D Day veteran showed no fear in challenging city estate
From taking part in the D-Day landings, to taking on the job of head teacher at a comprehensive school with 2,000 pupils in Bristol's Hartcliffe estate – John Simpson's life was filled with challenges.
Mr Simpson's death, after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, brings to an end a colourful period in Bristol's education history.
Mr Simpson, who was 88 when he passed away, was in charge of the split-site school, which was first opened in 1960 to serve the new and expanding Hartcliffe council housing estate, for 14 years.
At its peak, the school had nearly 2,100 pupils. He took over the headship in 1968, leading the school at a time when the controversy was still raging over comprehensives versus grammar schools and selective education.
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No wonder then, that when the pupils decided in the 1970s to march on the headquarters of the former Avon County Council against education cuts, the school found itself at the centre of an outcry.
The story goes that when Mr Simpson watched the pupils set off down the road, he said: "Well, there goes my job, then."
The pupils, who were joined by many staff, behaved impeccably and Mr Simpson kept his job, running the school with passion and cutting edge ideas which made him a teaching pioneer.
He deeply believed in giving the children from the council estate the best start in life they could possibly have and set up literacy and numeracy programmes, introduced a debating society and organised a wide range of fundraising activities to ease the social deprivation in south Bristol.
He brought in bright, young teaching graduates who were as passionate about education as he was. One of them, for example, was a Polish grandmaster at chess.
Another, Vic Ecclestone, who joined the staff when he had shoulder-length hair and rode a motorbike, went on to win Britain's Best Teacher award in 1996 and was later awarded the MBE for services to education.
Mr Ecclestone said: "John was a unique and sometimes controversial head teacher at a time when Hartcliffe was one of the largest secondary schools in the country. He appointed a range of bright and highly qualified staff, many of whom went on to have distinguished careers in education. On a personal level, he took a risk in appointing me but he helped me to develop my career in educational research and juvenile law and let me work on sports and arts initiatives which became the foundation of the Hartcliffe Boys' Dance Company."
Mr Ecclestone said there was a year when he had a mutual agreement with Mr Simpson that he and a busload of sixth formers would be "sick" during a Glastonbury weekend – and they found him there, selling cakes on a stall to raise funds for the CND movement.
Mr Simpson, who hailed from Hertfordshire, became involved with CND as a result of his experiences in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and in particular, while serving on a destroyer during the D-Day landings in 1944 where he saw the sea turn red with blood. He was called up to serve in the war while studying at Cambridge University where he had won a scholarship and after the war finished, went back to Peterhouse to take his diploma in education. He knew from the age of 11 that he wanted to be a teacher and after finishing at Cambridge, he took his first teaching post in Manchester.
In the following years, he took a series of posts which were deliberately aimed at giving him the widest possible experience of education. In the 1950s, for example, he worked for five years as head of history at a public school in Kent, followed by a post at a purpose-built comprehensive in West Bromwich and later to a secondary modern in one of the most deprived areas of Kent.
One of his deputy heads at Hartcliffe, Nancy Dunning said: "He was an enthusiastic head teacher who was very fair to the staff and children.
"He was a man with a big heart and a lot of energy who was trying to make a better life for the children of Hartcliffe – it was not an easy job."
Alderman Paul Smith, a former Labour city councillor who was a pupil at the school at the time Mr Simpson was head teacher and went on to achieve a degree in astronomy and astrophysics at Newcastle University.
He said: "As a pupil – one of more than 2,000 at the school – Mr Simpson was quite a distant figure. However, he presided over a successful school with a radical edge and a real passion to make a positive impact on the children from the estate."
Tory Councillor Peter Abraham, a former chair of the governors, said: "He was a different kind of head teacher than what we had had before and therefore it took a bit of getting used to. But we certainly got used to John and we think he made a real contribution to improving the education of a great many children in what was one of the most deprived areas of the city and one of the most difficult schools."
After he retired in 1982 at the age of 57, Mr Simpson and his wife, Mavis, moved to North Yorkshire and embarked on many travels to many varied parts of the globe. He was particularly fond of sailing and made many trips to various parts of the British Isles, Ireland and northern Europe.
His daughter Caroline, one of four children, can remember one family holiday when he hired a boat and they sailed across the English Channel.
She said: "We were enormously lucky to have such a brilliant father who was so full of energy and fun and such a kind man."
She said that on days out, they would often stop at churches or old buildings to admire the architecture or go browsing in an antiques shop.
While living in Kent, she can remember him stopping at bus stops and offering lifts to people he had never met before. After becoming Quakers, Mr Simpson and his wife wrote to inmates in prisons on a regular basis.
His son, Jonathan, said: "He was a good man. He was principled, kind and very generous. He helped an enormous number of people."
For the past 11 years, he suffered from Alzheimer's and was cared for by Mavis before going into nursing homes in North Yorkshire, London, Stroud and Frampton-on-Severn.