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Venerable Ernest Henry Stenning

Title: Venerable

Epithet: Vice-principal of King William's College and achdeacon of Man (1885-1964)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Ernest Stenning was a large man in physical stature, intellect, interests and reputation. He stood well over 6ft. and in middle age peaked at 22 stones. He must have appeared awesome to new pupils in Junior House at King William's College. His head was astonishingly large, his ears had pendulous lobes and his face seemed to be made of successive folds of skin gathered into massive jowls. Bushy growths of hair sprouted from his nose and ears, and his drooping eyelids gave him a weary but kindly appearance, not unlike that of an elderly, tired elephant.

However, he had a versatile brain, a huge capacity for work and, in his younger days, he was a surprisingly nimble sportsman, excelling at football and cricket. 'EHS' went to Downing College, Cambridge, in 1906 with the first-ever county scholarship gained from Westerham Church School, Sussex. Three years later he joined King William's College as an assistant master, intending to stay two years before medical school; he stayed for 44 years, and his influence on the school was profound.

Early on he founded the Officer Training Corps (now the Combined Cadet Force) and was commanding officer for thirteen years, with the rank of major.

He established the biological laboratories, inaugurating a steady stream of entrants to the medical profession. Many former pupils achieved national and international recognition.

His teaching style was informal, friendly and idiosyncratic, but he would not tolerate tom-foolery. When exasperated by a slow-witted class, he would grasp a fistful of chalk pieces and hurl them around the room like bullets from a machine gun. He drew in coloured chalk on the clergyman's black stock which covered his huge abdomen in order to indicate the position of bodily organs. Sitting, he would turn to write on the blackboard; he had been known to fall asleep in that position, his writing sliding lower and lower down the board.

For 33 years he and Mrs Stenning, to whom he was devoted, were in charge of the junior boarding house. 'Pa' Stenning ran a tight ship and was respected by all and feared by some. Some feared 'Ma' even more, a slight figure with steely, blue eyes; no-one dared argue with her. Yet as long as rules were kept, there were times of great hilarity with concerts, picnics and swimming parties. Pa could be seen in his bathing robe chugging along to the beach at Hango on his beloved 23/hp AJS motorcycle followed by a horde of Junior House boys swathed in towels. He always swam with them, or rather waded in chest-deep whilst the boys swam around him like dolphins and crawled up his massive frame to dive from his shoulders.

Unusually, Pa possessed a tine camera; having filmed some school activity, he would develop his spools and show them to his boys on a Saturday evening. Many of his films of school life, royal visits, etc. are now preserved on video cassette at the Manx Museum.

He was also an accomplished still photographer and first president of the Isle of Man Photographic Society. His two comprehensive books about the Island were illustrated entirely with his own photographs. Both were popular although it is now acknowledged that they are not always completely accurate.

Each day before chapel he would prepare a resume of the day's news from the BBC and, because wireless sets were thin on the ground, copies would be distributed around the school.

Pa Stenning was chaplain from his ordination in 1911 until his retirement from King William's in 1953. He lived and preached a non-fussy, straightforward Christianity and his sermons were, according to his friend Sammy Boulter who supplied the retirement eulogy in the school magazine, like his batting: 'brief, bright and breezy, brotherly but hard-hitting'. Few visiting preachers could match him in content or in style. He would rest his ample belly on the pulpit, speak without notes and, apparently, with closed eyes. A mumbling manner of speaking gave rise to his secondary nickname of 'Brumph', but his voice carried exceptionally well.

There was never a hint from him of the English-gentlemanly-muscular religion, so widespread in public schools of the day, and he was a sensitive and kindly pastor to anyone with personal problems.

His sense of humour was well-developed and some of his best observations were about himself, such as the occasion when one of his surplices was returned from the launderers listed as 'one large bell-tent'. Or about chapel when he would point out references to the TT Races in the lines of well-known hymns: 'Steals on the ear the distant triumph song' and 'Sunbeams scorching all the day'.

He had a fine baritone voice which, with his humorous inclinations, made for memorable entertainment at school concerts. Encore followed encore as he sang his way through such old chestnuts as 'Henry King', 'Matilda' and 'The Monk of Siberia'.

Outside King William's his great passion was motorcycling. He was a founder member and then president of the Manx Motor Cycle Club, a steward at TT and Manx Grand Prix Races, and always in demand as a raconteur at the race prize-giving ceremonies. The Duke of Edinburgh dubbed him 'The Motorcycling Dean'.

Boys were forbidden by the principal to attend practices for the TT races, but many sneaked off at dawn and as they cycled past the Stennings' house which, after Junior House days, was on Douglas Road, they were likely to see the prominent figure of EHS at his bedroom window with both hands covering his eyes, a gesture which was the next best thing to a blessing.

He was made a canon in 1944 and, after his retirement from King William's, Bishop Pollard appointed him Archdeacon of Man in 1958. The latter elevation was a surprise to many, especially amongst the clergy. At 73 he was hardly at the peak of his powers and he had recently been in poor health. Also he had never worked in a parish, let alone been in charge of one. However, he threw himself into his new duties, undertaking the first archdiaconal visitations of the Island parishes for over 50 years. These detailed inspections of every parish's fabric and administration should, according to church law, take place every few years. He soon earned the respect of all the clergy.

Ernest Stenning was immensely popular not only at King William's but also in the Island generally. There was widespread approval when he was made a MBE in 1958 for his services to motorcycling, and also when Her Majesty appointed him Chaplain to the Queen in the following year. But he was in many ways an enigma. He was open, friendly and accessible (and he certainly enjoyed his popularity) but few people were able to get really close to him, perhaps because he was a giver rather than a receiver. He was a committed establishment man in affairs of both church and state, but he had a rebellious streak and could become irked if he did not get his own way. His relationship with his last principal, Sidney Wilson, who without doubt saved the school from extinction in the 1930s, could best be described as one of fruitful tension, even when EHS was vice-principal. They squabbled regularly but, to the great credit of both men, their differences were never made public, and the school continued to prosper.

The memories of EHS held by old boys of King William's vary from near hero-worship to a more than moderate dislike. Although he was kindly and sensitive by nature, it is his strong, almost Dickensian, line on discipline, especially in Junior House days, which some remember, although it must be said that he was always even-handed.

Against any possible shortcomings has to be set an extensive list of virtues. He was a faithful man of God, a scholar and a fine teacher, with a memory for events and people which was truly elephantine, and he possessed a large, pastoral heart. The range of his interests and talents was also revealed in him as scientist, motorcyclist, photographer, author, sportsman, Freemason, public speaker, preacher, entertainer and humorist. All these gifts, employed almost entirely for the benefit of others, have continued to bear a rich harvest in the thousands of people whose lives he touched.

It could be suggested that Ernest Stenning possessed that rare quality which eludes precise definition or explanation but when witnessed is self-evident: namely, that of greatness.

Biography written by Paul Bregazzi.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.426-8.)

Culture Vannin

#NMW

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 27 January 1885

Date of death: 1 February 1964

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