Ioan Thomas made headlines as an inspirational teacher

Representing the over 75s, Ioan and Alice Thomas, David Bateman and Tony Hodgson (who died in 2016) were photographed by the Oundle Chronicle in 2012.

Representing the over 75s, Ioan and Alice Thomas, David Bateman and Tony Hodgson (who died in 2016) were photographed by the Oundle Chronicle in 2012.

For decades Ioan Thomas was a familiar figure riding his bicycle on busy errands through Oundle’s streets. Following a few years of declining mobility, he died in March, aged 90.

Ioan was born in Newcastle, where his father was head of Newcastle Royal Grammar School. During the war his father evacuated the whole school to Penrith, where pupils shared facilities with local schools and were housed with other families. His father bought an old house to live in without electricity or water, and which the family still own. During this time, Ioan enjoyed incredible freedom to walk and cycle in the Lake District and nurture his passion and skills for observing nature.

After completing a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a teacher. He joined Oundle School in 1951 on a one year contract, but stayed for 37 years.

His colleague, Nick Owens, noted that Ioan’s exceptional teaching ability was innate: “In teaching, Ioan found challenges on many fronts in which his personality, sense of fun and wide-ranging skills were ideally suited.”

In the classroom he drew inspiration from the teachings of Oundle’s famous headmaster, Frederick Sanderson. He avoided dictating facts, and was quick to undermine unfounded assumptions, expecting pupils to make deductions from their own observations.

In 2016 Ioan Thomas returned to the classroom to talk about the war years.

In 2016 Ioan Thomas returned to the classroom to talk about the war years.

He looked out for struggling students and gave many extra hours for extra tuition and advice. He could also be relied on to help new members of staff adjust to work and life at a new school, and regularly volunteered for mundane jobs that others avoided.

Having been a resident tutor in School House, Ioan was appointed Housemaster of Sidney House.

Ioan often played the viola in the school orchestra, and directed many school theatre productions. He also took a keen interest in junior boys rugby, making the game fun to even the most disinterested, who reacted with surprise that sport could be fun.

Ioan took over the role of Head of Biology in 1971, where he led many expeditions in the UK and to Africa. His knowledge was “unsurpassed among his contemporaries”. During his tenure, the school’s Natural History Society flourished and contributed to the documentation of the local environment. His pupils’ research was published in Flora of Oundle and the Bird List, and his archive of photos and papers from 1958-1973 record the development of Barnwell County Park from gravel pits to nature reserve.

His depth of knowledge and experience was invaluable to the Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust, for which he was a regional secretary. In 1987 Ioan was made a Fellow of the Institute of Biology.

Among Ioan’s many students are prominent scientists who looked back over long careers to acknowledge the debt owed to their former teacher. Among them was the late David Baker, the clinician and scientist who changed the face of medicine with key discoveries, and the scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who said his first lesson with Ioan at the age of fourteen was inspirational. “I don’t remember the details, but it conveyed…what I would now call ‘science as the poetry of reality’ ”.

In 1980, Ioan married Alice Stevens, who he had known for 31 years. After moving to Oundle Alice was a founding member of the Oundle Historical Society, and the author of a number of historical publications. In retirement, Ioan shared her interest in history and soon became a prominent member of the historical community.

He wrote many papers ranging from the “History of Oundle Street Names” and “Transport links in Oundle”, to the “History of Short Wood” and “Sewers and Water Supply in 19th Century Oundle”.

He was a founding member of the Oundle Museum and served on its management committee, as well as Transition Oundle, to which he brought a profound concern for the future of the planet.

In 2013 he was presented with an honorary award from the Northamptonshire Museum and Historic Houses Forum for the important role he played in setting up the forum. Their citation read: “His energy and enthusiasm for the heritage of the county and the forum has left a legacy of this successful organisation which the Forum felt, needed to be acknowledged.”

Joseph Meisner
May 2019