Obituary - John Dalton

4th June 2010 at 01:00


John Dalton was the epitome of the village schoolmaster: head of his two-room domain, he believed in times tables, creative writing and the power of education.

Born in the tiny Pennines village of Nenthead in September 1922, he attended his local primary school, followed by grammar school in the nearby market town of Alston.

After a period working as a clerk, he enrolled in the Royal Signals in 1940. His unit was posted to the northern Indian town of Meerut, pausing en route to camp by the Taj Mahal. They then progressed to Imphal on the Burmese border. Here, in March 1944, they were surrounded by Japanese troops. After a three-month battle, the Japanese were finally driven back, a turning point in the Asian war.

Mr Dalton subsequently advanced with his unit to Burma. In later life, he would talk about the jungle conditions he endured during this time. He was not sorry to return to England in 1946.

Rather than return to an office job, the newly demobbed Mr Dalton decided to train as a primary teacher. He was a firm believer in making the most of one's opportunities and wanted to be able to help children to do the same.

He qualified in 1950 and took a job at Cummersdale School, near Carlisle, where he worked for five-and-a-half years. It was while at Cummersdale that he was checked into the ear, nose and throat ward of his local hospital for an operation. He was cared for by Marjorie, a young nurse; they married in 1953.

As a teacher, he was particularly keen on mental arithmetic, and demanded that his charges recite their times tables every day. This was a vital skill: even if his pupils ended up behind the till at Woolworths, he said, they would need to be able to add up quickly and accurately.

While his belief in making the most of opportunities led to a desire to advance professionally, he was not prepared to leave Cumbria. He and Marjorie had two young children - Andrew, born in 1957, and Caroline, born in 1961 - and he felt strongly that they needed stability and consistency.

This need for stability was reflected in all aspects his life. He was a serious, organised man: anything that needed to be done was done promptly, correctly and efficiently.

In 1956, Mr Dalton was recruited to Hayton Primary as temporary headteacher. He remained in the post for a year before moving to neighbouring Houghton Primary.

Then, in January 1959, he was appointed head of Cotehill School, a two-room village schoolhouse, and remained there until his retirement in 1981.

Mr Dalton taught the juniors; a single employee taught the infants. Across all subjects and all ages, he placed particular emphasis on creative writing. Schooling, he believed, was not merely about the transfer of knowledge: it was also about appealing to pupils' imagination, allowing them to give it free rein.

He was, a fellow headmaster said, the epitome of professionalism. It could have been Mr Dalton to whom the 18th-century poet Oliver Goldsmith was referring when he wrote The Village Schoolmaster, the colleague added:

Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught, The love he bore to learning was in fault.

Education was his life, his love, his focus. It was entirely natural for him to volunteer as a Sunday-school teacher. Similarly, he was a lifelong member of the NUT, twice serving as president of its North Cumbria Association.

And he prided himself on the educational achievements of his children and, later, his grandchildren.

But his desire to help others extended across the community. He was a dedicated and learned member of his local Methodist church and one of the key founders of a Christian care home for the elderly in his local area: they came to count on his thoroughness and reliability.

He suffered his first stroke just before Christmas last year and was in hospital for a month. On his discharge, he spent his first day of recuperation with his wife, son and grandson. That night, he suffered a second stroke. He did not recover.

John Dalton is survived by his wife, two children and three grandchildren.

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