Lt Col Alan J. Excell
Army Officer, Educator and Management Tutor

Alan J. Excell (1997)

Alan J. Excell in 1997
(ABCS 1939 - 1944)

Alan James Ruscombe Excell was born in 1927 in the mining village of Aberaman, near Aberdare in south Wales. His English parents, E.J. Excell and his wife Elizabeth (known as Nancy), (née Phipps), had moved to Wales after the First World War and settled in the valleys where his father was the games master and later art teacher at the Aberdare Boys’ Grammar School. One of four children Alan’s youngest brother John survives him1. Alan was brought up at 8, Belmont Terrace, in what one of his teaching testimonials called a ‘religious and cultured home’. This foundation went a long way to making him the man he became.

Leaving school in 1944, Alan went to St Paul’s College in Cheltenham where he trained as a teacher specialising in Geography, Geology and Art and was Captain of the 1st XV. Like so many of his generation National Service followed in 1946 and he was soon selected for Officer Training being commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1947. The army was to provide him with a wealth of opportunities, and in 1952 he transferred to the RAEC (Royal Army Education Corps). He was passionate about everyone’s right to an education and the opportunities further education could give people. The first four years were spent teaching adult soldiers to Ordinary Level in Warrington and Warwick. His first foreign posting was to Cyprus at the height of the Suez crisis and the EOKA emergency. With the withdrawal from the Canal Zone he was involved in organising the building, staffing and equipping of new schools for the families arriving home.

The years 1959 to 1963 saw him with the Junior Leaders Battalion in Plymouth and Oswestry, teaching young soldiers and organising extramural activities. From 1963 to 1966 he was at Arborfield with the REME teaching to GCE Advanced Level, liasing with technical colleges and again organising extramural activities including art classes for soldiers and families. Throughout this period Alan continued his own pursuit of knowledge studying in the evenings and gaining a Diploma and a BSc in Geography. Between 1966 and 1969 he was involved with schools organisation in Germany where there were some 80-plus schools and 30,000 children to be educated. On promotion to Lt Col he joined the Inspectorate of Army Education taking a sabbatical in 1970/71 to take his Masters Degree in Manpower Studies at London University.

From 1971 to 1973, back in Germany, he gave vocational guidance to senior officers in all three services in preparation for their retirement. His final posting was at RMCS Shrivenham, Wiltshire, where he joined the academic staff. Here he taught Management Studies to engineering degree students. In preparation for this, he had toured Europe visiting factories particularly the modern car factories of Volkswagen and Volvo to see how management was used in production. In his view these were important skills needed by modern soldiers who were running some of the biggest workshops in Europe.

He was supported in his army career by Betty Colwill who he had met in 1947 when stationed in North Cornwall. He was no fool — in the days of rationing having a girlfriend who was a farmer’s daughter was a clever move. In 1949 Alan and Betty married in Weymouth. Alan took the opportunity in 1977 to retire early from the army and he began a second career with North Thames Gas based at Burcot as a management tutor, retiring again in about 1991.

An early desire to be an architect had given Alan a long interest in church architecture and the job at Burcot gave him the perfect excuse to find a home, which he did in Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. It happened thus: one day whilst visiting the Abbey there, the then Vicar, Ray Nicholls, asked if Alan had seen the bungalow in the Manor grounds. Betty didn’t have a choice. What could be more perfect for Alan than to work in his garden with the glories of Dorchester Abbey as a backdrop.

Alan Excell at School in 1943

Alan - from the 1943
1st XV Rugby Photo

Retirement gave him the time to pursue his interest in architecture taking various courses at Oxford; knocking on peoples doors asking to see their cruck beams; and on one occasion instigating a visit to his neighbours by Special Branch after he had enquired about a particular house in Dorset (lived in by a Northern Ireland General). He and Betty travelled all over Europe on trips based round his architectural interests.

Alan also threw himself into village life. On the Parish Council he was proudest of being involved in restoring and setting up a management scheme for the village cemetery. His involvement in the restoration of the Abbey Guest House gave him even greater pleasure. What better opportunity than to indulge his love of medieval architecture with his considerable organisational skills honed during his army career.

The abbey was the centre of his and Betty’s life. They sang together in the choir for almost 28 years and as Alzheimers took over it was one of the last places he was able to hold onto and be himself. Alan died in 2009 having survived his adored wife Betty by 12 days. He is survived by his brother John1, daughter Jane, son Roger and four grandchildren.

  1. Since writing this account in 2012, we have heard the sad news that Alan’s brother John, the youngest son of E.J Excell, passed away at the age of 82, on September 27th, 2013 at his home in Llandaff. His funeral service took place on October 11th at Llandaff Cathedral, where as a young man he worked for Clarks who carried out the restoration of the Cathedral after the War, and where he is known for carving the Queen’s head.