William Campbell Penney, Rector of All Saints Church

W.C. Penney (he hated the initials especially with his surname) was the youngest-ever principal of Elizabeth College and he was the longest-serving. Appointed in 1888, when he was just 27, he retired 36 years later in 1924.

Leaving aside the exile to Derbyshire during the German Occupation, Penney’s time at the college covered some of the most difficult years it has faced.

By the end of the 19th century, the school was recognised as an establishment that nurtured candidates for careers in the army. Although a fair number of Old Elizabethans had been involved in the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and a number of other military conflicts, literally hundreds of them fought in the Boer War and the Great War.

Families, of course, were grief-stricken when news of fatalities on the battlefields was received, but so was the school itself. The college archives reveal a heartbroken Penney addressing the whole school in the hall after one such death of a former pupil. His verbatim words were, and are still, soul-stirring.

“Today I have to speak of a young soldier, one of the three whom I remember sitting where you now sit, and who have lately given their lives for their Queen and country. I hope you think it right that I should speak of Arthur Homan.

‘I will try to tell you what I remember and I knew him well. There is one place you will find no trace of him. Seven or eight years of school life and not a single entry in the punishment book. “Ah,” you may say. “We know that kind of boy – too meek and mild to get into trouble and temptation.”

‘Wait a moment. I have mentioned the one place where you will not find him. But you will find him on our prize lists, on the List for Woolwich, in the pictures of our college theatricals, in the pictures of the House Elevens and Fifteens, in the pictures at the Pavilion.

William Penney’s Grave in Norton Bavant churchyard

‘I remember his dismay on entering the boarding house to learn that he must not bathe throughout the winter. I remember a passion for combat with bigger boys, due, perhaps, to his Irish blood. I remember on the occasion of a prince’s wedding how he was disgusted at, what he thought, the apathy of prefects and wrote to the Duke of York himself. And since he left us he has been perhaps the most devoted of all our younger Old Elizabethans. His very last letter shows his unflagging interest in the school.

‘No character? It was as wholesome and hearty a young life as ever thundered up and down our stairs or made the heavens ring. I am writing his last report and it is this: Blameless and harmless, a son of God without rebuke.’

Nearly 800 OEs served in the Boer War and the Great War; 113 were killed in action (Penney’s OE stepson was one of them) and many more died of injuries.

All the while, Penney was fighting his own battles in Guernsey, not only to raise standards at the college for his pupils, but also to improve the working lives of his staff and teachers in all the other island schools. He played cricket, conducted the choir, was a member of the school orchestra, started many of the activities that remain a traditional part of college life today and he was a preacher, too. In truth, he was a dynamo of a man.

Absorbed with William Penney’s career at the college, as part of the research into the college’s history, I’ve read hundreds of his letters, his annual reports and minutes of meetings he attended. It’s why I felt I simply had to see where he ended up. The church at Norton Bavant is one of those chocolate box top English gems; the sort conjured up by Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

William Penney, I reckoned, had earned his rest in this little English paradise. And my own observation could nearly have been Gray’s:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.

Bruce Parker

Bruce Parker author of A History of Elizabeth College, Guernsey, whose headmaster for 36 years was William Penney. Bruce’s search brought him to Norton Bavant to the Church where William Penney spent two decades as Rector of All Saints in 1924 after retiring from the College. Many thanks to Bruce for allowing us to use his work.

Bruce’s career spans 40 years and he has worked with the BBC as a news and current affairs presenter and interviewer. He has interviewed every Prime Minister to hold office since Winston Churchill.