John Walmsley (1952-2017)

John Walmsley (1952-2017)

Message from Barbara Walmsley

The Walmsleys would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who attended John’s Memorial Service on 22nd July at Sidcot. Many have said what a warm, positive occasion it was and a fitting tribute to John. This was, in no small part, owing to the lovely, uplifting memories and thoughts you all shared both during and after the Service. We also want to thank you for your incredible generosity in giving to the leaving collection. We have been able to donate £225 in John’s memory to each of his chosen charities: Sidcot Quaker Meeting, Amnesty and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). 

Thank you also to everyone who has contacted us to say how sorry they were not to be able to attend the Memorial. We know you were thinking of John wherever you were in the world. Together with all who have sent cards, letters, emails and phone messages since John died, you have expressed such strong feelings of friendship, admiration and, basically, love for him that we have been very much comforted by your words and will always treasure them. 

If you would like to add to the donations in John’s memory, you can do so at the JustGiving websites (below), which are for Amnesty and MCS respectively.


Obituary – John Walmsley 1952-2017

It was with profound sadness that we heard the news of John Walmsley’s death. He was an exceptional man: kind and good, with a deep pleasure in life and people, and with great generosity of spirit. He inspired the loyalty and love of friends, colleagues and students. Most of all he cherished and delighted in his dear wife Barbara, his six wonderful children and three grandchildren.

As a member of the Society of Friends John was familiar with, and lived by, the words of George Fox: “Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone."* He seized all opportunities to use his gifts for his family and for the community. He demonstrated a bold and compassionate attitude, understanding that living his truth would accomplish much in a troubled world. In an interview, John’s suggested epitaph for himself was: ‘He was an optimist’.

John started his teaching life at Churchill School in the eighties: a time of serious disputes between teachers and government over working conditions. His active concern for his professional colleagues manifested itself early when he took on the challenging role of NUT rep, motivated by his determination that teachers should be enabled and supported to do their jobs well. That fellow-feeling and sympathy never changed.

In a bold move, in 1987 he and Barbara upped sticks to teach in Mexico for two years. The experience was influential, leaving him with a love of internationalism and huevos rancheros.

Back in the UK, as his teaching career in state education progressed through the nineties, so did his philosophy of education. He said, “I think mostly in the idea of challenge. If rather than telling them stuff, you challenge students to think in a unique and individual way and to listen to what other people have to say (real listening is important) you'll teach them to develop. If you teach them to challenge they’ll challenge you"*.

He brought his vision, hopefulness and adventurous spirit to Sidcot in 1998 at what proved to be a critical moment. His approach to leadership was: "Be natural, be yourself, don't hide behind the facade of a head teacher. Listen and be permissive, which in the truest sense of the word means to say yes unless you have a reason not to, allowing things to happen."*

He had an appealing, self-deprecating humour mixed with wise self-knowledge. He never took himself too seriously, perfectly prepared to wear a pink wig in assembly. For Comic Relief he and his son James swapped places: James in a suit, filing into assembly with the deputy heads and mimicking John’s mannerisms (grappling with his reading glasses, fumbling with announcement notices) while John, in ill-fitting school uniform was up on the balcony. Whereupon, in a prearranged move his mobile phone rang out. The “Head” pointed at the recalcitrant pupil and loudly castigated him. We all loved it. What we valued about John was that he allowed himself to be known.

As head teacher John focussed on developing the School’s international reputation and building a cosmopolitan school environment. He introduced the International Baccalaureate, achieving outstanding results from the start which in turn brought in increasing numbers of gifted students. Staff stayed as the School became more stable, its future more secure than for decades.

John became more immersed in Quakerism, deepening his inspiring and sympathetic leadership and steering the School back towards to its Quaker roots.

John’s search for educational harmony was matched by his appreciation of nature, culture and beauty. His recent landscape photographs are striking in their sensitivity to the world’s radiance. He bought a ramshackle old house in Bantry Bay, enjoying the task of restoring it along with the local builders, and as relaxed about that as they were. He loved the Irish and things Celtic; the connection with an ancient culture and its beauty. The important things for him were the place itself, the relationships he built within the community, the peace and the calm he felt living there with his beloved family.

At the end of his life John showed that even in the worst times he could face his future with bravery and composure, showing serenity in the face of his last adventure, and inspiring courage in those around him:

"There are lives so rounded and crowned by their completed deeds of love, that death seems to have appeared in the fullness of their prime only to consecrate them for ever…"* And so with John.

Well done, Mr Walmsley.


*Quotations in order: Advices & Queries 1.02; two from an interview in the Independent Schools Magazine (October 2012); Quaker Faith & Practice 22.93.

Tributes to John Walmsley

My memories of John are of a genuinely human human, full of warmth, always open and honest and friendly, very easy to talk to, always a lopsided smile and a chuckle. He would often drift off during conversations, down fascinating side passages of remembrances. I felt truly valued, both as an individual, and for the work that I did. I remember very soon after he became Head, it might even have been his first assembly – and expectations were high – assemblies prior to John had been pretty excruciating affairs, not quite knowing how the mob would react – as John sat down, the leg of his chair broke, and he landed firmly on his bum. This might have been a very embarrassing loss of face and authority for some, Captain Mannering comes to mind, but John turned this incident wonderfully and cleverly to his advantage in the following assembly by getting the head boy to test his chair for him before he sat down. Assemblies with John were always an absolute highlight, bringing the whole school together, and making us all feel a part of something very special. What a legend! In another assembly, a charity assembly, wearing a long haired wig like Neil in The Young Ones. Such a great sense of humor, not taking himself too seriously, and yet at the same time doing a very difficult job with apparent ease, steering the Sidcot ship in a direction that led to some of the best exam results in the West Country, and a school with a really definable, deep and genuine Quakerly ethos, obviously taking it all very seriously. I remember how frustrated he was when he could not manage to encourage staff to enthuse as profusely as he did around some of his more ambitious ideas, such as introducing the IB, which has proved so successful, and being revolutionary with the GCSE curriculum following a visit to Bedales, which he didn't manage to instigate until, in a different guise, given the freedom of Atlantic College. He delighted in telling me all the wonderful things that he was able to do there, which were too much for Sidcot staff to take on, and I would have loved to have been sailing with him on that voyage too. He will be very much missed.

Ross Wallis
Current Sidcot Staff


I first met John when he taught my son Andrew at Churchill School, where he was much respected as an inspiring teacher. I was delighted when he joined Sidcot and soon had reports of his positive influence in the staff room. Although we met only a few times a year, it was always a real pleasure to exchange a few words either after meeting for worship or at an Old Scholars’ Reunion. I took over as Clerk of Sidcot School General Meeting towards the end of John’s decade as Head and it was clear that the School made a great deal of progress under his gentle but firm leadership with a safe pair of hands on the ship’s tiller. Students, parents and staff always knew they had a listening ear as well as hardworking leader in John. A fellow North Somerset councillor whose children were students here while John was Head told me this week what a positive difference he made to their school experience. We were all greatly saddened by John’s untimely death and Margaret joins me in sending our love and sympathy to his family.

Tom Leimdorfer
Headmaster (1977-1986), Clerk of Sidcot School Quaker General Meeting


John's leadership was based on mutual respect. A lesson for us all.

Paul Coates
Former Sidcot Staff

As a family, we have many lovely memories of John's grace, kindness and sincerity. The impact of this on my children's lives is deep and lasting and I notice it often now they are adults. But the particular memory I wanted to share epitomises, for me, John's spirit, and his embodiment of Quaker values as Headmaster at Sidcot. I worked for ten years as a Sidcot librarian, and during that time, the library was the place where children who had badly misbehaved would be sent, if teachers felt the need to remove disruptive children from their lessons. One morning, a boy who had been particularly difficult all term, was sent to the library, and John happened to be the Senior member of staff on duty, who was called out to see the boy. Instead of giving the boy a severe reprimand, which he clearly expected, John sat down with the boy and showed him love and compassion, allowing him to talk about the reasons behind his difficult behaviour that term. The boy wept with relief at the kindness shown to him, and left the library feeling calm and restored. Witnessing this peaceful resolution of conflict, which is so central to the Quaker ethos, made a strong impression on me and confirmed how lucky we were, as a family, to have been at Sidcot during John's time as Headmaster. Thank you, John, from Susan, Barry, Bill, Alfie and Martha.

Susan Cunningham
Former Sidcot Parent and Former Sidcot Staff

John Walmsley was the head during my year as President of Sidcotians. He was always helpful and aware of the importance of good relations between the School and Old Scholars. I also always received a Christmas card from him while he was the head which was a lovely connection to the School for me. A lovely man.

Gill Armitage
Old Scholar and Past President of Sidcotians (2003-04)

I am very sorry to hear of John Walmsley's death, although I know it was not unexpected. He made a good impression on the old scholars when he was a deputy head, liaising positively with the committee at a time when relationships with the School were difficult and we were aware of tensions within staff and governors during John's predecessor's headship. There was great relief when he was appointed head and he continued his open and friendly approach and relationships were stabilised. There is no doubt he saw the School recover from a tricky patch.

Jonathan Fox
Old Schoar and Past President of Sidcotians(2010-11)

I’m Gil Mears and I was form teacher to John’s son James in Year 5 while John was headmaster. John was a most charming gentleman, reassuring, encouraging and always ready to tackle difficulties tactfully and with wisdom. I remember the whole family with affection.

Gil Mears
Former Sidcot Staff

He was indeed a wonderfully caring Headmaster. Very good with people – always saw and brought out the best in everyone, really loved by the students. Integrity and friendship – an ambassador for the School indeed.

Rosie Bellinger
Current Sidcot Staff

Mr Walmsley was an amazing man and Headmaster. I went through the worst time of my life a few years ago. I confided in him and he was amazing. I will forever be grateful to him.

Wendy Hill
Former Sidcot Parent

John took over the Headship during the years I was part of the Easter Reunion Team. Such a kind and helpful man. How sad that he did not have a very long retirement. I send my condolences to you all. Best wishes and love.

Jess Pickles
Old Scholar

Goodbye Mr Walmsley. We were so excited for the prospect of having you near Sidcot once more when we met at the Christmas Reunion 2016 – for you are still very much loved and thought of here. You taught us to be kind and to have integrity, thank you. We will remember you forever.

Joanna, Becky & Hannah Hoddnet
Old Scholars

The image of Sidcot for me is strongly linked to Mr Walmsley not only because he was the headmaster throughout my studies there, but also because my positive impression of the School was largely formed when I met him for an interview as a part of my application. As an overseas boarding student, moving away from home and studying abroad for the first time had the potential of being a significant challenge, nevertheless, the atmosphere at Sidcot helped make my transition very smooth. Of course, the overall Sidcot experience was a product of the hard work, dedication and kindness of the entire team at the time; nevertheless, having a friendly and approachable headmaster was paramount. Mr Walmsley might no longer be with us, but his influence will live on with his students. He will be dearly missed and very well remembered.

Ahmed Al-Faisal Sheikh Al-Shabab
Old Scholar

I was very sad to hear of John's death. Unfortunately, we will be away on the day of his memorial meeting (celebrating the 100th birthday of my mother's cousin).

John was the well respected, quiet spoken and gentle head at Sidcot during our daughter Bessie's time at the School. I was very familiar with the sight of Cissie as a tot, trotting around with her mother when I accompanied Bessie as she looked after her rabbit, which at that time she was able to keep at school. I also remember encountering the whole family eating in the dining hall with the students of Sidcot on the odd occasion when I joined Bessie there.

Later, I heard from a youngster who participated in a Forest School Camp we were leading, how much she had been inspired by the Quaker ethos of her head at Atlantic College – one John Walmsley.

Please pass on my heartfelt sympathy to Barbara and the children.

Helen Spencer
Former Sidcot Parent

John was a great man. A mentor, a fantastic headmaster for such a special school. Most of all a great friend.

He made a true mark on Sidcot and he will never be forgotten.

My condolences to John's family.

Tom Kirrage
Old Scholar

It was under Mr Walmsley’s tenure that the college celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. That celebration also marked an exciting new chapter for the college, with the launch of the Atlantic Diploma and its co-curricular faculties.

A first of its kind, the Diploma sees students divide their time between academic IB studies and a series of UWC mission-focused experiential activities. The dual aspects of the Diploma are designed to equip each student with the ability, drive and confidence to effect positive change in their communities throughout the world, particularly in the fields of peace, social justice and sustainability.

Writing in The Telegraph following the Brexit result, John Walmsley, head of United World Colleges (UWC) Atlantic College in South Wales has spoken out about the principles that underpin a modern international education and how students are responding to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. According to a post referendum demographic breakdown of the vote, nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of 18 to 24 year-olds voted to remain. This came as no surprise to Mr Walmsley. “Nowadays, most of our international students cannot imagine the continent without agreements and organisations such as Schengen and Erasmus," wrote Mr Walmsley. "Even in an unstable modern world, one thing became increasingly clear to me over the campaign – young people simply do not have the same concerns with immigration, collaboration and pluralism that older generations have.”

Independent day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 3 - 18 in Somerset