One of the longest serving members of staff is someone who’s life story we know in some detail. That he worked at the School part time is no matter as it could be said he was responsible for establishing the foundations for LWS to become one of the country’s leading sports schools. John Clement Purnell was appointed as the gymnastics and PE teacher in 1906, and became one of the longest serving members of staff when he finally retired in 1938.
He was born in 1880 into an old Oxford family who had been tailors and robe makers in the city for many decades, with a shop on The High.
He was educated at the Boys Central School in Oxford, which he left aged 14 and, for two years from 1898, had served with the Royal Artillery.
In the Boer War he saw action at Johannesburg, Diamond Hill, Driefontein, Paardeberg, and the Relief of Kimberley. After being severely wounded in the arm and back, he was invalided out of the Army and returned to Oxford with his records showing he was of ‘Very Good Character.’
In Oxford he worked initially in his father’s shop but then became deeply interested in gymnastics and physical fitness. In 1906 he started teaching at LWGS, taking PE on Tuesday afternoons in three ‘sections’. He was also working at ‘Lynams’, the Oxford Preparatory School, later ‘the Dragon’, moving the following year to St Ursula’s Convent and to The Chilterns Prep School but all the time living in Oxford. In 1908 he started life saving classes for the Royal Life Saving Society; in 1909 he founded the Oxford City Swimming Club.
In 1905 he had married Florence Emily Graham and they had one child Cissie, who was born in 1909.
In July 1918, his wife died. Purnell had temporarily left LWGS in April 1918 when she fell ill but after an 18-month gap he was reengaged in September 1920 to do the same job but on Fridays rather than Tuesdays. He had also met and married Theodora Gardner. They had one son, Clement, and Audrey a daughter but sadly his second wife also died when she was in her thirties of a heart attack.
Purnell continued to play a part in the School after his official retirement in 1938. Fourteen years later the Tamensian was still able to comment that: ‘Mr Purnell has been unable to pay his usual visit for the [Royal Life Savings] Society’s examinations.’ By this time he was aged 72.
Purnell lived until he was aged 81, and died in 1961. The Old Tamensians were represented at the funeral. He was buried alongside both his wives in Rose Hill cemetery.
In an obituary, besides all the activities already noted above, it was noted that he was founder and secretary of the Oxfordshire Society of Rugby Referees. He was also a swimming coach with Radley College and Magdalen College School, rowed for Neptune Rowing Club, and was a volunteer with the St John Ambulance Brigade. After his retirement from school life, he worked as a captain on Salter’s Steamers, the vessels that plied the Thames from Oxford. All in all a busy life.