Dr Ronald Hope, latterly director of the Seafarers’ Education Service and The Marine Society, died in January.
Generations of seafarers owe a debt of gratitude to his passionate, unyielding commitment to their well-being.
I didn’t know Ronald especially well at a personal level. He was retiring from The Marine Society as I joined it. But we often spoke after his retirement, met from time to time, and I shall be for ever grateful for his wise counsel.
I left The Marine Society last year, having been privileged to serve it for 26 years. My role was to look after what Ronald cherished as the Seafarers Education Service – the College of the Sea, Seafarers Libraries, and the various support operations which made life for those who serve at sea that much more bearable.
Ronald Hope’s career was remarkable by any standards. At age just 16 in 1937 he appeared on television enthusing about a new charity called Ship Adoption whereby schools ‘adopted’ ships and the seafarers who sailed them – commonplace nowadays, but unprecedented at the time.
A year later he spent six weeks voyaging to Canada in a Cunarder. The outbreak of war saw him take up a scholarship at New College, Oxford, graduating with first class honours in 1942. He then joined the Royal Navy and saw active service in a number of theatres, including a daring operation against the battleship Tirpitz.
War over, he was drawn to academia, taking a post as lecturer in economics amongst the dreaming spires at his alma mater in Oxford. But the call of the sea was powerful.
In 1947, aged just 26, Ronald became Director of the Seafarers Education Service (SES), an initiative begun in 1919 by Albert Mansbridge who had earlier founded the Workers Educational Association.
The SES was akin to a WEA for seafarers, based around the provision of libraries of books to around 2,000 ships throughout the world, but its jewel was the College of the Sea, a very early example of what today we would call a distance learning operation offering tuition to around 1,000 seafarers in an impressive range of academic subjects.
During the post-war decades the SES became the pre-eminent provider of charitable services to seafarers. The Marine Society, of which the energetic Ronald had become a trustee in 1962 and chairman by 1970, enjoyed a relatively low profile. In 1976 the two charities merged, with Ronald taking the helm of the combined charity.
Ronald believed fervently that nobody ought to be denied access to education on account of their calling. For Ronald, those who served at sea and endured all its deprivations and hardships were amongst the most deserving in society.
So it was that this tall and distinguished economic historian, a university don, was attracted to the cause espoused by the SES, even though he apparently had no intention of staying at the helm of the SES for long.
Ronald was to stay for 40 years. During that time he stoutly defended the interests of seafarers and was fearless in his advocacy of their rights. By nature a mild mannered, considerate and courteous man, he cared not whose feathers might be ruffled by his often strident interventions in the daily schedule of the bean-counting shipowner or feckless politician: he was a true champion of seafarers’ rights.
That Kipling verse ‘If you can walk with the crowd and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch’ could have been written for Ronald. That he could command an audience with the mightiest in the land; engage with the finest minds in industry and politics; and yet take huge and genuine joy from teaching and discourse with common men remains one of his most endearing attributes.
Late last year I happened upon former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and mentioned the Marine Society. His face lit up. ‘Hope’, he enunciated with obvious passion: ‘an inspirational man’. It had been Ronald who encouraged the young Prescott and helped him get his first academic qualifications.
There were no lengths to which he would not go to help a seafarer: nothing would be too much trouble.
Mentoring is now fashionable throughout industry and commerce, and the maritime sector has embraced it with aplomb, often packaging it in a grandiose wrapper. But Ronald was mentoring seafarers for years. He personally tutored seafarers on a one-to-one basis in Economics throughout his career, and was forever reaching out to them, offering friendly advice on any matter of concern. He oft said this was the most enjoyable part of his work. He was an inspiring teacher in the finest tradition.
That word inspirational crops up time and again. Julian Parker OBE FNI, founding Secretary of the Nautical Institute, knew Ronald well. He first came across him in 1960 when the fresh-faced Blue Funnel midshipman signed up for a correspondence course in literature. ‘Ronald did so much to raise the profile of seafaring’, Julian recalls, ‘he authored books, ran competitions, promoted poetry, arranged sea-going tutors, organised lectures, provided libraries of books and films, and of course correspondence courses – he even commissioned a sea symphony!’
Another with fond recollections is the renowned sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston CBE RD who was encouraged by Ronald to take an A Level in Mathematics whilst serving at sea running between Bombay to Basra. ‘Later, when I decided to try and sail solo non stop around the world, Ronald phoned and asked if I was taking any books. I thought this was a great idea. We agreed the broad topics that interested me and he delivered them to me personally in the Surrey Commercial Docks as I was setting off’.
Gill Dunsdon worked at the Seafarers Education Service and The Marine Society for 29 years. She recalls ‘a strict but a very fair and lovely boss’ who she ‘could ask and talk to about absolutely anything’. Just like he respected and admired the seafarers he worked for, Ronald’s colleagues had huge respect and admiration for him.
Ronald’s influence in the dissemination of education and the promotion of what we call today distance learning permeated every facet of national discourse. In 1965 Jennie Lee, as Minister of State for Education, was tasked by Prime Minister Harold Wilson to establish a model that would widen access to higher education.
The College of the Sea had more experience of learning at a distance than most. So it was – alongside university vice-chancellors, broadcasters, and educationalists of international repute – Ronald became an influential contributor to the planning committee that led to the foundation of The Open University.
Ronald was a colossus in seafarers’ education and a champion for the well-being of those who go to sea professionally.
His influence shone as a beacon throughout the second half of the twentieth century and it would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the considerable maritime charity infrastructure which exists today owes a great deal to his legacy.
[This article appears in the current edition of Telegraph published by Nautilus International]