Farfield Housemasters

  • Major J.C. Miller (1904-1920)
  • E.A. Robertson (1920-1928)
  • G.R. Thompson (1929-1936)
  • A.B. Douglas (1936-1957)
  • B.W. Sankey (1957-1965)
  • W.O. Thomas (1965-1980)
  • R.W. Coleman (1980-1988)
  • G.B. Worrall (1988-1998)
  • A.A. Edwards (1998-2003)
  • J.R.P. Thomson (2003-2013)
  • D. Atkinson (2013-2021)
  • T. Burnett (2021-present)


Farfield – The First Hundred Years 1911-2011

Farfield House was the third senior house to be built at Gresham’s. By 1905 numbers of pupils had reached 150 and plans for a new house to accommodate 44 boys were drawn up by Chatfeild Clarke, the architect of Howson’s and Big School. Although Edwardian in character, the architecture reflected earlier styles. Farfield was opened in 1911, and the description in The Gresham noted that a donkey was one of the useful items kept in the outhouse, and that the highly modern house was lit by electricity.

The early years

Major John Miller was Farfield’s first housemaster. He built up the house from the first few boys in Wansbeck House to Bengal Lodge before Farfield was built. He was one of the four masters who helped Howson rebuild the School on the foundations of unity and loyalty, truth and honour. Remembered for the merry twinkle in his eye and the happy domestic atmosphere he created with his wife, Miller saw Farfield as a family home rather than a boarding house. Boys recalled him weeding the garden, tending his bees, his encouragement of their hobbies and readiness to listen to their problems.

Edward Robertson took over the helm at Farfield in 1920. Pupils fondly remembered the Sunday afternoon walks he led to Kelling Heath and Weybourne. During the holidays he visited boys at home, throwing himself into family activities with great enthusiasm. Robertson’s desk drawers were full of notes, observations and plans for the house, and before he died of a long illness in 1929, he wrote “If anything of me lives on earth after my departure, it must be found in Farfield boys, and in those who have left.”

Farfield’s new housemaster was a ‘fiery little Irishman’ George Thompson, known as ‘Tommer’, whose physical disabilities in no way impeded his success. Housemaster for sixteen years, in organising the many tasks that make up that role he was at his best. Tommer took a keen interest in everything concerning his house, and was always ready to ‘aid and abet’ his boys in all their activities. Modest and courteous in manner, he soon gained their cooperation and ready response. Many successful house plays have been performed in the Farfield Auditorium which was his brainchild.

Andrew Bruce Douglas

One of Gresham’s most outstanding and long-serving housemasters, Bruce Douglas began his tenure of Farfield in 1936. Known affectionately at different times as ‘A.B.’, ‘Duggie’ and ‘The Bird’, he joined the staff in 1921 to teach maths. As well as his limitless patience in the classroom, Bruce Douglas was renowned for being ‘redoubtable’ on the hockey field, known for having his own terrifying strokes. He firmly believed that the human brain only functions properly when kept warm, and the body when well fed, and it is noted that both the temperature and catering in Farfield improved under his bidding.

Farfield at Newquay

It was Bruce Douglas and his wife Betty who had the daunting task of transplanting the boys to Newquay during wartime evacuation and establishing Farfield on a temporary basis in the Pentire Hotel. Perpetually young, and seemingly imperturbable, Bruce Douglas ran Farfield as a society at once paternalistic and individualistic. Discipline was clear-cut but never rigid, and he often encouraged the boys to sit and talk in his study, to listen to music and play with his beloved spaniels. This was a housemaster that appeared to know everything that was going on around him, often astonishing boys with a chance remark showing how closely he observed their habits!

Post-war Farfield

The Farfield House Book from 1943-58 gives a real flavour of life in the house at this time. The tennis court was reclaimed from wasteland, and paths and flower beds cleared and weeded. House suppers, fireworks and plays continued to entertain the inhabitants, but early in 1946 a serious outbreak of ‘Flu even put a temporary halt to the daily cold showers. House debates were re-started, and Farfield became a model aircraft factory when boys became obsessed with gliders. At this time Farfield boys comprised 50% of the School Band, and music was very important, with the house orchestra playing during prayers and Sunday evening gramophone recitals.

By Michaelmas 1946 numbers of boarders had reached 50, and three boys had to sleep in one of the staff houses. Sunday evening dancing lessons commenced, and became even more popular when ‘a bevy of beauties’ were imported from Runton Hill to help Mrs Douglas. The following February a number of Valentine’s cards arrived bearing West Runton postmarks! Heavy snow in 1947 brought new distractions; snow fights, skating and tobogganing. Boys followed local speedway and cricket on the wireless, although listening times were limited. In 1949 a wooden owl belonging to one resident, Simpson, became the house mascot. Even Mrs Douglas commented on the remarkable resemblance it bore to her husband!

A sweepstake on the Derby and the General Election occupied the minds of residents in 1950, the mock house election being won by the Farfield Liberal Party. A conjurer from Cromer gave some entertaining shows, and the Farfield Jazz Band performed a concert in Big School. In the late 50s the house seems to have gained a reputation for bad behaviour due to a core group of ‘revolutionaries’, and there was a blitz on discipline. Unwanted visitors – lice – in Douglas’ last term in 1957 caused considerable inconvenience and disruption, with daily inspections and delousing. The House Book finishes in 1958 with the House Captain thanking the Sankeys for their kindness and generosity during the past year, mentioning especially Mrs Sankey’s efforts to improve the catering, and her husband’s tact in handling some of the more difficult situations, riots, porridge rejection, and prefect demotions.

Junior cricket team 1951

During Bill Thomas’s tenure from 1965-80 house matches were keenly fought and a new sense of pride in representing the house was instilled. One OG called him a scholar and a sportsman … a gentleman of the old order.” As a cricketer he made many runs for Norfolk and was also responsible for coaching the School’s first eleven. In 1973 the new bed-sits were ready and the house was refurbished. More improvements followed in the early 80s with the opening of a much needed extension. Farfield in the 80s under Ron Coleman was known as a warm and friendly house, where plays, concerts and dances were well attended and enjoyed. This ‘special Farfield spirit’ continued into the 90s under rugby coach Graham Worrall, with a particularly pleasing report by school inspectors, success in the House music competition as well as in cross country. Not surprisingly perhaps, half of the School’s highly successful under sixteen’s rugby team came from Farfield!

In the late 90s Farfield became known as the smartest and best behaved boys’ house as Adam Edwards insisted on even higher standards. There was success for the athletics, swimming and hockey teams. Boarding numbers declined and Sunday activities such as go-karting and cinema trips were introduced. In the new Millennium Farfield has seen the departure of long-serving matron Joyce Cozens in February 2005 and the arrival of Mr Thomson’s new baby James in the following year. Success for the tenth time in eleven years in the cross country, as well as victory in the Iron Man and debating competitions has brought glory to the house. The tradition of house prayers continues on three evenings per week, with a hymn, a reading and a prayer, ending with the familiar mantra “Goodnight Boys”.

Farfield celebrated its centenary with an event held on 24th September 2011 attended by 160 OGs and four living housemasters.  The evening began with evensong in the Chapel, followed by a Farfield style Broadcasting House entertainment hosted by OG Paddy O’Connell, and culminated with dinner in Big School.


W. H. Auden: Farfield 1920-25
‘The greatest English poet of the C20th’

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York in 1907. He arrived at Gresham’s the year after Howson’s death. Placed in the lower third form, he was soon realised to be exceptionally bright and an open scholarship followed. Never bothering to show off in class, however, many thought him lazy, but Wystan soon made his mark through his acclaimed performances in the annual Shakespeare play.

One contemporary described the young Auden as “a small, slightly puffy little boy with pink and white cheeks and almost colourless hair.” A life-long friendship soon developed with Robert Medley who suggested to Wystan during a walk in the woods that he might try writing poetry. Early poems penned at Gresham’s include ‘June dawn at Hempstead Mills’ and ‘Woods in Rain’.

Auden later contributed his own account of the ‘Honour’ system at Gresham’s in Graham Greene’s book The Old School.  Describing himself as “mentally precocious, physically backward, short-sighted, a rabbit at all games, very untidy and grubby, a nail-biter, a physical coward, dishonest, sentimental, with no community sense whatever”, he admitted to being largely happy here. One fly in the ointment, however, was the master who caught him writing poetry during prep and accused Auden of wasting his time!

Leaving school with a scholarship to study science at Oxford, he soon switched to English, eventually returning as Professor of Poetry in 1956. Auden’s first book Poemswas published in 1930 by T.S. Eliot for Faber who remained his publishers for the rest of his life. It was soon to establish him as the leading voice of a new generation.

After teaching English for a few years, Auden worked for the GPO Film Unit, collaborating with Benjamin Britten on films, plays and other work. As a war reporter he went to Spain to comment on the civil war, and travelled to China with Christopher Isherwood. It was during his stay in New York on the way home in 1939 though, that Auden made the extremely unpopular decision to move to America.

As a poet, Auden felt his role in wartime was as a commentator and reporter, rather than a fighter. Along with Britten and other creative artists he shared a house in New York. This experiment in communal living was described by Sherill Tippins in The February House as both chaotic and creative. Out of the chaos, though, came Auden’s most acclaimed collections New Year Letter and For the Time Being. During this time he also met the young Chester Kallman who was to be the love of his life. Returning only briefly to England, W.H. Auden died in Vienna in 1973.

Benjamin Britten: Farfield 1928-30
Pre-eminent British composer

Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft in 1913. On 21st September 1928 he wrote to his parents reporting his safe arrival at Gresham’s. He said that he liked the place, but was feeling “horribly strange and small”. After a good night’s sleep, and meeting his study mates, however, things did not seem quite so bad, and young Benjamin was pleased to announce that he has been included in the choir!

I am sure this letter will strike a chord with many a first-time boarder, as would Britten’s diaries kept whilst at Farfield. In a much later letter, dated 1945, he reflects on his time at Gresham’s, claiming “On the whole I was happy there”, but regretting that he got little help with his music owing to “mutual suspicion” between himself and the master.

By the time the fifteen year old Britten arrived at Gresham’s he had already begun to study composition under Frank Bridge and piano with Harold Samuel. Destined for the Royal College of Music, ironically, Britten was sent to Gresham’s to prepare for his School Certificate as a kind of insurance against failure in the musical world.

Music had become well established in the Gresham’s curriculum by this time. Howson had insisted on its inclusion, and in 1903 had appointed Geoffrey Shaw to further its cause. In 1928 Walter Greatorex or ‘Gog’ as the boys called him, was in charge of music. Auden praised Greatorex for his mastery of the organ and for his unique ability to form a genuine personal relationship with his pupils.

When Britten first met Greatorex, the latter is supposed to have wounded the youngster by referring to the boy’s liking for Stravinsky. Britten later complained to his mother that the master had been disparaging about his keyboard technique and about the capacity of so young a pupil to play late Beethoven. The last straw had been a comment that the sensitive young man took as the dismissal of all his hopes of entering the music profession!

After an unfortunate start, Benjamin was soon encouraged to take part in school concerts, and during his few years at Gresham’s composed the Hymn to the Virginamongst other works. Of his viola teacher, Miss Chapman, Britten had happier memories, recalling her patience with his ‘scratchings’ on the instrument. His final school concert was much praised by Rev. Frank Field, who compared Britten’s piano playing to that of Heathcote Statham.

In 1935 Britten and Auden began working on films together for the GPO Film Unit, the start of a lifetime of collaboration. In the following year he met the tenor Peter Pears who was to become his life-partner and musical collaborator. In 1939 all three went to America, where Britten composed his first opera, Paul Bunyan.

Returning to England in 1942, Britten completed his last work with Auden, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia. His opera Peter Grimes opened in London in 1945 to much critical acclaim. Britten, however, was already adrift from London and the English musical mainstream, and in 1948 founded the Aldeburgh Festival.

Britten’s status as one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century is now secure among professional critics. Having previously refused a knighthood, he accepted a life peerage in 1976. He died a few months later at his home in Aldeburgh and is buried in the churchyard there.

Tom Wintringham (Farfield 1912-15)
‘Gresham’s original action man Communist’

Already a radical thinker when he arrived at Gresham’s, by the time Tom went up to Oxford he was responsive to the attractions of Communism, joining the party in the early 20s. He played a key role in the 1926 General Strike and was jailed for sedition. A dinner party conversation in 1940 led to him training the newly formed Home Guard at Osterley Park. The death of this ‘uniquely English revolutionary’ went largely unnoticed by the press.

Robert Jackson (Farfield 1929-32)
Killed in action 1943

Like many Farfield boys, Robert enlisted on the outbreak of World War II. Unlike other brave OGs, however, his name is missing from the School’s Roll of Honour. Belonging to the gliding club at School, he went on to train as a flight instructor and later volunteered for Bomber Command to fly Lancasters. He died aged 27 when his plane was shot down on return from a raid over Germany.

John Bradburne (Farfield 1934-39)
Pilgrim, poet, hermit, mystic, missionary

John began writing poetry at Gresham’s, sitting on a ruined wall at Baconsthorpe. His search for spiritual enlightenment led him towards a monastic life and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was in Africa, however, where he found his true vocation tending lepers in the Mutemwa colony. Said to be a casualty of the war for independence in Zimbabwe, John was killed by gunshot in 1979. Since his death many strange signs and events have led to calls for him to be made a saint.

Stephen Frears (Farfield 1954-60)
Film director

At School Stephen showed early theatrical talent by taking a lead role in productions. According to one contemporary, “Stephen was one of the big stars, already a step ahead of the others when it came to drama. ” A long association with Albert Finney began in 1964, and Frears has worked regularly on British T.V. In the 1970s he made his first feature film Gumshoe, but his big career breakthrough came in 1985 with My Beautiful Laundrette. In 1988 Frears made his Hollywood debut with Dangerous Liaisons, and his film The Queen narrowly missed out on an Academy Award.

Nick Youngs (Farfield 1976-78)
England rugby union footballer

After showing early promise on the Gresham’s fields, Nick went on to play for Leicester Tigers and England at scrum-half, gaining six England caps between 1983 and 84. In The Gresham magazine of 1977 the rugby reporter noted that he was getting better and better as the term progressed, stating prophetically, “I firmly believe he has the pace, courage, physique and sheer natural ability to reach the top”. Now a farmer in Norfolk, Nick’s sons Tom and Ben have both made appearances for Leicester and England.

Ralph Firman (Farfield 1988-1993)
Formula One racing driver

The son of the co-founder of the Van Diemen racing car manufacturer, Ralph went into motor racing on leaving School. He won the British Formula Three Championship on his second attempt and secured a seat in Formula One for the 2003 season. He competed in fourteen Formula One Grand Prix as well as taking part in the Le Mans 24 Hours. In 2004 he was an official test driver for the A1 Grand Prix series, and in 2007 won the Japan Super GT500 class championship. His sister Natasha is also an OG and a racing driver.

Sir John Tusa (1949-1954)

Journalist and British arts adminstrator, TV presenter and managing director of the BBC World Service.

Paddy O’Connell (1978-1983)

BBC radio and TV presenter