John Albert Gwilliam passed away on 21st December 2016 aged 93.
John Gwilliam, Headmaster from 1963-88, was born in 1923, the son of T.A. Gwilliam. He was educated at Monmouth School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Before coming to Birkenhead, he had taught at Trinity College, Glenalmond (1949-52) and Bromsgrove (1952-56) and he had been Head of the Lower School at Dulwich since 1956. Between 1942 and 1946 he had served in the Army.
As a boy at Monmouth Gwilliam had captained the Rugger and Cricket teams. At Cambridge, where he took an Honours degree in History, he obtained a Blue for Rugger and followed this with a number of Welsh Caps. He was a formidable Captain in a year in which Wales won the triple crown.
Twenty-five years is a long time to remain in any one post. To be Headmaster of the same school for that length of time is nowadays extremely rare. Gwilliam’s reign began, ominously, in the social and academic turmoil and indiscipline of the early sixties and it was here, perhaps, that he made his greatest mark on the school. From the very beginning, he established himself as a strong disciplinarian and, regardless of what was happening in other, more ‘liberal’ establishments, he insisted on good behaviour, manners and correct dress, at the same time impressing his own spiritual values on the School. During his tenure of office he saw many pupils win places and awards at Oxbridge and other leading universities.
Gwilliam’s time here was such that, when it ended, every member of the Common Room had been appointed by him, including several Old Birkonians who had been boys under him. His time lasted from the craze for long hair to the craze for very short hair.
About the middle of Gwilliam’s reign, threats were made by the Socialist Government against the Direct Grant System and eventually the axe fell. For some schools this was a disaster; for Birkenhead it simply meant fresh opportunities and a return to independence. A new classroom block, ‘K’ Block, was built in Kingsmead Road, a Sixth Form Centre arose on the foundations of the coach-house of Overdale and the new hall was erected near the junction of Kingsmead Road South and Bidston Road. This enabled the Preparatory School to escape from its very restricted accommodation in Beresford Road and to move into the original School buildings of 1871, including ‘Big School’ and the Boarding House which was closed, much to the dismay of many Old Birkonians.
Gwilliam retired to live on the North Wales coast. His portrait, by C.W. Oliver, was hung in 1988.