Obituary - Rhys Lewis 1903-2012

3rd August 2012 at 01:00

When Rhys Lewis was 16, a teacher suggested that he should read The Observer every week. Mr Lewis, eventually a history teacher and teacher trainer, dutifully followed his advice for the next 90 years.

Rhys Lewis was born into a Carmarthenshire mining family in September 1903. He left school shortly after his 13th birthday and took a job at the colliery. By the time he was 19, he was working at the coal face with pick, shovel and explosives. (When asked later whether he wore a helmet, he replied that, no, he had only a flat cap.)

But he also attended night school, revising in a small shed behind his family's workers' cottage. In 1927, he left the pits and enrolled at University College, Swansea (later Swansea University). The following year, he moved to Aberystwyth University to study history, economic history and Welsh.

This was Depression-era Britain and most students were graduating into unemployment. So Mr Lewis decided to train as a teacher, in the hope that this would prove a secure profession. His first job, in 1932, was as a supply teacher in east London. A year later, he found a permanent job at Church Street School in Stoke Newington. Far more of his pupils deserved a grammar-school education than would receive it, he said; the wasted talent upset him. He was extremely critical of Gladstone, the looming political figure of his youth, for his failure to invest in state education.

During these years, he visited an international high school in Elsinore, Denmark. Here he met Louise Jorgenson, a trilingual local student. She came to England in 1935 and they married that year.

Always looking to improve himself, Mr Lewis spent five years attending evening classes at the London School of Economics. In 1938, he graduated with a BSc in economic history. He later went on to gain an MSc as well.

And then World War Two broke out. Too old to fight, Mr Lewis was evacuated with his pupils to the Hertfordshire village of Stevenage. He and Louise settled there, where their two sons, John and Peter, were born. The family was billeted with the lady of the manor, and every evening over dinner she would turn to her guest and say in clipped tones, "Now, Mr Lewis, give us a summary of The Times today."

He was an enthusiastic, lively speaker. He used his hands when he spoke - "like an Italian," one friend commented - and driving in a car with him was often a nerve-racking experience.

He taught briefly at a technical college for the meat industry, where he narrowly avoided being hit by a German V2. After the war, emergency teacher-training colleges were established, offering one-year courses to ex-servicemen. Mr Lewis took naturally to lectureship, and in 1949 he was appointed head of history at Easthampstead Park College of Education in Berkshire. He remained here until he retired, in 1970.

Rhys Lewis died on 4 July. At 108 years old, he was the oldest living Welshman.

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