David Francis Ashdown (Appreciation)

Published: 18 Jun 2019

Time spent at school: 1943-47 pupil, 1952-56 staff

Date passed away: 17th May 2015

I came into the First Form in September 1954.  There were some completely new subjects to take now that I was in grammar school, and one of them was chemistry.  Our teacher was David Ashdown.  From his very first class I was captivated with chemistry and his teaching of it.  I loved the bangs, the smoke and the colours he made and everything that happened with mixing different things together in test tubes.  Most of all, I think, I was turned on by the incredible enthusiasm that David brought to his teaching.  It was such a contrast to most of the other classes where the teachers, no doubt dedicated and thorough, seemed focussed on solemnly and seriously making sure we were taught those things that were mandatory for us to know.  But David made chemistry fun and I absorbed it all with huge enjoyment.  I was a somewhat mediocre student – “very average” or “very fair” were typical assessments made by most of my teachers – and so it was great to know that there was actually something that I was good at.  I remember that we did some of the experiments ourselves, such as growing our own crystals of inorganic salts.  I found it fascinating that copper sulphate was bright blue whereas nickel sulphate was green and yet copper chloride was also green and some other sulphates had no colour at all.  It was years before I learned why this was, but at the time it was just pure wonder.

David taught us chemistry for two years.  Coming into the Third Form in September 1956 he was gone.  It would be almost 60 years before I would see him again.  I was shattered, but the enthusiasm I had for chemistry, given me by David, was by now permanently part of me.  Chemistry remained something I was good at and, as time went by, I passed O level chemistry, A level chemistry, and then got a place to study chemistry at university.  Eventually I spent my entire career being a chemist and enjoying it greatly.  At one point I even burned down my laboratory, something not particularly appreciated by my employers, and I believe to this day the elevator doors in the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto have a great brown stain on them that they have borne since the 1960’s when a flask I was holding seemed to be going wrong and so instinctively I tossed it out of the laboratory into the corridor, where it conveniently exploded.

Somewhere along the line, I realized what an enormous debt of gratitude I owed David for putting me on this path to a rewarding and fun career, but at this point I had no idea where he was.  I asked my sister Elizabeth, who was generally clued in as to where everyone was, but she didn’t know either.  She thought perhaps he had gone off to teach in Yorkshire.  I tried to investigate, and later, when the internet became part of our lives, I searched there too.  Everything was a blank and I even started wondering if he was still alive.  And then, out of the blue, there was an e-mail contact made with Kenneth Birbeck and Kay White, who gave me an e-mail address I could try.  As it turned out, David never “did” e-mail, but his wife Gill did and so I was finally in touch with her, and through her, David.

This was early 2013 and from that time on David and I corresponded by regular mail.  He wrote in longhand and I marvelled how clear his writing was – just like the writing on the blackboard that I remembered from so long ago.  I learned about his subsequent teaching career in three schools, as Head of Chemistry, then Head of Science, and finally Deputy Headmaster as well as, for a significant period, Acting Headmaster.  We exchanged views on various things and he kindly invited me to visit their home in Chipping Campden if I happened to be in England.

In summer 2014 I was indeed in England and we arranged a time for me to visit.  And so, in the early afternoon of August 26th, I walked up a road called Littleworth and knocked at the door.  Gill answered, fetched David, and finally I was able to thank the man who had literally given me a career.  Over the rest of the afternoon we talked, we reminisced, and I learned a lot about David that I had not known before.  We sat in his living room, a room lined with his many books as well as photos of his family, of whom he was very proud.

David was possibly the only person who had been not only a teacher at Godalming Grammar School but a pupil also.  I learned that he had come to Godalming from Sutton (also in Surrey) together with his younger brother Raymond.  I believe David went into the Fourth or Fifth form.  I was staggered when he told me that Biology was his passion, more so than chemistry, but that he had not been allowed to take Biology at Godalming because he hadn’t taken it before.  So chemistry became his subject.  Looking around at his books, I noticed how many of them were on biological subjects – insects, birds etc.  David wanted to go to Cambridge and for that he needed Latin, another subject he hadn’t taken before, and was full of praise for Mr. Johnston, who taught him five years of Latin in a single year.  I asked David how he managed to learn so much and he smiled, “In those days,” he said, “I just absorbed everything that came my way.”  I remembered the reputation he had left behind him at the school – a State Scholarship, a First Class Honours degree from Cambridge, and Miss McIntosh, the English teacher, telling us that David Ashdown had been the most brilliant pupil she had ever encountered.  David had been Head Boy the same year that my eldest sister Dorothea had been Head Girl (1946-47 I believe).  I learned about David’s other passions in life, acting in plays and musicals being one.  He had appeared in an incredible number over the years, sometimes more than once, taking a different part the next time.  He told me that he also still acted as a guide at one of the local stately homes, and he obviously enjoyed that role immensely.  Even though it was almost 60 years since he had been that young enthusiastic teacher who had inspired me, I marvelled how little David had changed.  He still spoke in that clear voice, his thoughts still razor-sharp, and his enthusiasm for everything still wonderfully there.  Despite being well into his 80’s, he was never an old man.  The time sped by quickly and it was time for me to leave.  My last recollection of him was his big enthusiastic wave to me from the end of his driveway.

David Ashdown (left) and Don Wigfield.  August 26th, 2014

His recent death was a huge shock.  His son Mark, on behalf of his family, very kindly let me know the sad news by e-mail.  It was difficult to believe that this man, so collected and vibrant less than a year earlier, could have died.  I will always be glad that I was able, even though very much at the eleventh hour, to have been able to personally thank him for the huge role he had played so many years ago in putting me on a good path.  He was a wonderful teacher.  I believe that many of his pupils would be most grateful to have been taught by him or, indeed, just to have been fortunate enough to encounter him.

Don Wigfield (1954-61)

Emeritus Professor, Chemistry and Environmental Science

Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.