TOM HILTON   1912 – 2006


The last time I was allowed to stand and give public utterance in this church was almost exactly 60 years ago.  I was reading one of the nine lessons in the school’s carol service. A few hours later I was walking through the school buildings when I heard a voice say, “You read very well this afternoon, Nobes.”  The voice was Tom’s.  Although, of course, he was right, he was the only member of staff to mention the matter and to give praise to this young and sensitive lad.

That was Tom.

And now I’m here to give deserved praise to Tom, on behalf of us all.  It is a great honour, though I am very much aware that others knew him better, and far longer, than I.

One of them is Anne Ashton, who about ten when she first met Tom.  She tells how, when her mother died, Tom was not content with a letter of condolence, but visited her and George to express his sympathy; and similarly when George died, he visited Anne. Tom’s was the direct approach, and the personal contact.

Tom Hilton was one of the best teachers in the old grammar school tradition, devoting almost all of his long career to the boys of Price’s School, Fareham.  Former pupils remember him as “the best teacher I have ever come across” and “one of the key people in shaping my life.”

He embodied the perfect balance of the twinkling eye and the stern gaze; he was always ready to laugh with pupils, but they always knew exactly when laughter had to stop. His conversation, until the very end, was lively, amusing and extremely well-informed; but he listened to others, including the young – an attribute not universally recognised by staff in the old days. His control in the laboratory was such that he ventured on experiments that others would not have risked.  He was an explosives expert, and his best-remembered demonstration was the blowing-up of a sealed can, bits of which would clatter against the laboratory ceiling, much to the delight of his classes, some of whom, as a result, were inspired to become notable scientists and members of the medical profession.

Tom had enjoyed a distinguished school career and became head prefect. He went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1930, to read Natural Sciences. He took a good degree, and was college soccer captain and won colours for cricket. He taught at Kendal School for a year, and, having qualified, moved in 1935 to Price’s, to George’s delight, to teach chemistry.

Already commissioned into the T.A., in 1939 he was called up, and spent the war being officer responsible for the artillery trials for all three services at Inchture in Scotland. He was awarded the Territorial Decoration.  His return to teaching, together with one or two other young members of staff who had been called up, brought a breath of fresh air and liveliness to the school, and helped revive those who had carried the responsibility of seeing the school through the war. Retaining his army rank, as Major Hilton he took charge of the Army Cadet contingent at the school.  At last there could again be 1st XI v Staff soccer and cricket matches. (Tom had been captain of both these games in his own school days at Colwyn Bay, and victor ludorum, too.)  On the football field he made scintillating runs at great speed. At the end of the first of these fast forays into the school’s half, he would briefly disappear behind the trees and into the ditch on the lower side of the pitch, and emerge to run even faster.  (He later admitted to being sick after such violent and unusual exertion.) His bowling was almost as quick, and he ran up puffing his cheeks in characteristic fashion. He coached usefully in the nets, and umpired with humorous observations to the bowler, and sometimes surreptitiously gave words of advice sotto voce from the corner of his mouth. (One of us here today remembers taking the notable wicket of a future Hampshire player in a game again Portsmouth Grammar School after Tom has hissed at him “Appeal, you fool!” when he had not realized that the batsman was l.b.w.)

Tom was one of the resuscitators of the dramatic society after its wartime slumbers, and delighted the young actors by persuading Peggy (whom he had married in 1939) to join other glamorous staff wives to do the make-up. Later he became housemaster of Westbury. While other members of staff in the 1940’s and beyond used surnames, or, in the case of the more daring, nick-names learned from a boy’s friends, Tom used Christian names. Not only that, but on the first occasion ex-pupils met him after leaving school, he would say: “Enough of this ‘sir’ business.  You know my Christian name; use it.”  That he was Tom was known to all; unlike most members of staff, he had no cognomen (unless it was “Tommer”) and this was a mark of the affection and respect in which he was held.

He was Deputy Head of Price’s from 1963 until his retirement in 1972. By this time the school had grown, and in particular the sixth form had become much larger and stronger. He carried his responsibility with the same happy blend of humour and firmness that he had always shown, and never over-reacted when pupils were referred to him for disciplinary reasons. (These days the epithet laid-back might be used to describe his calm approach.) Tom seemed to know everybody, and apparently never forgot a name or a face, even years after people had left school.  For their part, his ex-pupils never forgot that he had trusted them and their abilities, and had noticed and praised their achievements.

He and Peggy celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary two years ago. They regularly attended Old Priceans’ functions until very recently, and the affection in which they were held was plain to see at these gatherings. They had a large family made up of the many pupils of Price’s who had known and admired Tom, and not a few of these enjoyed a pint (of mild, in Tom’s case) with him in his local after they had left school. In the Old Pricean grace “we give thanks for the comradeship we have found in the family of Price’s, and for friends and mentors absent today, though present with us in spirit.”  Tom played an important part in the formation and continuation of that family.

And now that, for Tom, “the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over, and his work is done,” we pray that he is granted “a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

Tom was the longest-lived of the staff who taught in those years after the war. The end of an era was marked when he died peacefully on 11th January, aged 93. To Peggy especially, and also to their relatives, goes deepest and most sincere sympathy from all who know them.

Patrick Nobes  30 Jan 06

Tim Foster also spoke of his Godfather, Tom Hilton, at the funeral:

Mike Bayliss, Tom Hilton, Patrick Nobes and "Gunga" Garton 1989

It is appropriate and fitting that Tom’s life has been commemorated by his extraordinary commitment to Price’s School. It is by these things that he is known, and by his influence and mentorship to different generations of pupils and students. This has spread out and beyond this place and into the lives and the families of those pupils who knew him.

It is however the life that he made with his wife Peggy and their life together which has supported and shaped so much of Tom’s sense of duty and responsibility. In so many ways, Toms involvement with the complexity of the transformation of Prices during the mid twentieth century was one in which the presence of his life and work were co-located and strengthened by his devotion to Peggy. 

The site of their future house was a meadow in Wallington, which Peggy discovered one bright evening on her way home from visiting her Mother in Hospital; it was to become a place which, with Tom’s forward-looking choice of a young architect, would be unique to them and wholly suited to their lives together. Tom’s degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge gave insights and skill in planting and gardens. He used these skills and his real intuition to create a superbly landscaped garden. This with the sympathetic and ‘modernist’ design of the house and its windows, brought his garden ‘into the house’. It was truly a place of light - mixing the old with the new in such a way, that in late ’fifties England, with its stifling ‘cosiness’, was sensational. The plans made by the architect specifying choice of colours, was maintained in throughout in the interior spaces. This was Tom - Tom had the ability to encourage in others, the conditions for their skills and expertise to flourish and to trust and adhere to a decision made. These ‘certainties’ were stabilising and humane forces in his teaching, but this house embodied the manifestation of them. This place was the focus for Tom and Peggys life. It did in many ways, transcend age.

As my Godfather, and as a friend and contemporary of my father, Tom proved to be perceptive, sensitive and supremely loyal. In the company of others he had an easy ability to relax within groups of people, to greatly appreciate the views, opinions and idiosyncratic attitudes of all. He warmed to and appreciated the diversity of his fellows, possibly I think, as a result of his Lancashire roots and his Fathers pub in Shaw, where he must have observed people from an early age. In his retirement with Peggy, he was a regular during the ‘eighties at the Lamb in Burford and at The Carnarvon Arms on Exmoor, where his presence with ‘the regulars’ became a vehicle for his contentment and good listening skills to be exercised. His arrival was looked forward to by friends.

Peggy was always a mediating influence to his sometimes definite stance and yet was always the focus for his great and humane sense of duty. Her quiet ability for strategic thinking was one of the many ways that their lives were complimented by each other. Another was by her ability to define a set of routines and certainties, which met his absolute observances about punctuality (which were always more about his consideration for others, and good manners, rather than fussiness). He would arrive and depart, in later years from the pub, with these same reassuring patterns. This gave a confidence and an expectation which were the kinds of strengths which others responded to and admired. Tom always made great pains to make people aware of his thanks – in recent times this is my memory of him – this skill to make people glow from within, and to be thankful for what is given.

Tim Foster