In memoriam: Gwynne Ovenstone MBE
The College deeply regrets to report that Gwynne Ovenstone MBE, Assistant College Secretary from 1947-50 and College Secretary from 1950-87, died on Saturday 19 June 2021 aged 97. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for some time, and spent her last years in a care home. Thanks to recent relaxations in lockdown rules, her family were able to be at her side at the end.
Even after her official retirement in 1987, she continued to come into College regularly until 2005, keeping records of our Old Members up to date. For all her long service to the College, Gwynne was awarded an MBE in 2000.
Many Old Members, Fellows and members of staff will remember Gwynne as a central figure in College life for many decades, from her vantage point on the ground floor of Staircase XII, and will have their own special memories of her.
The College sends its deep condolences to Gwynne’s family.
A tribute to Gwynne by Dr Leslie Mitchell can be found below.
photos kindly supplied by Sir David Edward
A tribute by Dr Leslie Mitchell
At Gwynne’s retirement dinner in 1987, one speaker described her “as a quarter Scots, a quarter Yorkshire, a quarter Somerset and a quarter tonic.” The lady herself much enjoyed this description and acknowledged its essential veracity. She had the accents to prove it. She was brought up near Dundee because one side of her family was involved in the jute industry. She knew and loved north Yorkshire because the other side of her family practised heavy engineering on Teesside. Somerset became her anchorage from her teenage years onwards. As for tonic, no more need to be said.
Gwynne was born in 1924 and named Sybil Gwynne, allegedly after a moderately well-known tennis player of the period. She disliked Sybil and had not much regard for Gwynne, but settled for that as the best of the names available. In her childhood, family life was not of the easiest, and navigating its ups and downs produced that hard-headed, no-nonsense approach to life that marked her later years. She liked the idea of Univ as a family, all the while recognizing the imperfections in such a claim.
Further hardships came with the War. Like all her generation, she was robbed of normal teenage years. In 1942, she was called up into the army, and, for the first weeks of service, was put into a barracks with a group of girls from the nether end of Glasgow. For a girl educated at West Heath this came as a shock. To see girls who had already lost all their teeth by the age of eighteen made a deep impression. Only a Dundee accent made Gwynne acceptable, and indeed safe. The mixing of classes in wartime made it inconceivable that Gwynne could be a snob. She liked manners of course, but these could be found at any social level. One of her favourite Univ stories concerned her attendance at a College wedding, where the groom was an Etonian while his best man was the son of a miner.
She was posted to Northern Command in York, where she worked in Intelligence. Modestly, she claimed that she finished the war “as nowt but a bloody clerk” or “as nowt but a bloody corporal.” This may be so, but another tale had it that, as a general’s secretary, she once made sergeant. However, having cheekily used the general’s five inches of wartime bath-water before the general himself, she was demoted. Gwynne herself thought this entirely just.
All of this gave her much common ground with Douglas in his Lodge fiefdom. Both knew that life was a hard battle and that everyone had to fight it. One shudders to think what each would have thought of such features of the modern university as safe spaces, trigger points and the filigree points of political correctness. One can, however, be sure that their language in discussing them would have been essentially barrack-room. Both often went beyond all duty to help an undergraduate in trouble, but there had to be no sentimentality, only common sense. One remembers with pleasure Gwynne’s reaction to a freshman, when he asked to change rooms because the wallpaper was impossible.
Gwynne came to Univ in 1947 as Assistant College Secretary. She was then one of only three women in the College. She was interviewed by George Hope Stevenson and John Wild, both of whom had little idea of what to ask. Gwynne later insisted that she only got the job because she was from Dundee. More likely, the two interviewers took refuge in the thought that her predecessor was a cousin of Gwynne’s stepfather. Advertisement was not yet a necessary part of the process for filling an Oxford post. In 1950, Gwynne was promoted to full College Secretary, a position she held for the next thirty-seven years.
There had been College Secretaries since 1924, but these ladies were essentially Master’s Secretaries who also did other things. The College Office, as a separate institution and remembered by generations of Old Members, was Gwynne’s creation. In 1954 or so, Giles Alington, whose care of the College Gwynne much admired, bought a coffee-pot and his Secretary responded with four cups and saucers. Later, with David Cox, the other major hero in Gwynne’s pantheon, a certain clear liquid would be available at 12.45 and 5.30. Very quickly, the Office became a social centre at certain times. It was convivial, argumentative, gossipy, and efficient in the sense that College Officers met on a daily basis, allowing much business to be done.
It should be noted that the College Office establishment consisted of Gwynne and one assistant in 1950, and that the position was unchanged in 1987, in spite of the great expansion of College business. In later life, Gwynne never sympathised with the growth of bureaucracy and the loss of intimacy that it involved. She solved all problems with a phone call to Bert Forrest in the Estates Bursary or Philip Moss in the University Offices.
Someone with such a mastery of College and University routine inevitably acquired a certain influence in affairs, if only by nudging College Officers in a particular direction. The exercise of real power was rare, though she cheerfully admitted to having admitted three people to Univ off her own bat, and therefore quite illegally. One ended with a First, one with a good Second, and the third with a Blue. In truth, the College Office was a physical manifestation of her total commitment and loyalty to Univ. It was social centre and business hub: letters to be signed, student problems to be solved, charabancs to be organised for the races at Cheltenham or Newbury, and the possibility of a line to the Tote if Fellows had forgotten that it was Derby Day.
Gwynne had an incredible memory where Univ’s dramatis personae was in question. An innocent Fellow once remarked that a fresher seemed to be settling in to Univ life rather well. Gwynne, still typing, replied that this was not at all surprising, because the man had been conceived in the Radcliffe Quad. To those she thought worthy of loyalty, she was totally loyal. Foremost in this category were her Assistant Secretaries, handpicked and head-reared, who were expected to work as hard as she did, and not to worry too much about irregular hours. They were in return invited into the humour of the office and the little conspiracies in which it delighted. These included the creation of staircases, on which every inhabitant had a surname relating to the aviary or the anatomy.
There were, however, individuals with whom she had problems. Lady Beveridge had come a long way from Glasgow, but not far enough for Gwynne to accept her airs and graces. John Maud meant well and was generally manageable, but his views were perhaps too conservative. Gwynne was deeply conservative herself, seeing no point in changing practices that worked perfectly well, but there were limits. Similarly, she could see the point of Lord Goodman, but never found him easy to deal with, not least because he would call her “Miss Cunningham”. Quite a lot of Fellows failed to meet the Office’s high standards. One filing cabinet had a column of metallic ladybirds crawling up it. Each ladybird represented a Fellow. Those at the head of the column were saints, those at the bottom needed to improve. One ladybird was relegated to the cellar beneath the office.
Gwynne, Douglas and many others of their generation worked on assumptions that no longer operate today. First, they expected to spend their whole working life in the College. Univ was not merely a staging post. Secondly, they happily called themselves College Servants, a term that would now be met with disapproval. They expected the College to treat them fairly, and in return they gave the College and its residents unconditional loyalty. When Gwynne and Bob Morris were awarded MBE’s in 2000 and 1999 respectively, it was a valedictory recognition of this system. Within these general parameters, Gwynne, by force of personality and example, made her own mark.
Her musical tastes were varied, but among them she had no objection to the popular music of the interwar years and just after. She knew some of the songs of Evelyn Laye, who nostalgically sang a song called “They don’t make them like that any more”. As an envoi to Gwynne, that sentence could hardly be bettered.