Jeremy Nichols, headmaster of Stowe who galvanised its pupils with his style and energy – obituary

At the wheel of his Bentley, Cambridge scarf around his neck, the pipe-smoking Nichols epitomised the all-rounder schoolmaster of his era

Nichols: specialised in restoring order to troubled institutions
Nichols: specialised in restoring order to troubled institutions

Jeremy Nichols, who has died aged 77, was headmaster of Stowe School from 1989 until 2003, and before that taught at Eton for more than 20 years.

Nichols brimmed over with energy and enthusiasm; his deliberately theatrical entries into the classroom, his schoolmaster’s black gown whirling in the eddy of words, could bring to young minds thoughts of Batman, albeit an incarnation of the superhero enamoured of the works of Thomas Hardy.

Nichols seemed to specialise in restoring order to troubled institutions. When he took up his post as Stowe’s sixth head, aged 45, the school was sorely in need of a spark to rekindle its pilot light.

Founded in 1923 by J F Roxburgh, by the 1950s Stowe had become for many families a second choice to Eton, with which it had close ties. It was burdened by the costs of maintaining its site, the romantic former home of the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, near Buckingham.

The South Front alone, designed by Robert Adam, runs to 916 ft, while the Arcadian gardens that surround the house were landscaped by, among others, Capability Brown and William Kent.

Nichols’s study occupied a neo-Gothic library designed by John Soane, looking towards Thomas Pitt’s Corinthian Arch a mile away. Nichols thought it the “most magnificent office in Britain”; he turned his desk sideways, otherwise “I would not do any work.”

Yet by the Eighties, the price to Stowe of preserving the 39 Grade I-listed monuments in the gardens alone was a parlous neglect of facilities and lack of investment in staff, just as other independent schools were beginning to raise their game.

Fortunately, Stowe was then blessed with an unusually competent board of governors, which during Nichols’s time worked to transfer the gardens to the care of the National Trust. They now attract 100,000 visitors each year.

The freehold of the house itself, the liability for which the National Trust had jibbed at, was sold and the building leased back. This freed up resources, subsequently augmented by lottery grants, for modernisation of the school and restoration of the house’s fabric, which for much of Nichols’s tenure was covered in scaffolding.

His own legacy was perhaps similarly hidden. His role was not yet that of the modern ambassadorial, fund-raising head, but as a leader he exuded a moral authority that signalled to the governors what was expected of them, and enabled the school’s renaissance to begin.

Sincere, modest but not unworldly, in manner something of a modern Mr Knightley, he also won the trust of parents, much helped by the charming example of his own family.

Not least, Nichols galvanised the school’s pupils, all of whose names he learnt by keeping their photographs on a notice-board in his study. Even if some remained alert to the importation of any overt Etonianisms, such as a proposed new motto, Floreat Stoica, few could resist a headmaster who took his charges for a spin around the nearby Silverstone circuit in his own 1924, 3-litre Red Label Bentley.

The youngest of three children, Jeremy Gareth Lane Nichols was born at Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, on May 20 1943. His father, Derek, was then a Spitfire pilot, but Jeremy’s parents split up when he was still young and he was largely raised by his mother, Ruth.

Nichols: having fun was for him synonymous with education

Although Jeremy was ultimately to inherit the Bentley from him, his father stopped paying the school fees at Lancing when his son was about 16. He was only able to complete his education there on account of the generosity of his godfather and other family friends.

Jeremy was influenced by a charismatic housemaster, Patrick “Tiger” Halsey, and originally had thoughts of becoming a priest, and then a doctor. But he struggled to get the grades needed and, turning to English literature, completed the A-level syllabus in three months.

While reading English and Italian at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Nichols was awarded an athletics blue and also represented the university at football. It was in these years, too, that he came to love Italy, studying in Perugia and mounting a first foray into teaching at Livorno’s naval academy.

Returning to England, he taught at Rugby for a year, moving to Eton in 1967. These were still the days when schoolmasters were expected to be all-rounders, and at the wheel of his Bentley, with his Cambridge scarf around his neck, the fair-haired, pipe-smoking Nichols epitomised the breed. Having fun was for him synonymous with education.

On the sports field, he transformed the standing of football at Eton after taking charge of the 1st XI from 1970. It had been a minority sport, played only in the Lent rather than Michaelmas half.

By 1972, Charterhouse, often among the strongest of public-school sides, had been beaten for the first time in a decade, and in two other seasons in the 1970s the team went undefeated. Nichols also ran the cricket 2nd XI for many years.

A disciple of F R Leavis, Nichols was among the founders of Eton’s English department as the school began to broaden and raise its academic aspirations. Lively and stimulating as a teacher, for he loved discussing the use of language, he had a particular fondness for Dickens; his dogs included “Barnaby Rudge” and “Betsey Trotwood”.

Nichols was also a fan of Bob Dylan, although his own days as a guitarist had been curtailed by a hay-baling accident which removed the top of a finger (the source of much speculation among schoolboys, some of whom favoured the theory that he was secretly a member of the Japanese yakuza).

In 1981 Nichols took over as housemaster at South Lawn, which had been through a turbulent period, disturbing the balance of trust and authority needed to run any community. This Nichols largely restored, instilling the team ethos that he cherished; all his life, he loved to celebrate success, often by opening a bottle of champagne, accompanied by a fitting quotation.

Jeremy Nichols

His gaze was direct, though his head often cocked, and he had a strong sense of what was right and wrong. If his purposeful approach did not bear fruit with every spirited boy, he also understood that what mattered were the boys rather than the rules.

Being in loco parentis was central to his view of his role. Accosted by Nichols after returning from a forbidden trip to the pubs of Windsor, one pupil decided to hitchhike the same night to London, only to be surprised when the first car to stop under the motorway bridge where he was sheltering turned out to be driven by his housemaster.

Nichols had two terms as temporary head of Aiglon College, the Swiss boarding school, in 2006-07, after leaving Stowe, but he otherwise intended to spend his retirement fishing, painting and writing poetry in the West Country with his wife, Annie. The two had met at a friend’s wedding and were themselves married in 1972.

By common consent, she was his greatest asset in his professional and home life, and he was floored by her death from cancer in 2009. In 2013 he married Katherine Lambert, a writer and editor of The Good Gardens Guide; she died on September 3. He is survived by the son and three daughters of his first marriage.

Jeremy Nichols, born May 20 1943, died August 8 2020