Lilian Edna Brown
Master of Arts
This honorary degree recognises a life of education and wider service in the community. Our story starts with a young soldier who became engaged and went to serve in India. After seven years he returned, married his fiancée and three months later went back to India. As a result of that visit our honorary graduate, Lilian Oakman was born and eighteen months later she went with her mother to live in India. By then her father was in the Education Corps and Lilian’s earliest memories of him as a teacher greatly influenced her life.
Her father’s archive of photographs from his time in India is now in the Imperial War Museum. The family returned to England in 1934 and, after a period in Edinburgh, lived in army barracks in Hamilton where Allan Oakman was teaching. Lilian then attended Hamilton Academy and embarked on her education seriously. One of her passions dates from this period, when at the age of twelve she produced a concert for the troops, charging one or two old pennies per seat. She learned the meaning of the term “stage fright” while dressed as a blackbird.
It was intended that Lilian should go to Glasgow University but in 1945 the family moved to Gwent and she attended Lydney Grammar School where she gained the Higher School Certificate in English, French and Latin. Having started her dramatic life as a blackbird, she continued it as a frog, being the leader of the croaking chorus in Aristophanes’ play of that name and also leader of the chorus of initiated women.
University applications were made to Oxford and Durham but they were not successful. Their loss was our gain because Bristol offered a place to read "The English Language with its Literature", an interest stimulated by an Anglo-Saxon book at Hamilton Academy. She was to stay for four years, obtaining a good degree and then, in 1952, a Certificate of Education.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, our story now brings in people well known to the University. One of Lilian’s interests was debating and in her first year here she represented Bristol in Leeds. Then, as acting Secretary of the Debating Society she set up the Inter-University Debating Competition. Another distinguished contemporary who debated with her was Michael Angus, who many of us know as the leader of the University’s recent Campaign for Resource.
Derek Zutshi, my predecessor as Chairman of Convocation, was President of the Students’ Union during that period and Lilian herself stood for the position of Lady President against Pip Hempsall or Willoughby, as we now know her. Pip won but the relationship developed and Pip is one of Lilian’s guests at today’s ceremony.
It was a Students’ Union General Meeting that was responsible for the most important development in Lilian’s life. Across a crowded room, (actually the Octagon in the Victoria Rooms) she saw an elegant man, smoking a cigarette in a holder. She heard an attractive voice and immediately fell in love. This man was Richard Brown (Dicky). They met shortly afterwards at a party at Manor Hall and soon afterwards Dicky asked her out. They were engaged within six weeks and that included the Christmas vacation; they have been inseparable ever since.
Dicky was a medical student whose course continued after Lilian graduated. So Lilian undertook supply teaching at Bradford on Avon before they were married in 1953. While Dicky was doing his hospital training there was more supply teaching, a period acting as a private English tutor for four young Arabs and a period teaching the children appearing in "The King and I" whilst they were touring. But Lilian wanted to be a proper teacher and in 1957 she started supply-teaching English at St. George Grammar School.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, Lilian stayed at St. George for thirty years and, in the words of one of her former colleagues, devoted her life to its students. She became Head of House, and subsequently Senior Mistress, from which position she retired in 1986. During that period St.George was amalgamated with two Secondary Modern schools to form a comprehensive school with over 2000 students based on four sites. At the beginning of her appointment, there was strict separation of boys and girls and, indeed, of male and female staff. Later St. George became one of the most multi-cultural of the Bristol schools, numbering West Indian, Sikh, Pakistani and Chinese amongst its students. The difficulties that the St. Pauls district of Bristol experienced in terms of race relations are well known and Lilian took a leading role in addressing the teaching issues in an ethnically diverse society. She wrote a paper for her Union on the background to the problems and suggested responses to them. Her own approach and commitment to resolving the issues can be deduced from the final words of her paper: "People are people, are people." She then wrote a key section on Teacher Education in the 1981 document produced by the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association "Education for a Multi-Cultural Society".
Lilian’s commitment to her students is recounted by a former colleague: "She was always prepared to spend time listening to students’ problems, discussing solutions and finding answers where none seemed possible. Her guiding principle was always respect for the individual and her genuine kindness and interest defused many difficult situations". As part of this approach to problem solving Lilian made applications on behalf of students for financial assistance to a number of charitable trusts, which involved a great deal of detailed and highly confidential work. She had considerable success with those applications. Lilian’s students clearly appreciated her teaching. On one occasion, encouraging them to write a sonnet in Shakespearean style gave rise to the following:
"No longer, Madam, need you have a fear
That all your efforts wasted work have been
For many a day you’ve tried, with patience long
Or, rarer, tight-lipped mouth and steely stare,
To show your youthful flock just what goes on
When poets rhymes and images prepare.
Now has your careful teaching reached its peak –
Twenty immortal sonnets bloomed this week."
I imagine that M Monks, who wrote that in 1962, would be surprised to find that his sonnet had indeed been immortalised! Notwithstanding Lilian’s commitment to her students, she was also concerned for her fellow teachers and was an active member of the Avon Teachers’ Consultative Committee and of the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association throughout her career. She was branch Secretary for some years and for nine years served on the National Working Party for Multi-Cultural Education. She was later Branch Vice-President, President and, after her retirement, Branch Almoner for 10 years. On her finally leaving that office in 1997 her Union awarded her their Certificate of Honour for her lifelong service. Throughout her career she was also active in the National Association of Ladies’ Circles. Having founded the Downend Circle in 1963, she subsequently served as Treasurer, Vice-Chairman and Chairman of the South-West region.
What of the University you may ask, Mr Vice-Chancellor? Lilian kept in touch over the years, as a member of the Association of Alumni and the Manor Hall Association. After she retired from teaching in 1986 she decided to attend the Convocation AGM for the first time. My predecessor, Dr Derek Zutshi, was not slow to recruit her and she was soon elected to Court and then to the Convocation Committee and the Manor Hall Committee, in all of which positions she remains a valued contributor. For six years she served on the Joint Committee of the Students’ Union with the University, she was a delegate to two national conferences of Convocations and Alumni organisations and was co-organiser of a third conference that was held at Bristol. She now chairs the Convocation Awards sub-committee and serves on that for Student Awards. Again, though, her work for the University has not been confined to committees and for some years she has been part of the Convocation team that welcomes foreign students and helps them acclimatise to Bristol. I may say that, as Chairman of Convocation, I have benefited enormously from her experience, wisdom and advice.
So, how to summarise Lilian Brown? When asked that question she thought carefully before replying: “A very happy marriage, a richly varied life, a great love for St George School and Bristol University.” Alternatively, she suggested an extract from “Ulysses” by Tennyson:
"How dull it is to pause, to make an end
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things."
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Lilian Edna Brown as eminently worthy of the degree of Master of Arts, honoris causa.