grandchildren to take walking and many happy weeks were spent in the Lake District during one or two of which he was introduced to the use of the ice axe in his mid seventies.


Family holidays were initially spent with Vivien's parents in Kingsdown, Kent, in a small house rented from one of their neighbours. Later, a Hillingdon neighbour provided access to a static caravan at Naish Farm, near Christchurch, adjacent to the Chewton Bunny. The next step was renting touring caravans, starting with something called a "Princess' that allowed speeds not much over 30 mph behind the family Armstrong Siddeley. Moving on to smaller and more mobile vans, the first purchase, in 1959 was a "Bluebird". This was towed behind an Austin Sheerline but still heavily restrained speed. The design was extremely unstable. However, even with such limitations and the fact that Vivien was never prepared to drive with a caravan, Robert took the family to Scotland, revisiting the haunts to which he had been taken on holidays by his railwayman father. Then it was Germany and Austria, and in 1961 a better towing caravan, a Cheltenham, for the first trip South of the Alps. The caravan towed well but in Southern climes the Sheerline gave endless trouble. Its clever design for warming up in English Winters led to vapour lock on any sustained incline in Italy or Southern France. Despite many consultations with 'experts' the problem was never solved. Caravanning continued with destinations taking in Greece and Turkey by the mid sixties, and continued via many changes of both car and caravan until the last Cheltenham was bought in 1973 and used for about ten years. This period was followed by holidays in a variety of French gites. Vivien did assert towards the end of her life that the only reason the family had had to be dragged round Europe summer after summer that Robert could show off' with his languages but this might have been a slightly unjust position!

Here are some pictures from a collage of mainly holiday and pastime photographs of Dr. Watson, at various stages throughout his life, and some with members of his family. 


Six Years of the School Fair (1962)


New Grammar School


School Building Project (1962)


Drama with Peter Clarke


Geoff Lee's Recollections 


Recollections of Dr. Watson

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