Housemaster who became more closely associated with Sherborne than the headmasters he served over 34 years
Peter Boissier, who has died aged 82, was a housemaster at Sherborne School, where his combination of character, moral certainty and muscular Christianity influenced successive generations of boys.
With his laconic unshockability, “brothel-creeper” suede boots, duffel-coat and reeking pipe, “Chaps” – or “Peter B” – came to be more closely associated with the ancient foundation than any of the six headmasters he served over 34 years.
Peter Clement Boissier was born on March 28 1922 and educated at Harrow, where his father was headmaster. After captaining a spectacularly successful rugby XV as a virtuoso scrum-half, he went up to Corpus Christi, Cambridge, intending to become a mining engineer; but since this was a reserved occupation and many of his friends were being killed, he volunteered to join the Royal Navy after a year.
Boissier first went to sea in the sloop Ibis, which sunk several Junkers bombers before being torpedoed by a Heinkel. On being ordered to abandon ship, the crew sang For Those in Peril on the Sea as they slid down into the sea. More than half the company was lost; but Boissier survived three hours in the water before being picked up.
He returned home to be commissioned at HMS King Alfred before being appointed to Grenville, in which, under fire, he proved an enthusiastic if slightly trigger-happy marksman in charge of a Bofors gun. He next joined Jervis, which has part of its bows blown off by a gilder bomb during the Anzio landings. Just before the D-Day landings, when he was in action off Arromanche, Boissier invited his parents’ friend the artist Norman Wilkinson to accompany him. Security officers objected. Jervis’s captain, Norman Hill, ordered the artist off his ship, then said: “Oh good, you’re not going. Come and have a drink.” For the next fortnight, the 65-year-old Wilkinson roamed over the ship in tin helmet and flash gear. One result was a sketch in oils of Jervis bombarding German positions, which Wilkinson gave to Boissier as a wedding present. Another was a large painting of H-Hour with Jervis’s guns flashing in the middle; it now hangs at HMS Dryad, which was Eisenhower’s HQ.
After the war ended, Jervis’s crew was charged with preventing a rush of Jewish immigrants entering Palestine as the British mandate was coming to an end. Boissier was patrolling a jetty at Haifa one midnight when a suspicious-looking caique hove into view. A murmur of voices could be heard on board. As the patrol closed in on their knees, bayonets were fixed. Then rising with the call “Come on, boys”, Boissier led the charge on to the boat – to find that he and his men had landed amongst a deck cargo of goats.
Although there were expectations that he would have a distinguished career, Boissier returned to Cambridge where he played games with relish and did a one-year Geography degree; then, after hearing that maths masters were in short supply, he did another year reading Engineering Studies. The day after the May Week Ball, he married Jo Yeoman, who played a full part in their successful partnership at the school.
Boissier served first as tutor, then took over as housemaster of Lyon House. This had been built by Alec Trelawney-Ross, who discouraged Sixth Form boys such as the cricketer-bishop David Sheppard from studying History and English because he believed those who taught these subjects were Communists; he was succeeded by Colonel Hughie Holmes, who ran it like a crack regiment. Boissier imposed a breezy, outwardly relaxed regime, which was bolstered by an arcane vocabulary with such phrases as “Anybody want to turn their bicycle round?” – which meant, “Does anyone need to go to the lavatory?”
In 1968, School House was disintegrating into a state of anarchy. Boissier took over to face some initial hostility; but his good humour, honesty and common sense paid off, and the house became almost as successful as Lyon. An outspoken man he was once asked by the journalist Tim Heald on a television programme for his recollection of the young Heald at school. “Bloody awful,” was the reply.
After retiring in 1982, Boissier masterminded a first-ever financial appeal on behalf of the school, in which he raised £1 million by indefatigable arm-twisting and long letters in almost indecipherable handwriting. For some years he lived in the nearby village of Hazelbury Bryan, where he was chairman of the parish council, before moving back to Sherborne as he and his wife battled with debilitating illness.
Peter Boissier, who died on November 8, is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son, Rear-Admiral Paul Boissier.
The Daily Telegraph ©