Padre Noel DUCKWORTH (1912-1980)

Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 81
  • Subject No: 81
  • Broadcast live: Mon 12 Jan 1959
  • Broadcast time: 7.30-8.00pm
  • Venue: BBC Television Theatre
  • Series: 4
  • Edition: 16

on the guest list...

  • John Snagge
  • Ronald Searle
  • Rev John G Foottit
  • Ran Laurie
  • Jack Wilson
  • Capt Bernard Howard
  • Ernest Wayman
  • Dr J Allison Mark
  • Russell Braddon
  • Brian Foot
  • Sgt Jim Needham
  • Jimmy Clancy
  • Bert Major
  • George Good
  • Ronald Ramsay
  • Ben Barnett

production team...

  • Researchers: Peter Moore, Ronald Vivian
  • Writers: Peter Moore, Ronald Vivian
  • Director: Vere Lorrimer
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
  • names above in bold indicate subjects of This Is Your Life
related page...

Life's Vocation

celebrating the 'men of God'

Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life

Photographs of Noel Duckworth This Is Your Life

Noel Duckworth's biography

Michael Smyth, biographer of Noel Duckworth, recalls this edition of This Is Your Life in this exclusive contribution to the BigRedBook website...

John Noel Duckworth was born in Yorkshire on Christmas Day 1912, hence the name Noel. As a student at Cambridge, he coxed the Cambridge VIII to victory in the Boat Race for three years in succession, 1934 to 1936. His successes led to him being selected as cox for the Great Britain VIII at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. His rowing exploits, coupled with a gift for humorous and insightful comment, brought him national recognition.

After the Olympics he was ordained and went to work at a parish in Hull, until he joined the 2nd Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment as its Padre shortly before the Second World War. Captured by the Japanese during their invasion of Malaya he was fearless in standing up to his captors for the good of his fellow soldiers. Through this and his gift of inspiring hope, even in the most degrading circumstances he became a hero to all who knew him.

Immediately after the war he was appointed Chaplain of St John's College Cambridge, where he was able to re-new his acquaintance with rowing, as a coach, as well as providing pastoral and social care to survivors of the Japanese prison camps.

In 1948 he took a post as Chaplain and Dean of the then newly created University of Ghana. Here, apart from his university work he became a Canon in Accra's cathedral and won further distinction for creating no less than six free schools for local children. On returning to England in 1957 he became Chaplain and Divinity teacher at Pocklington Grammar school, near York, and whilst here he appeared on This Is Your Life – an event that former pupils still remember.

In 1961 he became Chaplain of the then newly founded Churchill College, Cambridge, where he remained until his retirement in 1973. Once again his personality won deep respect and regard amongst all who knew him. He died on 24th November 1980 and is buried at Riccall, near Selby. A former comrade said of him at his funeral "he bore all the hallmarks of a Twentieth Century Saint".

A summary of those who appeared in the TV broadcast of 12th January 1959, including extracts from the script with comments about Noel:

John Snagge: Famous BBC commentator who enticed Noel to the studio on the pretence of attending a meeting about the Boat Race. Snagge commented on the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race from 1931 to 1980. Noel coxed the Cambridge VIII to victory over Oxford for three years in succession in 1934-1936, as well as the Great Britain VIII at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. This is how the two got to know one another, for the cox's duties in those years included handling the press and broadcasters, and they became lifelong friends.

Ronald Searle: Started his career in Cambridge before the war drawing cartoons for the local newspaper. Like Noel was captured by the Japanese and later slaved on the Burma Railway. He said of Noel: "I never knew a man who was so loved – he was amazing and absolutely rare."

Searle's collection of sketches provide a unique record of the horrors of wartime captivity and were published in a book 'To the Kwai and Back'. (The originals are in the Imperial War Museum.) After the war he became internationally famous for his work in the USA with sketches and covers for Time magazine. He died early in 2012.

To commemorate Noel's appearance on the programme Ronald Searle painted a watercolour showing Noel bargaining with a Japanese guard. It was autographed by all the guests. This painting remained in Noel's possession until 1966 when he gave it to a friend saying: "I'd like you to have it, you have always admired it, and if ever you get hard-up you can sell it."

Guy Footit: Contemporary of Noel at Lincoln School, where he was head boy, and subsequently at Cambridge University, "He was always a great one for keeping up morale"

Ran Laurie and Jack Wilson: Both ex-Cambridge and Olympic oarsmen and rowed with Noel in the 1934-1936 Cambridge Boat Races. Together, they won a gold at the 1948 Olympics in London in the coxless pairs. Ran Laurie is the father of the well-known actor Hugh Laurie. They told a humorous story of locking Noel into a huge medieval oven during a tour of Goethe's house in Frankfurt, whilst on a rowing trip to Germany in 1935.

Capt. Howard: Ex Quartermaster in the Cambridgeshires, the Regiment Noel joined at the outbreak of WWII. "He never had any money, he used to give it all away" - a characteristic of Noel for he gave away money and material possessions throughout his life to anyone whom he judged needed them.

Sgt Wayman: With Noel at battles of Batu Pahat and Senggarang, the latter being where Noel was captured by the advancing Japanese, because he elected to remain with a group of wounded soldiers who were too ill to move.

Dr John Mark: Who stayed behind with the wounded alongside Noel at Senggarang "I firmly believe that Noel's fame as a rowing man saved all our lives." This phrase being a reference to the fact that when captured with the wounded the Japanese officer in charge recognised Noel as the famous Cambridge cox (the Japanese had rowed in the 1936 Olympics). In similar circumstances elsewhere in Malaya Japanese troops had simply killed any wounded soldiers.

Russell Braddon: Like Noel imprisoned in Pudu Gaol (Kuala Lumpur). After the war he wrote a book about his experiences in captivity 'The Naked Island', which sold over a million copies and contains a detailed description of Noel's work amongst the captured soldiers including the phrase: "Tens of thousands will remember Noel Duckworth until the day they die".

Brian Foot: Imprisoned with Noel at Changi, Singapore, where he remembered Noel's "God box" (chapel) and later on Burma Railway at Songkurai "the Padre never failed to visit us". Noel was sent along with thousands of other allied prisoners to construct the Burma Railway, linking Burma and Thailand. Many thousands died from disease, overwork, lack of proper medicines and a wholly inadequate diet, and Noel became famous for his resolution and heroism in the face of so much suffering.

Sgt Needham: Burma railway "he was an absolute inspiration to us all".

Others ex-soldiers introduced at the end of the programme: Jimmy Clancy (Senggarang); George Good (Pudu gaol); Ronald Ramsey (Pudu gaol); Ben Barnett (Burma railway)

Concluding comment by Eamonn Andrews: "Padre you took a Cambridge eight and ten thousand fighting men and coxed them all to victory. Noel Duckworth, man of God, this is Your Life".

The Ronald Searle Watercolour: To commemorate Canon Duckworth's appearance on This Is Your Life Ronald Searle painted a watercolour of Padre Duckworth bargaining with Japanese Guard. This painting was autographed by all those who appeared on the programme with Noel. In 1966 he gave this painting to a friend, who lived in Cambridge. A copy of the original hangs in the Chapel at Churchill College.

Canon Noel Duckworth - An Extraordinary Life is available from Churchill College via their website.

Series 4 subjects

Jo Capka | Jimmy Edwards | Andrew Milbourne | Bella Burge | Tommy Steele | Ronald Shiner | James Edward Wood
Margaret Rowena Jones | John Griffiths | Freddy Bloom | Bransby Williams | Miriam Moses | Elsie Mullock | John Vidler
Florence Desmond | Noel Duckworth | Alfred Daniel Wintle | Ted Heath | Andrew Macdonald | Harriet Cohen
Willie Hall | Reginald Blanchford | Kenneth More | Hugh Llewelyn Glyn Hughes | Miriam Jowett | Ted Willis
Alfred Southon | Tiger Sarll | Mary Ward | Roy Gill | Stirling Moss | Ethel Goldsack | Tommy Trinder