Skipper Lynam

Charles Lynam was an undergraduate at Hertford College in Oxford, before joining the staff of the Oxford Preparatory School (OPS) in 1882. Four years later the Headmaster, Rev AE Clarke, died suddenly and Charles took over the school.

Charles had a great liking for the sea and invited friends (including some staff), to sail with him. Not only was he the skipper of his boat, ‘Blue Dragon’, but he also became the Skipper of the OPS. “I confess to not attaching much importance to outward politeness,” he said. “I hate to be called ‘Sir’ every half-minute; I prefer to be called ‘Skipper’.” And so he was.

He became one of the leading headmasters of his generation and revered by all the staff who served under him and the boys (and later, girls) who attended the school.

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The Skipper’s contribution to the education of generations of ‘Dragons’ was immense. That his ‘Old Boys’ should have such fond memories and display such loyalty both to him and the school, was very unusual, to say the least. As one Old Boy, Hugh Sidgwick, observed, “unlike almost any other private school one has ever heard of, the OPS has its distinctive spirit and ethos, such that it makes an appeal and evokes a loyalty similar in kind to those of the best public schools.”

A contemporary, Walter Moberly, recalled a speech made by Hugh Sidgwick at an Old Boys’ Dinner on the nature of the school and the people it produced:

“He went on to ask what the distinctive character of the School and its training is. He found it in the Skipper’s refusal to force his boys into one or other of two or three conventional moulds, in his positive encouragement of originality, in the opportunity given to boys to discover their own peculiar interests and gifts; so that, if you were to collect a number of Old Boys in after-life and to ask what was the common stamp that the School had set on them, you would be able to point to no single machine-made quality, but you might observe that every one was very much himself.”

canoes on Cherwell

What stands out is the greater independence Skipper allowed – much envied by the boys of nearby Summer Fields School. They could not ride about on their bikes, as OPS boys did, or roam the River Cherwell unsupervised, “ragging about in four-oared boats or canoes.”

All very reminiscent of ‘Swallows and Amazons,’ it was a more adventurous approach to life, summarized in Ransome’s famous words, “Better drowned than duffers, if not duffers, won’t drown.”

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The Skipper maintained close friendships with many of the boys who came to the school – and their families – such that when it came to the war years (and beyond) they continued to visit and correspond.

Although the Skipper retired officially in 1920, handing over to his brother ‘Hum’, he maintained a close interest in the school throughout the remaining years of his life, attending many Old Dragon dinners and Remembrance Sunday services at the Memorial Cross. When he died in 1938, it was fitting that it was Frank Sidgwick who penned his obituary:




“Mr. Charles Cotterill Lynam, the ‘Skipper’ of the famous Dragon Preparatory School at Oxford from 1886 to 1920, and an honorary Fellow of Hertford College, died at sea on Thursday at the age of 80. The eldest surviving child of the large family of the late Mr. Charles Lynam F.R.I.B.A., of Stoke-on-Trent, he was born on June 15th 1858. He was educated at King William’s College, Isle of Man, and at Hertford College, Oxford, where he took honours in mathematics. For three years he played Rugby football for the University, being for some time the time a ‘three-quarter’ in Harry Vassall’s famous XV. But he did not get his ‘Blue’; in his last year he had begun teaching at the day school in Crick Road, Oxford, which had recently been started, under the Rev. A.E.Clarke, by a few Oxford Dons for their sons, and could not or would not play in out-matches. After taking his degree in 1882 he became assistant master at the school, and on the death of Mr. Clarke four years later he was appointed headmaster. He retired in 1920, and was succeeded by his brother, Mr. A.E. Lynam.

In 1887 he married Catherine, daughter of Mr. J. Hall, of Kynsal Lodge, Audlem, Cheshire, and had a son and a daughter, both of whom passed through his school, the latter being the first girl to enter, while his son became a master on the staff. J.H.R. Lynam, son of A.E.Lynam and nephew of C.C. also became a master at the school and was an international hockey player.

Mr. Lynam was an original member of the Association of Head Masters of Preparatory Schools, being elected chairman of the council in 1908 and again in 1921. In 1895 he founded, and for five years edited, the organ of that body, the ‘Preparatory Schools’ Review’.

Originally the official title of the school was ‘the Oxford Preparatory School,’ but later it was changed to the Dragon School. Just before the end of last century it was moved to Bardwell Road, in buildings designed by Mr. Charles Lynam senior. Boarders began to be taken in the early nineties, and soon equalled or even outnumbered the day boys. But it would be misleading to write in official terms of the school or of its headmaster. Long before the end of last century ‘Lynam’s’ had a reputation far beyond the bounds of Oxford; and it is in many ways significant that from the early nineties its presiding genius was known as ‘the Skipper’ – not merely at first sub rosa by the school and the staff in unofficial hours, but in the event by the formally rhetorical parent on speech day. The use of the nick-name, so appropriate to one who was headmaster half the year and yachtsman the other half, was characteristic of the absence of stiffness and formality which the school imbibed from him.

In a crisis now happily forgotten at one of the great public schools, a goaded assistant master once suggested in private the postulate that ‘if a headmaster can’t preach and can’t teach, he ought to be either a scholar or a gentleman.’ Three of those qualities were patent in the Skipper, but preaching, in its ordinary sense, he deliberately avoided. His one sermon was the example he set to all alike; and if its text can be stated in brief, it lies in the root of the word ‘generosity,’ not only in its current connotation but also with a flavour of its classical forebears. So, too, he was a pedagogue in the purest sense of the word – a companion of his boys, not an Olympian wielding the ferule. No one was prouder or happier than he in any honour won  by them in their educational routine or afterwards in the world; no one saner in realizing its relative value. One of the most brilliant of his old pupils, speaking at an Old Boys’ dinner, put the rhetorical question : what was the distinctive character of the school and its training? and found the answer in the Skipper’s refusal to force his boys into conventional moulds, in his active encouragement of originality, in his affording them every opportunity to discover and develop each his own interest and genius. The Skipper attached great importance to leaving boys free to do what they liked with their spare time, instead of forcing them into a scheduled programme out of school as well as in school.

Ashore or at sea, the Skipper’s innumerable minor capacities made him a good man for an emergency. The geniality and sweet reasonableness that could soften and convince an irate harbourmaster in a midnight gale, or persuade a gamekeeper that the Skipper and twenty or thirty boys were doing no damage, or even were friends of the owner, stood him in good stead also in the drawing-rooms of querulous parents. In the amenities of life he was a keen player of bridge and chess; an indefatigable sketcher in pencil, water-colour, or oils; a most voracious reader of fiction; a capable plain cook. For thirty years he annually ‘produced’ a play of Shakespeare at the school (and surely nowhere is Shakespeare so well acted), often painting the scenery, and always coaching and prompting the boys and their sisters in the rehearsals, through that post-Christmas holidays period when one influenza germ will decimate a cast at the eleventh hour,

As soon as a term was ended (and sometimes before) the pedagogue dissolved into the mariner. His love of cruising began with schoolboy escapades off the Isle of Man, and developed by way of undergraduate canoe-racing into the devotion of nearly all holidays to the sailing of his own craft. His first yacht, the ‘Yellow Dragon’, was wrecked on the Happisburgh Sands in 1891, and he and his “crew” – an Old Boy, afterwards killed in the South African War – were rescued with difficulty by a Lowestoft trawler. The first ‘Blue Dragon’ was built for him by Theo Smith at Medley on Port Meadow, Oxford, and launched in 1892; her chronicles being written in ‘The Log of the “Blue Dragon”, 1892-1904,’ it suffices to say that he sailed her down the Thames and kept turning to the right until he made Cape Wrath. She was seven tons, Lloyd’s register; he cruised sometimes single-handed, but by preference with family or friends aboard – never a paid hand, and but once a pilot. In 1905 he sold this boat, and bought the ‘Isla’ from the then headmaster of Rossall, renaming her ‘Blue Dragon II’. In her he revisited the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, and in April 1911, made an epic crossing of the North Sea to Norway, reaching the North Cape in the following summer. For this feat he was awarded the challenge cup of the Royal Cruising Club. He was sailing that boat up the Christiania Fiord in 1914 when the news of the outbreak of the War reached him, and he only returned with difficulty to England, leaving her behind in Norway. While the war lasted he cruised ashore in a motor vehicle that was both ambulance for the wounded sent to Oxford hospitals, and caravan for holiday trips. ‘Blue Dragon III’, purchased after the War, was an “auxiliary” from the start, and though the Skipper, then over sixty, still preferred to sail, he welcomed the independence of wind and weather supplied by her engines.

With his school, as with his yacht, he was a ‘captain courageous,’ instinctively enterprising himself, and inspiring his crew with the confidence of his enthusiasm. To the looker-on, scholastic or nautical, many of his adventures appeared rash – were, indeed, frequently called so. But the Skipper, sitting at the helm of school or ship, continuously exercised a sixth sense of seamanship, which effectively took the wind from his critics’ sails.”

‘The Times’, October 29th 1938.

Frank Sidgwick then set about writing a memoir in celebration of Skipper’s life. Sadly, he died before its completion, but these words found in his notes, make a fitting conclusion:

“Like others of his generation from his part of England, he had, at least at one time, the endearing old-fangled habit of ending his letters without the formal ‘yours.’ I have been turning over many which end simply ‘Love, Skipper.’

The two words are good company for each other.”


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Following the Skipper’s death, an inscription  commemorating him (now almost illegible) was added to the grave of his brother, Dr Robert Lynam, in Wolvercote cemetery:






OCT 27th 1938


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