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Dom Philip Jebb

A very slightly strange and wonderful man.

Dom Philip Jebb, who has died aged 81, was a charismatic headmaster of Downside School during the 1980s, when the spirit of student rebellion ran strong and the school threatened to become ungovernable.

Many boys at Downside no longer went regularly to Mass; their hair grew down their shoulders; they jibbed at school uniform, smoked in their bedrooms and smouldered at any rules they considered oppressive. The introduction of a school council with pupil representatives did little to ease tension.

When Jebb took over in 1980, after serving as deputy head, there was an immediate tightening of the rules and an inevitable reaction. Several hundred pyjama-clad boys held a noisy late-night protest in the quad, bawling abuse and ringing the school bell. But the demonstration lasted only 10 minutes. There had always been rumbles of protests about a new head, Jebb told the press, adding that there would be no retribution.

Quite the strangest decision he made was to make me Deputy Head Boy in that first year. The Deputy’s job was to organise the other prefects etc. Scheduling and so on. And the idea of getting me to schedule things is so absurd as to be farcical.

But he showed an iron resolve when some boys, returning from lunch on a day out, borrowed a digger they found on the side of road. It was a time of fear about IRA terrorists, and one of the boys — the son of a well-known actor — put on a thick Irish brogue when the police drove up. Arriving back at school in a squad car, he and his companions found the headmaster drumming his fingers on the arms of the throne in the hall, waiting to dish out a fearsome dressing-down.

No names, no pack drill of course, but I can’t remember whether that was Jamie or Jared. Jamie perhaps, Jared would have left by then.

In 1940 the rural peace of Sussex was disturbed by the Battle of Britain being fought overhead. While his father made Molotov cocktails to greet the expected German invaders, Ant scoured the night skies with a telescope and found a severed hand beside a crashed German bomber. On being sent to Downside, aged 10, he arrived at Bath station just after it had been obliterated by a raid, and in his first year at the school he found himself just yards from a cricket pavilion when a training aircraft crashed nearby, killing nine boys. The incident haunted him ever after, but he retained a high-spirited thirst for new experience, once volunteering to box against a larger boy in the hope of experiencing being knocked out.

I also recall him taking an autogyro for a spin from that same cricket field 40 odd years later. Also the same place that he played rugby (with his brother as well) with my father.

The one phrase that I still use from him (and perhaps I should have imbibed something rather better) is that “Concorde might fall on our heads”. This was his stock reaction to anyone asking whether we could be certain of anything in the future. It stuck as a piece of imagery for decades: until of course Concorde did in fact fall on someone’s head, that unfortunate maid in the hotel (??) in Paris.

4 thoughts on “Dom Philip Jebb”

  1. They don’t make ’em like that any more.

    He sounds nearly as eccentric as my housemaster at a similar (but less exalted) establishment, in the late sixties.

    Again no names, no packdrill, but I guess Joe (for such was his nickname – anyone who was there will know…) was a character long remembered by many.

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