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The college principal who valued education for all
Published 06/04/10



DAVID PITT, retired principal of South Oxfordshire Technical College (now The Henley College), died on March 24 at home following a long, physically disabling illness. He was 93.

He was born and brought up in Bideford, Devon, the eldest of four brothers, and was educated at Bideford Grammar School where he was head boy for two years. He matriculated at 17 and went to Exeter University to study French and German.

The son of a garage owner and car dealer, he had a practical interest in engineering and electrical gadgetry. His father promoted and sold American cars in the Twenties that could traverse the renowned steps of Clovelly high street.

The family was one of the first in the town to have a radio. This engendered David’s lifetime interest in electronic gadgets.

In the late Thirties, the family moved to London because the garage business had failed in the depression. These were hard times and work was hard to find. David cycled everywhere, giving him an impressive knowledge of London.


This period shaped his political views. A period of unemployment showed him the value of membership of the National Association of Operative Printers and Assistants, a trade union that supported him in finding an income and a job. He was a strong supporter of the Internationalists during the Spanish Civil War and became a member of the Ealing League of Nations Youth Group.

In 1938, he joined the Daily Express as a print setter on the foreign news desk. This experience promoted a lifelong interest in current affairs, politics and developed his skills in writing, editing and print setting.

During the Second World War, David served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, furthering his expertise in electronics. He was a radio operator who detected enemy aircraft with newly invented radar sonography and was based for a time on Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel. He was also stationed in the Gold Coast in Africa.

After the war, full of the new ideals of peace, he went to teacher training college where he met his future wife Melba. They were married in 1949 and enjoyed the family celebration of their 60th wedding anniversary last summer.

David was a senior lecturer at Slough Technical College for more than 10 years while also studying for a distant learning degree in mathematics, geography and anthropology from London University.

Appointed principal of South Oxfordshire Technical College in 1960, he played a leading role in shaping education in the area. This incuded the collaboration of centres of secondary and further education and led to the establisment of the Centre for Advanced Studies, which became The Henley College.

David set up the training workshop for engineering technicians and motor mechanics. He developed courses for full-time students and saw their number increase from 20 to 200 by the time he retired in 1977.

He passionately believed in the value of education for all. He was ahead of his time in seeing the importance of developing technical skills and apprenticeships for young people not wishing to pursue academic careers. His staff remember him as a great democrat who respected alternative views and who relished informed debate.

As a protagonist of life-long learning, and to ease himself into retirement, he updated his electrical installation skills and set up business as an electrician until his health prevented him from manoeuvring in lofts.

David had strong political and moral beliefs that were shaped by his experiences as a young man. He was a long-time member of the Labour Party in Henley and was a strong protagonist for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

He abhorred the development of nuclear weapons as vehicles of mass destruction, whoever controlled them. His children remember being carried on his shoulders at Aldermaston marches in the Fifties, his support for the women protesters at Greenham Common and, more recently, his campaigning locally.

From 1977, he worked as a voluntary copy editor for the New Internationalist in Oxford and for many years served as a volunteer reader for the Henley Talking Newspaper.

David spoke excellent French and German. He was a founding member of the Henley Twinning Committee, which developed lasting relationships and friends in the town of Falaise in Normandy and later with Leichlingen in Germany.

A keen walker and lover of the countryside, David organised neighbourhood Boxing Day walks in 1963. These became a much-loved community tradition, introducing people to the Chiltern countryside. The walks were planned to end up in a local hostelry, where walkers could pretend to have obviated the excesses of Christmas, and continue today.

David was a founding member of the Henley branch of the University of the Third Age, where he was leader of the local history group. He recently produced a leaflet about the history of the War Memorial Hospital. Utilising his print setting skills, he was proud of this achievement, typed before his disease impaired the use of his hands. He was a good chess player and president of the local chess club.

Latterly, ill-health through a progressive muscle wasting disease meant David became less physically active. He bore this stoically, strongly supported by his wife, and commanded a strong, intellectual presence from his hospital-style bed and wheelchair set up in the sitting room.

He remained dignified throughout, retaining his interest in current affairs. He was an avid consumer of books, sudoku puzzles and continued to write pertinent letters for publication in the Standard or to local politicians.

David is survived by his wife Melba, brother Michael, four children, Frances, Martin, Nicola and Robert, and six grandchildren.

The funeral will be at the Fair Mile cemetery on Tuesday at 11am. Family flowers only, but donations to Practical Activity can be sent to A B Walker & Son, funeral directors, at 158, Reading Road, Henley, RG9 1EA.

THE lunch meeting of Henley Rotary Club last week was well attended with Rotarians from three other clubs visiting.

Three members of the Abingdon Vesper club brought along a member of the Rotary Club of Thika, Kenya, to receive a cheque from the Henley club.

Rotarian Eleanor Harrison, who is a director of the Action for Children in Conflict charity in Thika, gave a brief account of its work with young people and how funds were needed to purchase tools and equipment so they can learn a skill and stand on their own feet.

She thanked the club for the 1,440 cheque and promised to keep the club informed as to how it benefited the recipients.

Herman Jansen, chairman of the international committee, made the presentation, explaining that 720 was raised by his committee and and this was matched by the Rotary Foundation, Rotary’s international charity.

He thanked the members of Abingdon Vesper for their help: Carol Hall, a member of the humanitarian grants sub-committee of District 1090, Bruce Gow, formerly district foundation chairman and now a member of the RIBI foundation committee, and Christopher Le Fevre, club vice-president and chairman of the trustees of the Action for Children in Conflict charity.

Abingdon Vesper has had several contacts with Rotary clubs in Africa, members of their club having travelled to Kenya and Uganda to assist with various projects.

For more information, visit actionchildren.org

The other visiting Rotarian was Barry Stanley, president of the Henley Bridge club, who, like several members of the host club, had just returned from the district conference at Eastbourne. He was the guest speaker and gave an entertaining talk on his work as an independent financial adviser, explaining how he had moved into this after studying for a PhD in zoology and spending six years in teaching and stints in the pharmaceutical industry and sales and marketing.

He handed round old coins, including a quarter-farthing, a third-farthing, a double florin (known as a barmaid’s ruin because, worth four shillings, it was easily confused with a crown, which was five shillings) and a very old cartwheel twopence.

He also displayed a colour illustration of the largest denomination coin in this country, a 100 “Britannia.”

Colin Richards proposed the vote of thanks.

Published 06/04/10

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