Harrow County Staff

Mr. H. W. Brister

Mr. H. W. Brister died just before Christmas 1962.  He served the school nobly from 1920 to 1954, being Deputy Headmaster for the last ten years, and Head of the Mathematics Department before that.  Behind his somewhat fearsome exterior, his colleagues remember the warmth and sense of humour that inspired him to lead the School through peace and war and to lay the foundations of the present scholastic successes.   "His memorial," wrote a colleague, "is to be found not only in the School itself, but in the hearts of those who today are better men through having known him"

Obituary in Gaytonian 1963


Memories of H. W. Brister

H. W. “Joe” Brister was a major factor  in the culture shock many of my contemporaries experienced when we entered the school. We had experienced nothing like him at our various primary schools where men teachers were rarities. Here was this big man who seldom smiled but was clearly dedicated to teaching us mathematics. And dedicated he was. As head of the mathematics department he taught no other subject. He was eminently fair in the way he treated us but would not tolerate any deviation from the dedication he felt was due to the subject.

His teaching style changed over the years he taught me. In the first year he taught geometry from the book he and Bill Duke had written called “Progressive Geometry” with a stiff cover coloured light blue. It was a handy size for knocking us on the head with to help drive home some fundamental point or other about alternating angles that we had forgotten for the moment. On occasions the book might have been better called “Aggressive Geometry” but that would have been unfair as he was never heavy handed in the way some of the other masters have been described. In our first class he asked us all to buy a set of geometrical instruments consisting of set squares, compasses and dividers. He was very specific that the set- squares be transparent because “I bend the tin ones”, which is exactly what he went around doing in the next class! “You did not listen to what I told you”. Parental responses were not recorded.

The next two years we spent learning theorems that we copied meticulously into our exercise books. In fifth form, where we were approaching School Certificate, Joe used a different technique to drive home the niceties of his subject. Upon entering the room, he would direct two boys to place his table against the blackboard that extended across the room. He would then recite a theorem, turn suddenly to a boy and tell him to get up on the table and write the proof on the blackboard while he sat in the boy’s chair. Those who performed, were honoured with a minor compliment and replaced after they had written a few lines, but woe to those would got it wrong!  The miscreant had to stand on the table and face a barrage consisting of a mixture of board duster, bits of chalk and invective before being allowed to sit down. The concept of creating “a happy learning situation” so frequently heard in teaching circles today, would never have crossed Joe’s mind. He had a formula that worked and he stuck to it.

In the sixth form, we were met by a very different person who relished his job in a way we had not previously appreciated. He was there to teach and there were no reminiscences of his army days, or anything else to distract us away from the task in hand. The job of senior master had become nothing more than a title under “Creeper” Davis who experienced ill-health for a long time. When Joe assumed the title, he did so with enthusiasm and immediately took great interest in the appointment and functioning of the prefects. What the prefects construed to be an over-reaction by Simpson to some quite minor event during his early days, it was Joe who brought good sense to bear and stopped the threatened resignations. Again, he was serious about the job and although there was the occasional twinkle in his eye, authority had to be maintained. He was form master for the sixth form. One idiosyncracy he permitted himself was the use of green ink for his entries in our report books. I recall admiring his style of handwriting that differed from the standard “copper plate”, and tried to emulate it.

For the life of the ATC squadron, he provided continuous support to his friend Bill Duke in the role of adjutant. His main jobs, outside those of administration, were to teach aircraft recognition and security. He would lecture us on the necessity of keeping quiet about things we saw at airfields etc so as to counter any efforts of the enemy at espionage – which he curiously pronounced “es-spy-on-age”.  One of the few times I recall ever seeing him reveal “the other” Joe, was at an ATC dance when he joined Bill Duke, Killer King and Stan Robinson in the singing of the Gendarmes’ song from Gilbert and Sullivan “We run them in, we run them in etc”.

Joe always gave of his best and was serious about it. He expected those around him to behave in the same way. Thus during the summers of 1944 and 1945 he gave up one month of his holidays to join several others of the staff in running the school harvest camp at Haddenham in Buckinghamshire. Again, Joe took it seriously and during the days would visit us at the farms to make sure we were working properly. Never one to shirk what he regarded as his responsibilities, he lectured us one evening on the use and limits of social acceptability of the bad language we were acquiring during our work!

We know little of Joe’s private life or early years. I suspect that is the way he wanted it to be with his professional life separate from his personal life.

As a first class role model, mentor and teacher, Joe did more than his share in helping to shape the callow boys from primary schools into young men ready to take on the world.

Brian Hester                                                                            16 November 2002


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