Obituary: David Mossman

(Teacher at Caterham School 1963-1995)

Died 19 May 2022

One great love of his was everything to do with naval history, a topic on which he had read a great deal and on which he greatly enjoyed constructing talks for the boys at school, with copious notes on cards in his tiny meticulous handwriting. It was the romance of the sea he loved, not actually sailing (which he never took up, beyond piloting a boat on the Broads on a Norfolk holiday), and this poem was a favourite expression of that.

Sea-Fever by John Masefield:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.


David was born in Oxford, and his early life was peripatetic as the family (his parents and his older brother Michael) moved to Cheltenham and later Petworth following the progression of his father’s career as a bank manager. While they were in Cheltenham he attended Dean Close school, where he was inspired by his English teacher, Ian Seraillier. His sojourn in Petworth led to a lifetime of the ups and downs of supporting Sussex County Cricket and an abiding affection for that county’s landscapes. He read French and German at Bristol University, where he also played hockey and embarked on writing for an undergraduate magazine. Having just missed National Service (for which he was profoundly grateful, as his stint in the Corps at school had not inspired him with confidence in his marching abilities), he followed Bristol with a diploma in Paris and a teaching qualification, then after a short stint at a school on the south coast, he came to Caterham School in 1963 and stayed until his retirement in 1995.

He found the atmosphere very congenial  – Terry Leathem, the headmaster, was an inspiring and hospitable figure (David wrote his obituary for the Independent when he died in 1991), and there was a lively group of younger masters who became life-long friends: especially Don Selden, who taught David to drive, Robert Jarrams, and John Bleach, all of whom sadly predeceased him, and David Rogers, happily still with us. Other friends [some of whom are here today] joined the school later, and he was never greatly tempted to go elsewhere. He became at one time or another Head of Modern Languages, Housemaster of Townsend, Director of General Studies and Librarian. He also edited the school magazine, coached and umpired hockey, ran the school bookshop, and wrote sketches for school revues which were extremely successful ‘particularly when he appeared in person’, as the author of David’s retirement notice in the school magazine recorded. He directed plays by other authors, too, collaborating with Jim Seymour among others. He was a leading light in the Debating Society, (a report in the 1994 magazine described him as ‘that wise and sage doyen of the deadpan one-line’). He was a fine teacher who cared about teaching and who took great trouble over his pupils.

He also met my mother at the school when she taught there for a year before she got a job at Eothen: she recalled that on her first day she struggled to make the coffee machine work and that he helped her with it. He continued to look after her devotedly until she died in 2017.

Much though he enjoyed teaching and society at Caterham, I think it is fair to say that David enjoyed retirement even more. He wrote several novels and enjoyed writing them (though in the end none were published). He was a great aficionado of crime novels and for a couple of years taught a course on crime novels for an American summer school in Bath; he volunteered at Polesden Lacey. He and my mother travelled, both by ship and by car. Particular favourites were the German Alps and the towns of northern Bavaria, but sailing through the Bosphorus was another highlight.

To me he was always a rock of strength, a wise umpire between me and my mother, an arbiter of right action. He was always supportive in every possible way.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011, though he had had tell-tale symptoms for some time previously. It did not seriously incapacitate him until after an operation in 2015, but in his last years, especially after my mother died, his activities were much circumscribed. He still, however, enjoyed films and his beloved cricket (he would have been greatly cheered by England’s recent performance against New Zealand), and he bore very difficult times with exceptional cheerfulness. With much to complain about, he never complained. He spoke regularly on the phone to his beloved brother Michael, to my aunt Jennifer, and to old colleagues like Mary Brewiss; and he was devotedly looked after at home by Liudmila, Irina, Sue, Jodi, Becky and others. He and I were able to spend more time together during lockdown than had been possible for some time. Together we watched a variety of quiz shows (which he loved) and many of his favourite films. Last year he took pleasure in writing a tribute for John Bleach’s memorial service, for which he re-read many of the old school magazines, and in reminiscing about their time at the school. In short, he never stopped enjoying what could be enjoyed. We shall miss him dearly, a scholar and a gentleman.

Written by his daughter Judith Mossman