Tributes to Torbay’s ‘Mr Languages’

Brian Hawthorne teaching a class in the early years of the school

Brian Hawthorne teaching a class in the early years of the school - Credit: Archant

Bret Hawthorne on how the Devon School of English closed its doors for the last time recently after 48 years teaching English to students from all over the world. What follows is the story of the man behind the school: his father, Brian Hawthorne:

Brian Hawthorne was born in Stockport in March 1932 - World War Two formed much of the back-drop to his adolescence.

His father died when he was 15 – he became his own man at an early age.

At school, he excelled in languages and went on to read French and German at Manchester University.

National Service then took him to barracks in Bodmin. The Cold War had begun and the country’s top language graduates were being head-hunted for the Joint Services School of Linguists (JSSL). Basically, a crash course in Russian - eight hours per day - bringing recruits to university level in a matter of months.

Next stop was Kiel in West Germany, listening into and translating Soviet armed services radio messages. Contrary to what one might think, this experience engendered in him a life-long love of the Russian language and culture.

He married Joan, his girlfriend of five years in 1957, and started teaching.

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His grammar school headmaster writes in a reference ‘In character he is straightforward and determined’ and adds, ‘he should make a useful school-master’.

The position of senior lecturer in modern languages at South Devon Technical College brought the family to Torbay in 1965.

By 1967, he was training local primary school teachers to teach French using the audio-visual method. He also ran the French bilingual secretarial course, preparing his students for jobs all over Europe.

In 1972, he seized the chance to start up, together with his wife, his own language school, The Devon School of English.

Starting out life in the family home, it grew steadily until, in 1991, it moved to The Old Vicarage in Lower Polsham Road for its final incarnation.

From just a single student in that first year, it ended up taking over 1,500 students a year at its peak - greatly helped by excellent Swiss connections - with ages ranging from 12 to 90.

Marilyn Baker, the school’s longest-serving homestay host, estimates that she looked after well over 1,000 students from when she started in 1973.

“They have filled my life with happy memories; they were part of the family; I knew that when they came through the front door and shouted ‘Hello – I’m home!’ then my job had been done!”

A huge part of this success was down to the charismatic character of its founder.

Famous for his bow ties and flamboyant dress sense long before Laurence Llewelyn Bowen appeared on the scene, Brian is remembered by past students, as one, for his penchant for impromptu boogie-woogie sessions whenever and wherever a piano presented itself.

He had a passion for other countries, languages, and cultures. More than anything else, he loved talking to people, finding out about them - building, in the process, life-long links around the world.

That enthusiasm rubbed off, on to staff and students.

Our last director of studies, freshly returned from a post in Japan, recalled that Brian’s opening question at interview was ‘Doku-ni sundeimasu-ka?’ followed by 20 minutes of conversation about Chomsky and Goethe, before the interview could be steered to more practical issues.

He accepted the job, noting: “I knew then, for better far more than worse, that a school in his image was never going to be an orthodox one.”

Bourne Namju Kwon was not the only student to express himself thus: “The time at the school changed my life. Life in Devon was the happiest days of my life. Thanks for giving lovely memories, friends and a new English family.”

Sadly, for someone who had devoted so much of his life to the school, dementia meant that, in his last years, he no longer remembered that he had, in fact, founded the school his family would talk so animatedly about.

The school closed, unable to survive the pandemic, at the beginning of October.

I think, with it, a piece of Paignton has died, too.

Brian passed away after a short illness not three weeks later.

Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.