Old Abbottonian Nicholas (Nick) Linfield, who works for the Ministry of Defence, was awarded an OBE for his Services to Defence in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List. It’s 50 years now since Nick began his prep-school education at West Sussex independent school Sompting Abbotts. We invited him to talk to us about his education and career. And to tell us why he’s so proud to be the only former pupil on the school’s scholarship Honours’ Boards whose son and daughter are up there too …
Tell us about your time at Sompting Abbotts Prep School
I attended from 1967-72 and won a scholarship to Hurstpierpoint College. My two children, George and Molly, were also pupils at Sompting Abbotts and both achieved scholarships to Lancing College.
I’m very proud that this makes us a first. We’re the only father, son and daughter combination to be up on the scholarship Honours’ Boards hanging in the school’s Assembly Hall.
My wife Sarah also has a connection to the school. She worked at Sompting Abbotts from 2003 - 2007 as a teaching assistant under the then Head of Pre-Prep, Mrs Richardson. She’s now the Admissions Manager at Lancing College.
Why did your parents decide to send you to Sompting Abbotts?
My brother Malcolm and I went to a fabulous little pre-prep school in Worthing called Broadwater Pre-Preparatory which took boys up until the age of 8. It’s no longer there - there’s a car park where it used to be at Thomas A' Becket. It was run by a wonderful lady called Miss Kaye and it was she who recommended Sompting Abbotts to my parents. They immediately liked the school because it was family-run and there was such a big emphasis on respect for others and politeness as well as academic achievement.
What do you remember of your time at the school?
I had a wonderful education there and really loved the freedom of the immense grounds and the warmth and friendliness of the school – both staff and pupils. There’s something magical about Sompting Abbotts that it's quite difficult to put your finger on.
I made very good friends there. In fact, my oldest and best friend, Brian Sinclair [latterly a Senior Banker with Credit Agricole Corporate & Investment Bank until his recent retirement] was somebody I met at Sompting Abbotts 49 years ago. We were both day boys at the school and formed an immediate friendship that remains as strong today as it was back then.
There were two co-headmasters when I was there : George Rutherford, whom I remember as being generally approachable but also quite strict as required, and, of course, Nigel Sinclair, whose widow Patricia and son David are still the guiding force behind the school.
The masters and teachers were really considerate of the pupils, ambitious for them, and passionate about their subjects. They were genuinely stimulating - and lessons were both interesting and fun. I had one significantly influential master, Philip Bell, known affectionately to the pupils (and staff too, I suspect!) as Dingers: he taught English (and was responsible for inspiring my love of the subject) and Divinity. Another stalwart was Captain DB King, who taught French : a great character but an explosive temper that left no miscreant unaware of when he had crossed the line!
I also have vivid memories of the annual school fete – always a lovely event. My mum used to run the produce stall at it every year as our family was in the nursery business. I loved the ceremony of the sports days too – that was a big event in the school calendar. I attended my first one in 1965 when my brother was at the end of his first year at the school. And attended my last one in 2012 when Molly finished her last year there. A span of 47 years!
Tell us about your life after Hurstpierpoint College?
I went to King’s College, London, and graduated with an English degree in 1980. I’ve had a varied career. I worked for two years in a film company in Wardour Street then came back and joined our family business A. G. Linfield Ltd in Thakeham (Chesswood Mushrooms) for about five years. Then it was one of the biggest local employers in Sussex, with over 1,000 employees and the largest mushroom producer in the world. It was ultimately taken over by Rank Hovis McDougall.
Now you’re a Grade 6 Officer with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). That was a big change of direction.
Yes. I started 25 years ago this November. I entered the Civil Service Fast Stream Exams and was invited for an interview with the MoD. I was based in Northern Ireland for three years (and, in fact, Molly was born over there) and I’ve done a great deal of travelling over the years – all over Europe, Hong Kong, Mexico, Canada, Egypt and many other places – for defence and diplomacy-related projects. Now I commute up to the MoD in London every day by train. I genuinely love what I do and although, at 58, I could retire in two years' time, I don't have any plans to do anything of the sort.
What do you do outside work?
I don’t have that much time for recreational pursuits now as I leave home each day at 6.45am and often don't get back until 8.30pm. Some years ago, I founded the Orion Players, a local drama group, and I used to write and direct our productions. And now I run a spoof website called The Stonking Herald which is notionally a local newspaper for a fictitious Sussex village. I basically use that to satisfy my writing urges and do it in my ‘train time’ as I commute between London and home.
What made you decide to enrol your children at the school?
I also wanted for them that same sort of nurturing and stimulating environment that I had known, where each child is treated like an individual and there is just as much of a focus on good manners and politeness as there is on academic and sporting achievement.
We decided to visit the school in the hope that it had still maintained that balance. Well, it was like going back in time! What I particularly loved was going into one of the most junior classes and all the boys and girls standing up the moment Mrs Sinclair walked in and saying: “Good morning, Mrs Sinclair; Good morning, Visitors.”
I was delighted. There was clearly exactly the same positive ethos as when I was there.
So we didn’t hesitate and it was absolutely the right decision. My children had a wonderful time: excellent education and brilliant pastoral care – just as my brother Malcolm and I had had.
Molly made two enduring friendships there and both children became involved in lots of extra-curricular activities including drama, sports and, in Molly's case, music: she played both the ukulele and the piano.
They were both hugely fond of Mr Tim [Tim Sinclair, headmaster, who died suddenly in 2012] and very affected by his passing. He was a lovely man with a great sense of fun and an obvious pride in the school's pupils and he was very sorely missed by children and parents alike.
What do your children do now?
Molly has just started at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and is studying Theatre Sound and wants to become a theatre technician.
George went to the New College of Humanities in Bedford Square and graduated with an English degree in 2016. Currently he’s working for a charity called IntoUniversity that helps children from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve the ambition of reaching university.
What are the chance of your grandchildren going to Sompting Abbotts?
Well, it would be rather wonderful to think that the chances are good!
Sompting Abbotts has been a key part of my life for much of my 58 years so my enduring hope is that it continues to thrive in what is becoming an all too competitive environment.
Today the school's principles of all-round support for its pupils are more in need than ever before. The Sinclair legacy is massive in terms of what it has meant for generations of schoolchildren over many decades now.
There are legions of us out there who owe this school an enormous debt of gratitude.
Wouldn't it be great to think that there will be many more to come?