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Nelson French (1926-2019)

Nelson was born in Kingston-upon-Thames on 27 May 1926. He attended local prep schools and completed his secondary school education at Brighton College in 1943. Following time at Sandhurst he was commissioned into the 3rd Carabiniers (Prince of Wales Dragoon Guards) in 1944 and served in India until the end of the war. On demobilisation on 1947 he joined the Orient Line Shipping Company , firstly as an Assistant Purser, and then as a Purser. Initially he sailed on Troop ships, Royal Mail and migrant ships and latterly on passenger liners, either undertaking round the world trips or cruising. During this time he circumnavigated the globe many times and made many lasting friends in far flung, and sometimes exotic, places as well as entertaining many dignitaries and famous people. Some of his proudest involvements were being part of the Spithead Review in 1953 in Orcades, the fitting out, sea trials and maiden voyage of Oriana in 1960 and being introduced to the Queen in 1995 when the ‘new’ Oriana was launched.

Nelson’s career with OLSC, which included a three year period ashore in a newly created position of Purser Training Officer, continued until he left the company in 1974. There followed a short period in London as Secretary of the Travellers Club and then Hotel Manager of a new ship at the invitation of Viking Line, before he became the forerunner of ex P & O Pursers becoming Oxford College Bursars when he was appointed Domestic Bursar of St Catherine’s College in 1976.

Nelson’s time at St Catherine’s straddled the last couple of years of the Founding Master (Alan [Lord] Bullock) and the greater part of the Mastership of his successor, Sir Patrick Nairne.  Although the major building projects were finished by then, Nelson managed the construction for a new and compatible single-storey block, which was added on the Northern periphery of the original site (the Mary Sunley Building), opened by the Master in 1983. In the same year, the Helen Gaskin Garden was inaugurated within the confines of the Senior Common Room complex.  Finally, and most eye-catching to the visitor to the College, Nelson oversaw the installation of the tapestries designed by Tom Phillips, interweaving the College motto (Nova et Vetera) and the University motto (Dominus illuminatio mea), which were hung behind the High Table  in 1979, shortly to be complemented thereafter by smaller panels at the opposite end of the Hall.

In 1987 Nelson retired from St Catherine’s as an Emeritus Fellow and became involved with The Heart of England Tourist Board and a local Order of Nuns advising on practical matters concerning the management of their premises. Whilst at Oxford he played an active part in the life of the Parish Church when he and Joan were living in Steeple Aston, and for a period was Church Warden. When they moved to Fordingbridge in 1997 to be nearer his daughter and her family he still attended church regularly and was a lesson reader right up to his death.

Nelson had a remarkably varied and interesting life meeting and dealing with many thousands of people at all levels. He was a great raconteur and was never happier than when he was in the company of friends and colleagues, glass in hand, regaling them with tales of yore.  He also had a spirit of adventure exemplified by going up in a Tiger Moth and doing the loop the loop to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Nelson showed great stoicism in his later years as medical afflictions took their toll and passed away peacefully on 26 September 2019.

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28 November, 2022

The Alan Tayler Lecture 2022