F.M.Hall (1935-2005)


F.M. Hall

Frederick Michael Hall died on 24th February aged 69.

Known to the staff as Michael, but to seven generations of Shrewsbury School boys as 'Fred' (though not to his face!) Frederick Michael Hall was, even in a profession noted for eccentricity, an extraordinary figure.

The bald facts of his life are these: born in Stockport in 1935, he attended Manchester Grammar School and, after National Service, Trinity College Cambridge, where his mathematical skills won him the position of Senior Wrangler. He then taught at Dulwich College for seven years from 1960, from where he joined the staff of Shrewsbury School in 1967 as Head of Mathematics, a position which he retained until his retirement from full time teaching in 1995. He continued to teach part time for a while and spent the last 10 years of his life living locally and travelling widely.

Michael Hall was a schoolmaster of rare talent and versatility. First and foremost he was a formidable Maths scholar. Shortly after leaving university he published two university level textbooks which quickly became the standard works on abstract algebra. His intellectual abilities would have qualified him for the most prestigious of academic jobs, but he preferred the opportunities for personal contact with the young and the variety of activity which schoolmastering offered. Both at Dulwich (where he was known to the boys as 'Twiggy' because of the way he pronounced trigonometry), and at Shrewsbury, his arithmetical skills were legendary. He could effortlessly perfom multiplications of four and five-digit numbers in his head, his prodigious understanding of number patterns and relationships making the most complex of calculations seemingly effortless. He was also supremely efficient, although ironically his handwriting was illegible to all but the most determined decoders: his thought processes were always way ahead of his ability to set the words (or numbers) down.

His second major area of contribution to Shrewsbury lay in the area of outdoor pursuits. He was involved with the scouts all his life and used these skills to develop a highly successful and innovative adventure training programme called the 'Basic Year' which was compulsory for all boys in their second year at Shrewsbury. Here he was able to put his logistical skills and love of wild places to full use. Left-leaning and a pacifist by nature, he was keen to develop outdoor training skills outside a military framework. Up to three thousand boys who were not taught by him will remember his unfailing and at times irritating good cheer as leader of the Basic Year. Although he was the most meticulous of planners and a stickler for safety, it is nevertheless worth asking how much of what he did would be possible in today's much more risk-averse climate.

What sort of person was he? Although the kindest and most generous of men, in the boys' eyes he was perhaps most clearly defined by his brilliance and eccentricities. None of the latter was studied. They were just him. Puns peppered his conversation. Even in a milieu where few sentences were free of school slang incomprehensible to outsiders, he had his own language which was completely in keeping with his puckish personality.

He was a demanding but fair teacher, expecting complete attention and able to get the best out of pupils, whatever their ability. He was also much in demand as a personal tutor, intelligent boys particularly attracted by his enthusiasm for almost any branch of knowledge, from Turkish politics to the Polish railway system via Donizetti (the only 'no go' area was sport) and there were other attractions for senior boys: he kept a fine wine cellar and was a superb cook.

In his early years at Shrewsbury he led parties of boys on Alpine expeditions, hiring local guides and climbing in the glaciers for a couple of weeks at a time. Later he started taking boys farther afield, teaching them the art of 'unpackaged' travel. Over the course of 25 years, until his last trip in 2000, he visited places as far flung as Guyana, Kashgar and Borneo. These five or six week trips, using only local facilities, were perhaps more akin to 'gap year' type journeys than school trips: again something that it would be difficult to imagine as possible in the current climate (or indeed world situation).

In 2003 he published an account of his travels and the development of outdoor activities at Shrewsbury in a volume of memoirs entitled 'Around the World in Forty Years' (Greenbank Press).

He never married.

There will be a memorial service for Michael in the School Chapel at 12 noon on Saturday 12th March.