Dot, Dot, Dot, Dash is Morse code for V and the opening rhythm of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. During World War II it became a famous BBC theme tune, thanks to Courtenay Edward Stevens, a distinguished Oxford academic, who spent his final days in Lewis Cottage, near Colebrooke, and is buried in the village churchyard.  Here Tom Davies, who knew him well, describes the extraordinary career of a much loved scholar and tutor, an authority on Roman history and wartime intelligence officer,  who rubbed shoulders with  J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis and inspired generations of students.

Courtenay Edward Stevens was popularly known as Tom Brown (after the eponymous hero of the book Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes) since the day he turned up as a small boy at Winchester School wearing a top hat and tails and demonstrating a remarkable degree of erudition on a wide range of subjects.

Tom Stevens

After a long and distinguished career as a tutor at Magdalen College Oxford he retired to his long-time holiday home, Lewis Cottage, Colebrooke, where he died in 1976. He is buried in Colebrooke churchyard along with his third wife Olive, the mother of Johnny Sargent the former Political Correspondent of the BBC. Olive was from Odessa and a refugee from the Russian Revolution. Latterly she lectured in Russian at Exeter University. She met Tom during the period when he was delivering lectures to local WEA groups in and around Oxford. They were both very colourful characters.

Gravestone in Colebrooke churchyard

Tom was born in London in 1905 and after Winchester took a degree in Classics at New College, Oxford, after which he was appointed to the teaching staff at Magdalen College, where he rubbed shoulders with C S Lewis and became a member of The Inklings along with J R R Tolkien of Merton College. Their meetings at the Eagle and Child pub (known locally as the Bird and Baby) are legendary and the plots of their novels were multi-layered and much deeper than apparent at a first reading.

Portrait of Tom Stevens at Magdalen by kind permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford

Tom soon became an authority on Roman history and the first of his 13 books (Sidonius Apollinaris and His Age) was published in 1933 and his last in 1975 the year before his death at Lewis Cottage.

Here are some excerpts from the addresses given by the Rev. Dr. A W Adams, Dean of Divinity at Magdalen, who conducted the funeral service at Colebrooke Church and also the Memorial Service at Magdalen.

It was as Tom Brown that he was known to that vast company – in every Oxford Common Room, to generations of pupils, and in the various learned societies of which he was a member: this walking and talking repository of memory and learning that  was almost universal in scope, combined for good measure with just sufficient eccentricity to make him an Oxford character in the richest sense – the very last of his kind. His learning and his scholarship (they are not the same thing), his prodigious success as a tutor was due to the fact that he worked as hard as any of his pupils, and harder than most, and he worked for them and their success and he taught more of them than any other tutor in Oxford in his time.  

His war service was typically bizarre and his sharp intelligence, imagination, devious cleverness and inventiveness found him working as an intelligence officer with Radio Atlantic beaming propaganda at U-boat crews as well as producing written propaganda.  It was his idea to use the opening four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony as a call sign to resistance groups engaged in subversive activities mainly in France. It was adopted by the BBC European Service and became the most famous broadcasting theme of the war.  After the war he worked with the Military Government in Germany and participated in the Nuremberg Trials before returning to Magdalen as Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History, serving as Vice President in 1950. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Tom and Olive a few times at Lewis Cottage in the early 1970s soon after I began my career at Exeter. They attended my wedding in Oxford in 1968 and were great friends and neighbours of my father-in-law, the Rev.Dr. A W Adams.  The eulogies from the funeral service and the memorial service written by Dr. Adams are kept in the Magdalen College archives and acknowledgement is given to The President and Fellows of Magdalen College Oxford for their permissions. 

 I have also used the obituary published in the Times newspaper on the 2nd September 1976 and material from his obituary in the University of Ottawa Gazette (he was a Visiting Professor there in 1972) published in November 1976.

Lewis Cottage garden

The now splendid garden at Lewis Cottage is frequently open to the public as part of the National Gardens Scheme and the challenge of finding it is amply rewarded by the tea and cakes on offer during open days. Maybe Beethoven’s 5th should be played on such occasions in memory of the early beginnings of the garden and a very distinguished former resident now resting in a remote churchyard in Devon?

Oct 19, 2020
Local History

More from 

Local History

View All