David Francis Wilding, School proprietor, energetic educational entrepreneur and co­founder of Claires Court School

I am indebted to my brother Hugh, fellow Principal at Claires Court for the following post on our Dad, who died on Friday 27 November 2015.

David Wilding, who has died aged 89, was, together with his first wife, Josephine, founder of Claires Court School in Maidenhead, Berkshire. Born at the family home in Ealing on 15 March 1926, he was immensely proud throughout his life that his birthday was also the “Ides of March”, the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated. He was the younger son of Hugh Munro Wilding and Hilda Mary (née Cantopher). While his father was a company secretary and his grandfather a surgeon in general practice, the particular branch of the Wildings included former headmasters of the grammar schools at High Ercall, Shropshire and Evesham, Worcestershire, and notably James Wilding, headmaster and proprietor of Cheam School from 1805 to 1826. Of greater interest to the pupils he taught later, a second cousin was Michael Wilding, the film star and second husband of Elizabeth Taylor.

Following the footsteps of his older brother, Patrick, David was educated at Ealing Priory School which he entered in September 1934. Aged only 17, he went up to King’s College, London (KCL) in 1943 to read History. Shortly after his “call­up” in March 1944, he learnt that Patrick had been killed in action near Perugia in Italy while serving with the Rifle Brigade. After officer training at Sandhurst and with the Life Guards, David was commissioned into 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR). In early 1946, he joined 3 RTR in DFWGermany (which had reached Flensburg near the border with Denmark at the time of the German surrender) commanding a troop of 4 Sherman DDs. A keen cricketer of some ability, he was soon playing for “The Ironsides”, a composite side drawn from the four Royal Tank Regiments then stationed in Germany. In January 1948, he resumed his studies at KCL where he was taught by another recently returned from war service, Michael (later Sir Michael) Howard (founder of the Department of War studies at KCL and later Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University). It was during this time at KCL that David met another History student, Josephine Mary Thurley, whom he married in August 1950 after graduating BA with honours.

After a year working in London’s East End as a salesman for Powers­Samas, a British manufacturer of accounting and tabulating machines, David was encouraged to return to his old school (renamed St Benedict’s in 1948) as a teacher in the Middle School, eventually becoming its effective deputy headmaster. During the war years, David had experienced problems with his night vision and in 1954 these were diagnosed as the inherited, degenerative eye disease, Retinitis Pigmentosa. The prognosis of 12 years of sight before blindness was to be one of the spurs that led him to consider starting his own school; another was that the headship positions at St Benedict’s Dad and Mumwere at the time reserved for monks of the associated Abbey.

On 19 September 1960, he and Josephine opened the doors of Claires Court Preparatory School for Boys to the first 19 pupils (of whom two were their own sons); the 20th pupil joined at the beginning of October. Their venture quickly established itself, offering a day and boarding education based on Roman Catholic values and preparing boys aged from 61⁄2 to 13 years for their senior schools. The roll rose to 54 by the end of the first academic year and to 84 at the beginning of the second. Further expansion took numbers to 160 by 1965 and 185 by 1970. As boarding numbers increased so extra capacity was added but the real growth was in day pupils as the Thames Valley boomed between 1960 and 1980 and Maidenhead’s population burgeoned.

In order to secure further acceptance by becoming a member of one of the associations of independent schools’ heads, it was necessary for the school to be “recognised as efficient” by the Secretary of State for Education. Inspection by HMI to establish this took place in February 1964 when the Reporting Inspector observed that “The school has made a good start and promises to develop well” and described David as “[conducting] the school with energy and insight and is himself a very able teacher.” The all­important formal “recognition” from Whitehall followed, at the first time of asking, in June 1964 and David, as Headmaster, was duly elected to membership of the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS).

In the 1970s, the Wildings took the decision to discontinue boarding and the main boarding house, Ridgeway, was converted to accommodate the younger age range of boys. This freed space at the Ray Mill Road East site to allow the introduction of a Senior Department in 1976 and a curriculum leading to GCE O­level at age 16. Pupil numbers continued to rise, from 280 in 1980 to 435 ten years later. In 1985, David and Josephine extended their partnership to include their two sons, Hugh and James. Following Josephine’s death in 1988, David stepped back from day­to­day duties in 1989 and retired to Norfolk, withdrawing from partnership with his sons in 1996.

Although registered blind in the 1970s, the removal of cataracts restored some useable vision and in 1984 he answered an appeal by Berkshire Blind Society and the Lions’ Club of Maidenhead for volunteers to help establish a talking edition of the Maidenhead Advertiser based on cassette. As a consequence, he organised editing teams drawn from Claires Court’s teaching staff, the Maidenhead Catenian Circle (of which he was a founding member) and Maidenhead Drama Guild among others and allowed Ridgeway to become the headquarters of the Maidenhead and District Talking Newspaper Association as well as becoming its Chairman for a time.

DFW as grandadOn retirement in 1989, David moved to Letheringsett, Norfolk with his second wife, June. An inveterate and skilful organiser, in 1996 he and June established Holt Blind Club, a charity under the auspices of the Norwich and Norfolk Blind Association. He also found time to take an interest in the local Probus Club and played frequently in the blind section of Holt Bowls Club. From this distance, David kept a keen interest in the further development of Claires Court, as well as playing host to many friends and wider family whose company was always very welcome to his home in the Glaven valley. In particular, as one who had enjoyed amateur dramatics as a student, he took great delight in organising theatre parties (which had to include his grandchildren) to the Pantomime, wherever it took place! He travelled widely in Europe and Canada and played an active part in the parishes of St Andrew’s, Letheringsett and latterly St Peter’s, Blakeney until his sight failed completely in recent years.

In 1950 he married, first, Josephine Thurley. They had two sons. Josephine died in 1988. He married, secondly, in 1989, June Hoy (née Thompson). June died in 2002. His third wife, Susan Sergeant (née Walmsley formerly Willmott), whom he married in 2004, survives him with his two sons, six grandchildren and a great­ grandson.

David Wilding, born 15 March 1926, died 27 November 2015


About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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2 Responses to David Francis Wilding, School proprietor, energetic educational entrepreneur and co­founder of Claires Court School

  1. MR FARZIN RASTI says:

    I joined Ridgeway in 1976. David Wilding was a lovely man and set the standards very high. We all liked and respected him more like a father figure than anything else. I remember his house (a house) next door to the school where on some occasions we would be treated to watching television. I also recall asking him why he had pinned his Persian carpet on the wall once! Although I remember him as a good man, I also recall he had a very commanding voice which he used on occasion to bring order (both his sons certainly inherited their fathers vocals.)
    I’m glad he lived to a full age, he deserved it and I hope he was as proud of his creation as we all are. “They don’t make them like that anymore.”

    • jameswilding says:

      Thank you Farzin, for this fond memory of my dad. You’ll be delighted to hear that he never forgot you, in part because of the amazing hair that uniquely identified you, and partly because of you infectious smile and humour that followed you around school.

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