Soham Grammarians - Mr TL Riley MA (Sheffield)
French 1929-67 (and until 1970)

Soham Grammarian Summer 1967

The retirement of Mr. Riley at the end of the Summer Term marked the end of an era in the history of Soham Grammar School. He is the last of the group of pre-war masters who in the days of the late J. C. Platt fought hard and successfully to ensure the maintenance of grammar school status for the School. It is sad to think that the comprehensive wave may soon engulf an institution for the survival of which he and others fought so hard.

Thomas Luke Riley came to Soham in September 1929. He was a fresh faced but tough Yorkshireman who in his first few days showed those rebellious elements with an antipathy to French and to hard work that he was not to be trifled with. Since then the "gospel according to St. Luke" has been preached with characteristic vigour and efficiency. The present high standard of the French department owes much to his enthusiasm and dedication as a teacher.

It is still easy to envisage Mr. Riley as a cross-country runner (he was captain of Sheffield University Cross-Country team) and as a tough disciple of Rugby Football. He was a tower of strength when he assisted the School XV in its matches against men's teams and on one memorable occasion even sacrificed two of his front teeth on the altar of the rugby field.

Mr Thomas Luke Slug Riley
from the Summer 1967 magazine

The scouts saw him in his gentler mood and until the arrival of Mr. Hart and Mr. Rennison he ran the flourishing School Scouts Troop with the devotion and energy which we associate with all he undertakes.

He has been Second Master for the last three years and in this capacity his high standard of duty coupled with his deep affection for the School has enabled him to fill this office with distinction. His whole-heartedness, high moral code and warmth of feeling only thinly disguised beneath his stentorian manifestations of wrath have endeared him to many generations of boys and to his colleagues in the staff room.

Mr. Riley has been fortunate in the help and co-operation of a wife whose charm has graced so many of the School functions. Her interest and affection for the School is only equalled by that of her husband. It is pleasant to know that their close association with the School is not to be broken for Mr. Riley is to continue as a part-time teacher to give the School the benefits of his scholarship and experience. He has earned fully a little more leisure to spend in the garden of which he is so fond.

Soham Grammarian Summer 1940

Mr and Mrs TL Riley and Mr and Mrs J Lait warmly thank the boys and masters for their good wishes, and for the wedding presents which they kindly gave last term. These were a Coffee Percolator and Chrome-Plated Kettle to Mr and Mrs Riley, and to Mr and Mrs Lait, an Electric Toaster, a Coffee Percolator and an Electric Fire.

Boy Scouts form Guard of Honour - Soham Schoolmaster's Ely Bride
Mr TL Riley and Miss BCG Taylor
source: his daughters Susan & Brigid

Soham Grammarian Autumn 1941

Before the term began we lost Mr Riley, who was called up for military service, and we should like to wish him every success in his new 'career'. We were glad to see him for a few hours on the first day of term and later sent him a present to say 'au revoir'. His place has been temporarily filled by Miss Goodison, to whom we extend our warmest greetings and hopes that she will enjoy her stay with us.


This term we regret to announce the departure of Mr. Riley, who has left us temporarily to join the Army. Mr. Riley has been Scout Master for nearly ten years, and, under his guidance, the troup [sic] has flourished as never before. We sincerely wish him luck in his new occupation, and hope that he will soon return.

Since his departure, Mr. Riley has sent us a letter which we are printing below;

"Dear Chaps,
You will be pleased, I have no doubt, to hear that your erstwhile tyrant is being properly put through the mill; his old bones and sinews being tortured with P.T.; while he spends his days on the barrack square forgetting which foot is his left, and trying to cope with an elusive rifle which will creep all round his neck and which weighs at least two tons. His evenings are spent "spitting and polishing." The war will be over when Hitler knows how well I can do the slow march and when he sees the beauteous polish on my spare boots. However, I shall have done with infantry training in another fortnight, and shall begin training as a wireless operator with a view to a job inside a tank, or with an Artillery Regiment or some thing of the sort. In the Signals we never know what kind of a unit one will be posted to.

So much for myself. I hope you are all carrying on under Tommy's supervision, and keep the flag flying till I come home again.
Carry on with the Morse; you will all be Signallers yourselves some day. Best wishes to you all from your S.M. who would have liked to stay with you, but like many others has, begging your pardon, a more important job in hand.
Yours sincerely,

Soham Grammarian Autumn 1945


Our first and most important duty is to extend a cordial welcome to Mr. E. Armitage, M.A., B.Sc. (Cantab), who, after a period of war service, has come from Bradfield College to be our new Headmaster in succession to Mr. S. Stubbs, M.A. (Cantab), who left us last term. We also welcome the return of Mr. Riley and the new members of the staff - Mrs. Kennett, Miss McKenzie and Mr. Twiselton, as well as our new Secretary, Miss Jones, and Mr. Seymour, the new Caretaker. We are sorry to announce that Mr. C. W. Crouch, who for so many years has taught Music and Art here, is leaving to join the staff of the Perse School. We offer him cordially our very best wishes for the future.

Soham Grammarian Spring 1964

As we go to press, the Cambridge Daily News is busy reporting Mr TL Riley's catch of an 18lb pike with a rat's tail in its mouth. Dissection, supervised by Mr DA Clark, revealed an undigested 10in long rat in its stomach. Some lost property!

from the Summer 1968 Soham Grammarian, reporting on the 1967 Old Boys' Dinner

The Chairman, Mr JC Chapman wrote: One of my chief pleasures at last year's Annual Dinner was to present, on your behalf, a retirement gift to Mr. Riley. This comprised green-house furniture and a cheque for much of the structure and fitments of a new green-house which has been erected by Mr. Riley. Although he expressed his thanks at the meeting, Mr. Riley immediately wrote to me:

Dear John,

Will you please accept for yourself and for your committee and the Old Boys my very sincere thanks for your gifts on the occasion of my retirement. I was moved by the exceeding generosity of the Old Boys and I shall enjoy all the more my potterings in the greenhouse which will be a continual reminder of your goodwill.

Yours very sincerely,
T. L. RILEY (Signed).

In his report on the 1967 Annual Dinner, the OB News Editor, Mr IR Smith wrote: The Chairman has already described events as far as the Club is concerned and it now remains to report one of the most historic events in the life of our School and Club.

Over 30 years of sincere and passionate teaching were behind one of the most powerful and moving speeches I have ever heard outside a theatre. As the event was then fresh in mind the occasion is best left described by the report which appeared later in the local newspapers:-

"The Grammar Schools are being killed by their own success, a success based
on that very separation and favour which have aroused the envy of others. It is all
in the logic of history, the demand for golden eggs rises and the goose is killed."

It was with these words that Mr. T. L. Riley, M.A., guest of honour at Soham Grammar School Old Boys' Dinner on Saturday evening, wrote the obituary of his life's work. A life spent teaching teaching at Soham Grammar School for over 30 years until his semi-retirement this year. He looked back with regret:

"I have been a lucky man. To have spent my career as a teacher in this place ­ with the
people I have known here - and during the great period of the Grammar Schools from which
I was among the first to profit, and whose rise and end have been in symmetry with mine."

But his optimism for the future was prejudiced:

"My time at Soham shows the same symmetry. The School was under threat
when l came here (it was planned as a Village College); I can almost hear a fat
posthumous chuckle from Henry Morris who looks like getting his way at last".

He then made his remark about the Grammar Schools being killed by their own success. However he was not confident that their successors had such qualifications for suicide.

"You can be sure that the comprehensive idea will be modified, moulded and adapted. You will have
to trust the people who will handle it to make the best of it, so far as they are allowed. The
opportunities will still be there, if not quite the same and perhaps not concentrated under this roof."

He likened the occasion to a wake with the corpse lying in state amid the 100 Old Boys present. There was an air of sadness as he continued the metaphor:

"But I shall not be helping to organise the funeral, and I am glad
of that. What would have been pure regret at retiring from full time
teaching at Soham Grammar School is modified by that fact."

He ended his speech on a happier note by describing enthusiastically the changes that had taken place within the School in the last year. He also thanked the Club for its gift of a cheque and chair.

from The Ely Standard on the death of Mr TL Tiley, 18 November 1973, via Stephen J Martin

Mr TL Riley

Many generations of boys who spent five or more years at Soham Grammar School, and thus came under the considerable influence of Tom ('Slug' to many of them) Riley, will mourn his passing and deeply regret that he was not spared to enjoy many years of happy retirement. It is only six years since he was Second Master, and not two since he fully retired from the school he had served for practically the whole of his teaching life. A native of Barnsley and a Graduate of Sheffield University, he brought to his teaching of French the bluntness, depth and sincerity which were his distinguishing characteristics.

Never one to suffer juvenile fools gladly, his bark was always more to be feared than his bite which was almost non-existent. He had a natural command in the classroom which boys instinctively recognised as coming from one who "knew his stuff", would tolerate no slipshod work and required only from his pupils that they should work as hard as he himself was prepared to work.

Never one to preach, either to his pupils or his colleagues, he preferred actions to words. Besides being a first class teacher, he was Scoutmaster at Soham Grammar School for a great many years and even after he had handed over to a younger colleague, he retained an active interest in the Scouting movement.

He was one of the first of the Soham Grammar School staff to leave for active service, from 1940 to 1945. Returning to the school in November 1945, he resumed where he had left off and could not be persuaded ever to speak of his Service years, regarding them, it seemed, as a necessary and painful experience better forgotten.

Tom Riley had a deep and abiding love for Soham Grammar School and the boys who passed through. He was never absent from any gathering of Old Boys all of whom regarded him, as did his colleagues, as one of the pillars on which the academic excellence of the school had been built.

Soham Cemetery, in the late afternoon sun, before the 2006 Reunion 7th October 2006. There are sometimes flowers laid. His colleague Mr Lionel Hart was buried just a few paces away on 1 Oct 2007.

He was a big man in every way - in physical size, in academic stature, in wisdom and tolerance, and perhaps most of all, in example. Soham Grammar School may be no more but the memory lingers on. Tom Riley formed a large part of that memory and will continue to do so for many years yet.
E. A.

Source: Ely Standard, Thursday 29th November 1972, via Stephen J Martin
Mr T L Riley

The funeral took place on Friday of Mr Thomas Luke Riley of 6 Fountain Lane, Soham. Born in Yorkshire, Mr Riley was educated at Barnsley Grammar School and Sheffield University, where he obtained his MA degree in Modern Languages.

In 1929 he joined the staff of Soham Grammar School, becoming second Master and senior French master. He retired in 1967, but returned to the school to teach part-time for another three years. His career was broken only by the Second World War, during which he served in the Royal Corps of Signals attached to the 43rd Wessex Regiment.[*]

At Soham he also became the school's Scout Leader, and later retained his great interest in the movement. He was very fond of sport, and gained his athletics Blue at Sheffield. His main relaxation was in gardening and fishing. He married Miss Brenda Taylor at Ely in 1940, and there are two daughters, Susan and Brigid.

The service at Soham Parish Church was conducted by the Vicar (Rev G W Ogden-Swift). The hymns The King of Love and The day Thou gavest were sung, with Mr P Scott at the organ. Immediate mourners were: the widow; Misses S and B Riley, daughters; Mr C Riley, Mr G Riley (representing Mrs Riley), brothers and sister-in-­law; Mrs H Crouchman, sister; Mr N Riley (representing Mrs Riley), nephew. Mrs F Sanderson, sister, was unable to attend.

Among those in the crowded church were a large delegation of old Grammarians. Mr Riley's former Head, Mr E Armitage and Mrs Armitage represented the Sixth Form Centre at Ely. Interment followed in Soham Cemetery.

* [Editor: 43rd (Wessex) Divisional Signals Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals]


from a late 1920s School photo

from the 1935 School photo

from the 1937 School photo

from the 1946 School photo

from the 1949 School photo

from the 1952 School photo

from the 1954 School photo

from the 1956 School photo

from the 1960 School photo

from the 1965 School photo

from the 1970 School photo

undated school year 1963-64 press cutting, via Mrs Armitage

Eyes Bigger Than Stomach

Mr Riley examining the pike and rat with (left to right) Raymond Osland, Gordon Haynes and Stuart Rae.
image from his daughters Susan & Brigid

When Mr TL Riley, senior French master at Soham Grammar School, landed an 18 lb pike while fishing near Soham he found a rat tail curled round in its mouth.

The pike was dissected in the school biology laboratory and in its stomach was an undigested 10 in. long rat with a 7½ in. tail.

The dissection, supervised by the senior biologist, Mr DA Clark, was performed by three members of the upper 6th form, Raymond Osland, Gordon Haynes and Stuart Rae.

The pike, measuring 3 ft, was caught on a dead bait spinner. Some years ago when fishing in the same waters, Mr. Riley caught a smaller pike which also had a rat tail in its mouth. He threw this one back.

see also Alan Diver's wartime reminiscences

10 Feb 2016: Colin Hambidge 68:  Mr Riley did at times speak about his war service, albeit very briefly. He taught me French from 1968-70, and I remember him asking the class one Monday morning whether we had seen a television programme about the Battle of Arnhem the night before? Several of us had. He mentioned the scene of the British troops crossing the bridge and told us he was positioned beneath it, counting them as they crossed. For some reason, that revelation has stayed with me for nearly 50 years! (I think the programme must have been a documentary, as the film A Bridge Too Far was not released until 1977).

9 Mar 2005 Colin Cornwell 45: When I was having a lesson with him there was a PE lesson going on outside with Mr. Thomas in charge. A member of my class whispered "There is Taffy" to which Mr. Riley quipped "If that had been me I suppose you would have said Slug. Well, you would have been wrong as it should be Slog".

8 Mar 2005 Terry Allen 39: We had a fleeting acquaintance with Luke Riley (Slug) because he served in the Army and so we did not have him as a teacher for long. Mind you, a short acquaintance was enough as he scared the bejasus out of us.

31 Aug 2004: Sue Riley, one of Mr Riley's daughters: Mother died in 1993. Bridget (my sister) and I have racked our brains to recall anecdotes other than the ones you already have. There was a story that as my father cycled to school, puffing away at his pipe, the boys watched to see whether the puffs were long, slow and contented or short and sharp. From this they predicted what sort of day lay ahead!

I recall an Open Day exhibition where a slipper was displayed with the caption 'Gospel according to St Luke'.

I also remember that when craft work was on sale on similar occasions, at the end of the afternoon he would buy items which had not been sold so that the boys who had made them would not feel hurt, and bring them home. I still have, and use, one or two of these items today.

9 Nov 2003: Wilkes Walton (1936): You say that Luke Riley looks formidable [on the 1937 photo]. The camera never lies. He was our form master when we started in the second form in Autumn 1936. He and I became great pals when he found that I was born in a mining village just outside Barnsley, only a few miles from the village where he was born. I have a lot to thank him for because I enjoyed French and was, therefore, quite good at it and it all ended with a Modern Languages degree.

We had our share of aggro and were quite happy that he should go and terrorise Adolf Hitler after the Summer term 1941. Luke had been good at dinning irregular verbs into us but then we got Miss KE Goodison, a delightful 30-something (I suppose) lady, also from Sheffield University. Kathleen ('Kate') was probably better with the literature and the history of the Higher Cert course. She got Norman Sneesby and me to write an article in French for the magazine when we had been to see Femmes Savantes at the Arts Theatre.

12 Jul 2003: Tony Noble (1968): Did Slug (Riley) use the same hairdresser as Patrick Moore!? [see 1970 school photo]. I remember him as being a very fearsome character, who took his French lessons very seriously - unless anyone spotted a squirrel outside, in which case everything stopped. For some reason Slug was fascinated by l'écureuil. Very good teacher though.

2 Dec 2002: Richard Walker (1964 entry): In 1965 I was in 2A and my brother Andrew was in 5 Alpha along with cousin Peter Moulton. My father, Frank Walker started at Soham in the same year as Slug Riley, who finally left, I believe, in the same year as me. I always credit Slug with awakening my interest in English literature - he introduced us to the Rubaiyat, O. Henry and Saki!   He was called Luke in my late Dad's day. After school I went into the retail book trade with Heffer's and then on via circuitous routes to the British Library.

Aunt Sally awaiting water laden sponges at a school fête, Summer 1968
source: Haslam

For further references to Mr Riley on this website please make use of the Search page.

Do you have any appreciations or anecdotes relating to Mr Riley?
Do you have photos of him on trips or at school events?
contact the editor
Last updated 1 Oct 2010: 12 Feb 16