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Remembering Michael Whatmore (BA 1951)

Michael Whatmore

Michael aboard HMS Superb in 1953-4

The Rev Michael Whatmore

Michael as a Church of England priest in Winford Parish Church for Sea Sunday

20 July 2015

Bristol alumnus, The Rev. Michael John Whatmore (BA 1951), died in December 2014. Here, his friend of 60 years, Brian Hawkins, remembers Michael's national service and his career in the church.

I first met Michael Whatmore on a sunny afternoon in July 1953 at Victoria Barracks in Southsea, just along the coast from Portsmouth. We were both commencing our national service in the Royal Navy. Michael, four or so years my senior, had been deferred. Our entry was only a small intake so we  quickly got to know each other. Michael's maturity stood out. He was a good listener and never thrust his opinions upon others, or even mentioned that he was a university graduate, having recently graduated from Bristol University with a BA Hons.

Our stay in barracks going through our joining routine was only a couple of weeks. Michael was not the most adaptable person when it came to dressing up in a naval uniform, however his slight awkwardness was forgiven by the Chief Petty Officers, who were impressed by his endearing personality. After two weeks of elementary training, coping with stiff boots, rough serge clothing and being made familiar with naval routine, we were drafted to HMS Indefatigable, a non-operational aircraft carrier which, with HMS Implacable, in Weymouth Bay, made up the Training Squadron.

This was the time of the 'cold war' and each autumn, NATO conducted an exercise, which usually coincided with the autumn equinox and inevitable extremes of weather. Our vessel acted as a convoy as we lumbered down to the latitude of Lisbon, and then we lumbered back to home waters to encounter a violent storm in the vicinity of the dangerous approaches to the Scilly Isles.   

Indefatigable was a large vessel so I didn't see much of Michael during the couple of months or so when we were on-board until our entry left her to join HMS Superb in Chatham Dockyard. Superb, a cruiser, was undergoing a refit in the dockyard and as ordinary seamen most of our time was taken up with either chipping off old paint from the vessel's superstructure or putting new paint on. Michael was always very adaptable and took all this on with great enthusiasm.

Following our refit we had a brief cruise down to Gibraltar, with trips ashore, and even a weekend across the straits of Gibraltar to Tangier to show the flag, which was still the thing in the mid 1950s.

But very soon we were back in Chatham for yet another refit. This was to fit out Superb for a spell on the West Indies station of Bermuda.

Not that Michael or I were going on that trip. It was during the next two or three months in Chatham Dockyard that I got to know Michael better. A naval dockyard is a lonely place after the daytime activities are over. By this time Superb's ship's company was reduced but the vessel was crawling with dockyard mateys as we spent our days 'alongside the wall', the jetty or in dry dock.

Michael had been granted permission to have his Velocette motor cycle in the dockyard so he could easily commute at weekends to his parents at Bromley.  Michael, 'being a man of Kent', enjoyed the Kent countryside and in those days, 60 years ago, the county was very much still the garden of England.  To my pleasure some of our evenings in the early summer were spent exploring the lush countryside with it's oast houses pointing to the sky within a reasonable distance of Chatham Dockyard, with the occasional stop at a pub. Those evenings are still vivid in my mind. 

In the service, Michael had been selected as a CW candidate (having potential officer material) and shortly he was to leave Superb and go north to HMS Ceres (in Wetherby, Yorkshire). This was a shore establishment  a stone frigate) where Michael would be trained to be become a Sub Lieut in the Supply and Secretariat branch of the Navy. I was to miss his company and those evening spins along the leafy Kentish lanes riding pillion on his bike.

I left Superb before she set off to the West Indies and was drafted to HMS Glory, lying at Portsmouth. She was a light fleet aircraft carrier. Glory had seen service in operations in the Arctic conditions of the Korean war. She had the scars to prove it. Now non- operational (no longer having aircraft) we sailed to Singapore taking supplies and returning with troops.

A year or so later, approaching the end of my two years, I was back in Chatham preparing for demob where I began to meet up with those I joined with, who were coming back to their home port of Chatham for demobilisation.

Much to my surprise, Michael returned not as an officer but still as a rating. He had undergone his officer training and passed but then had declined being commissioned. He had decided he wanted to spend his naval service on the lower deck to spend more time in the company of the lads, rather than in the some-what artificial wardroom life of an officer. He thought it would prepare him better after demobilisation for a life of service in the Church of England.

An evening in July 1955 saw a group of us in a Chatham pub, the ones who'd joined at Victoria Barracks two years before, having a farewell drink together. Addresses were exchanged and future plans discussed. Next day from Chatham station we travelled as civilians; National Service was behind us.

I learnt later that after National Service Michael returned to Oxford, to Wycliffe Hall where he continued to read theology. Following Oxford, Michael was ordained in Rochester Cathedral. He then became the curate in the parish of Bexley in Kent. It was when Michael was at Bexley as a curate that I visited him. I remember a sunny afternoon with tea in the vicarage garden. We'd both now started our respective careers: Michael's in the church and mine in the BBC. At the end of the afternoon, we promised to keep in touch, but for one reason or another we never did.

After that tea in the vicarage garden, it was 37 years later that I met up with Michael again. It was just after the time that tragedy had hit our family when our only child, our son Gavin, was killed in a car accident.

It came about that one afternoon when I was in the reference library of BBC Bristol I happened to notice Crockfords Clerical Directory. In an idle moment I thumbed through the entries and happened to notice Michael's entry, which gave a concise but detailed resume of his busy career in the Church of England. I discovered that after his parish work, which included  parishes in Leeds and Liverpool, he'd put his energy into teaching, and he  had moved south, with his wife Margaret, to teach at Barton Peveril Grammar School, Eastleigh, near Southampton.

Some days later I phoned Michael, who was by then living in Milford-on-Sea. By coincidence, his daughter, who holds a senior post in the civil service, was living and working in Bristol where I'd  been living and working for the previous 26 years.

Our friendship re-established, Michael and Margaret came to stay with us and Michael took an evensong service on the occasion of 'Sea Sunday' in our parish church in Winford. We were at that time in a period of interregnum. What could have been more appropriate: we had joined the Navy together 40 years before, and now Michael was our guest parish priest for such a relevant occasion as 'Sea Sunday'.

After that service I learnt more about the full and busy life he'd led after his time in the Royal Navy. His visit to us in Bristol helped to rekindle his memories of his student days. He spoke of the hissing gas fires in the rooms of Burwalls, the house just the other side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Burwalls was then a hall of residence.  

From then on, we kept in touch by letter and telephone with frequent good intentions of meeting up again. Michael was then going through a series of medical procedures, including a hip replacement. He was never one to make a thing about these experiences and played everything down. Not so long ago when I phoned him there was a fairly long delay between Margaret picking up the phone and Michael speaking to me as it had been quite a struggle to cross the room. Later, I learnt that this was due to a heart condition, although he himself didn't make anything of it. I renewed my intention of visiting him. Cardiac surgery followed which was successful, but alas sometime after this he was readmitted into hospital and sadly died.

In spite of all my good intentions I very much regret that I never got down to see him as I had promised. Of the many people I met in the Royal Navy and in my BBC career, Michael is the one that stands out - across a span of sixty years. 

During Michael's dedicated career, he helped so many in 'finding their way'.  This was the theme of his sermon on that Sea Sunday in our parish church: he compared navigation across the oceans of the world to one's own journey through life.

Further information

Please email any notifications for alumni in memoriam to alumni@bristol.ac.uk.