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William Wynne Willson biography

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On Maths

William was an enthusiast, who never grew weary. He always saw the possibilities rather than the dangers; and in his hands the possibilities were immense and the dangers relatively few. His combination of insight, gentleness, open-mindedness and sheer humanity inspired and supported many hundreds of mathematics teachers in many lands.

—Tony Gardner

On Music

William’s work for the music of Lennox Berkeley lives on in the Society’s new website, the new journal and his original logo. And his work for music in general survives in his own remarkable website,, which provides a personal selection of unusual keyboard music in a downloadable format for printing off as sheet music or Sibelius files– entirely free for anyone, anywhere, at any time. All who love music will want to ensure that this generous and enlightened legacy continues to exist, and to multiply, for the benefit of pianists, in the service of music, and to the honour of a true and good man.

—Tony Scotland

William Wynne Willson

30 November 1932 to 9 May 2010

William Wynne Willson by Ullswater

This biographical note is a combination of an obituary by Tony Gardner published in Mathematical Gazette (November 2010 Vol. 94 No. 531) and extracts from William’s funeral ceremony as spoken by his son Peter Wynne Willson, and adapted by his daughter Emma Dogliani.

William Wynne Willson with his sisters Mary Ann (left) and Janet and their great dane, Hamlet, c. 1938

William Wynne Willson was born in Clifton, Bristol in 1932. At the time his family lived at in Nailsea. His father John Percival Wynne Willson had roots in the South West and his mother Ruth Squance was from Sunderland. He had one elder and (later) two younger sisters – not to mention the dog, a Great Dane called Hamlet! Together his parents created a home which was by all accounts an extremely happy one. His grandfather had been a vicar. His uncle (St John Basil WW) studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, and was later Headmaster of Marlborough College (1911-16) and Bishop of Bath and Wells (1921-37). William followed this trajectory in part – to Marlborough and to St Johns – but became a sceptical rationalist as a young adult.

William Wynne Willson with his parents, Janet and Mary Ann, c1939

William’s early life seems to have revolved around things which are unsurprising to those of us who knew him only later – prodigious academic achievements, eating, making and trying to sell sweets, playing very competitively, teasing his younger sister, reading, music and laughing. Hearing the stories and looking at the pictures it is somehow very easy to imagine him as a small boy, perhaps because there was so much of that child-like quality that he kept right through his life.

When he was six the war broke out and, when his father joined the army, the family made the unusual and brave decision not to stay in Bristol, but instead to follow him around to wherever he was stationed. Over the next few years, accompanied by Granny Squance, this took them around various houses and indeed schools in Lincolnshire. This nomadic existence was not easy, and the travelling family was certainly seen as odd by the Lincolnshire locals. There were many adventures, the most dramatic of all being the time when having moved from Bristol before bombs fell there, the family was itself in a house in remote Lincolnshire which suffered a direct hit, removing the top floor, and leaving them remarkably unscathed on the floor below. Little Janet woke up complaining there were ‘biscuits’ in her bed, unaware that they were in fact pieces of the roof.

William Wynne Willson with his 3 sisters: Janet, Mary Ann holding Sarah, William Wynne Willson, 1942

During this time William first went to school at Stamford where an often-to-be-repeated pattern was established, with him placed two years ahead of his age, winning prizes, and thriving on all aspects of being at school. At Stamford he was friends with Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse, and though they did not stay in touch beyond that time, they shared later an interest in the fiendishly difficult Azed Crossword puzzles. Also during this time Sarah was born and William was very devoted to his new baby sister – again an attribute we can recognise as he continued to love interacting with children, young and older.

William Wynne Willson at home at Bucklands Bottom, c. 1945

After Stamford, William went to Berkhamsted School as a boarder, and from there he got a scholarship to Marlborough College in Wiltshire. The story goes that he won this scholarship because the teacher Robson, who set the exam, always included one question which required no knowledge but only the use of pure logic to solve, and that William alone got this question right. His spectacular abilities as a scholar continued at Marlborough and developed more widely. His first report described him as ‘a small parcel but full of good things’. His love of maths was well nurtured by the same Mr Robson, with whom on one occasion at least he went to stay in Grasmere, to discuss maths and climb mountains... He was still always winning prizes, but at Marlborough these were as much for other things. He was a good rugby player, a fact that left him with a legacy of cauliflower ears, he made model aeroplanes and cycled, he became the head of his house, and most of all he played the piano.

Although he started the piano with Miss Morgan in Nailsea, it was at Marlborough that the love for playing really burgeoned. Through the piano teacher Miss Enoch, and through the duets with his friend Nigel Newbery, and through a series of concerts and performances, grew the passion for the piano and music which so nourished his future life, and ours.

After Marlborough William won a place at St John’s College Cambridge to read Mathematics, indeed he was the top scholar of the year. We are told that he could easily have got a scholarship in English, so accomplished and well-read was he even at this stage.

Before he could take up his place, like all the men of his generation he had to do his National Service. This was in 1950, and many of those who joined at this time found themselves in the nightmarish war in Korea, but William was lucky. He was assessed and made a second lieutenant, and found himself at the age of eighteen stationed in Towyn in North Wales, with a motorbike, and a gun, and an NCO at his side, given the key responsibility for counting and distributing wages to the troops. Again his response to this situation was very typically whole-hearted. He fell in love with Wales, took lessons in the Welsh language, and rented a piano for his quarters.

William Wynne Willson at Cambridge, 1954/5

After his National Service William took up his place at Cambridge, and once again, leapt into every aspect of being there. He joined the Footlights as a musician, and the Cambridge Mountaineering Club, punted on the river, and he played jazz. Although over his lifetime William played mainly Classical music he also had a lifelong enthusiasm for Jazz. Cambridge was his first experience of playing it and he joined a dance band called ‘The Moonrakers’. Over many years he enjoyed going to Jazz concerts seeing many great Jazz musicians live, including Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Bill Evans and Dave Brubeck. He continued to enjoy listening to Jazz until the last few weeks of his life and this website includes a couple of his own Jazz compositions: Walking Bass and Blues in A. While at Cambridge, he joined a group of mainly classical students on a trip to Greece, his very first trip abroad. In Greece he climbed Mount Olympus, and he met Jane Calvert who he married in 1955.

William Wynne Willson and Jane Wynne Willson at Broad How, 1955

William had always thought of teaching, and he got a job immediately after graduating as a maths teacher at Wellington College. Jane and William went to live in Crowthorne, and in January 1957 Ruth was born. He leaped into life at Wellington just as he had everything else, and was mortified when he was sacked at the end of a probationary period by the new head teacher, who took exception to his not attending chapel. It was a manifestly unjust decision, made more so by the fact that he had in a very short time already made himself popular at the school, and was in the middle of writing the music for a full-scale staff review, which he stayed to see through, and which at least provided him with the last laugh. It was also a potentially shattering blow for William, making him unemployable across all private schools. Fortunately Bristol Grammar School felt no such inhibitions; so in summer 1957, the family arrived back in the South West.

William and Jane had two more children (Peter and Tom) in the next few years and with 3 all under six and work in Bristol Grammar School supplemented by running jazz sessions with the sixth formers and even time to make a film ‘Four Minutes to Die’ it was a busy time. William always made time to play the piano and to explore piano repertoire at all stages of his life.

William Wynne Willson on holiday with his children, left to right: Ruth, William Wynne Willson, Tom, Pete, Emma

In 1962 the family moved to Cheltenham, for William to take a Head of Department job at Cheltenham Grammar School. They stayed there for the next eight years, where his final child was born. Then in 1970 they moved again, for William to take up the post as Lecturer in Mathematics Education at the University of Birmingham.

February 1961 saw the publication of his first article – Lines associated with a triangle – marking a love affair with geometry which may well have had its roots in adolescence and which was never to fade. In 1962 William moved as Head of Department to Pate´s Grammar School in Cheltenham, where he stayed for the next seven years, during which he published a sequence of ten or more articles in mathematics teaching. His departure from Cheltenham at the very end of 1969 was marked by a thank-you letter (including the summary: “You have looked after the mathematics of the school with distinction and enviable success”) written by the then Chair of Governors Shaun Wylie.

William Wynne Willson with Geoff Wain, Broad How, 2005

That same year mathematician Geoff Wain was to spend part of the summer working with teachers in Alexandria, Egypt, under the auspices of the British Council, and invited William to join him. William revelled in being in "the cradle of geometry", where Euclid, Heron, Menelaus and Ptolemy had worked before! This marked the start of 15 or so years where the two worked together every summer – first in Malaysia and then in the scattered "black homelands" of South Africa.

William Wynne Willson training teachers in Malaysia

Throughout the 1970s and 80s William published a stream of articles in Mathematics Teaching, in Mathematics in School and in the Gazette.

He also edited and contributed to a number of important books – including the ambitious survey of Geometry which appeared in 1977. A two-volume collection of these papers led to the award of a doctorate in 1981.

In parallel with his official work, William joined a committee of the Nuffield Foundation concerned with the public image of mathematics, contributed to Richard Gregory´s ground-breaking Exploratory (which closed in 1999, but helped give rise to the new At-Bristol science centre), and got involved in the Molecule Club at the Mermaid Theatre, which used drama to introduce children to science – a tradition continued by his son Peter. He also produced or contributed to a number of short films on suitable aspects of his beloved geometry.

In the early 1970s, the Birmingham work expanded, and William was joined by Tony Fitzgerald some time around 1974. They worked together as a contrasting, but highly effective, team until the late 1980s. William was an active contributor when the MA Conference was held in Birmingham in the turbulent year 1988, and was President for the year 1993-4.

Charity bike ride in Rajasthan, William Wynne Willson with his daughter Ruth and granddaughter Joey, 2005

William took early retirement in 1989 at the age of fifty-six, and the other activities which already filled such a portion of his time swelled to fill it all. He moved with the same whole-heartedness through a wide range of projects. He wrote a book of mathematical humour, an almost finished geometry book on Ptolemy, (finished after his death by Geoff Wain and available here) and researched another about the lakes around the City of Birmingham, as well as publishing the lovely family written reprint of The Victorian Visit. He took up cycling in earnest – both locally and more widely including a sponsored ride in India with his daughter Ruth and grand daughter Joey. He dug deep into the family history. He set up this website, and so on and so on. Alongside his own projects he was always there supporting everyone else’s in the same wholehearted way. And he continued to find endless delight in the exploits of his four children (Ruth, Peter, Tom, and Emma) and his 10 grandchildren (Joey, Tom, Cara, Grace, Charlie, Zaki, Eddie, Jim, Isabella and Rocco).

William Wynne Willson at home in Harborne, c. 1984

William was an enthusiast, who never grew weary. He always saw the possibilities rather than the dangers; and in his hands the possibilities were immense and the dangers relatively few. His combination of insight, gentleness, open-mindedness and sheer humanity inspired and supported many hundreds of mathematics teachers in many lands.

So we will finish our account of William’s life with the sound of William playing the piano. This is a slightly scratchy recording he made of himself playing a piece by another of his particular favourite composers, John Field, and his daughter Ruth put together some wonderful pictures to go with it. Please click here to listen.

The sheet music for this piece, Sicilienne in G Minor by John Field, is also available here.

A to Z of Random Ramblings

 William Wynne Willson by Ullswater, summer 2005

Written for William on Fathers’ Day 2009 by Ruth Wilson

  1. A is for Africa and Admiration of your Anti-Apartheid Activities,
  2. B is for Birthdays with Bursting Balloons and Smartie hunt festivities
  3. C is for Composers, Chopin, Berkeley and Field
  4. D is your determination that you will never yield
  5. E is for your Everlasting capacity to Enjoy, Every new Experience: book, programme, flavour, toy
  6. F is for Family history, Famous authors and French pirates
  7. G is for Giggling, Glaucoma and other Genetic traits
  8. H is for our Happy childhood- Humanism in action
  9. I is for India, three generations, triumph and satisfaction
  10. J is for Jazz through a glass partition most nights as I fell asleep
  11. L is for Lanzarote the nostalgia holiday
  12. M is for Mathematics as your work and as your play
  13. N is for New technology, latest gadgets like pineapple corers
  14. O is for conquering Obesity and all it’s horrors
  15. P is for Place Fell at top speed then rolling in a rug to stew
  16. Q is for Question Time, Andrew Marr and Have I got News for you?
  17. R is for Reason and never resorting to saying ‘because I say so’
  18. S is for Surfing on a wooden board, Cornish sea three degrees below
  19. T is for Turquoise Towelling shorts we all wished were longer and navy-er
  20. U is for Understatement in response to ‘Unpleasant’ behaviour
  21. V is for VW laden with books and recorders on exhibition
  22. X is for doing Xwords together, from Aracauria to Azed
  23. Y is for Yellow socks trousers and shirts (or purple pink or bright red)
  24. Z is for Zabaglione one of your signature dishes, Coffee pudding, crème brulée, syllabub- calorific and delicious.

To finish, this rhyme can be summarised thus, as you will gather:

Σ ( a + b + …z ) = World’s Best Possible Father