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Beyond the Call of Duty: a biography of Dr George Penn

Friday, 06 December 2013

Servant of the community

Educated at the Royal Masonic School for Boys, George Penn became a regimental captain, much-loved country doctor, tireless local campaigner and committed lodge member. His son, Roger Penn, considers how Freemasonry complemented his father’s unique life

‘Dr Penn, why do you like stitching so much?’ asked Samantha Rosie of the BBC while filming the family practitioner as he carried out a routine operation at his country surgery in Whitland, south-west Wales. Dolycwrt surgery is where Dr George Penn served his patients dutifully and lovingly for forty-two years. He had no wish to retire until it became necessary the day before his seventieth birthday in 1997. By then he had led the people of his community in a successful victory campaign to keep open his beloved practice at a time when purpose-built health centres were appearing nationwide. 

Rosie and her team were capturing a precious moment in the history of the one-hundred-year-old surgery before turning her footage into an award-winning documentary. She was also giving George the retirement send-off he richly deserved, not only for the excellence of his patient care but also for devoting his life to the needs of others. 

Unmistakably identified by his fleet of Morris Minor cars, George served all manner of local committees for the good of the parish council, rugby club, town hall, carnival events, and was even chairman of the local Farmers’ Union of Wales. But none of these non-medical pursuits compared with his resolute crusade in keeping rural railways running during a twenty-year term following the network cutbacks of the early 1960s. Dr Malcolm Holding, a partner at Dolycwrt, says of his former colleague: ‘He tried to fit so many things into one day. He was on call from all sorts of places – and, if he had a few minutes, he’d be dipping into his masonic book to read a few more lines. He was heavily involved in so many committees. I’m sure George attended more meetings per week than there were nights in the week.’

There is a perfectly good reason for the little masonic book to which Dr Holding refers – and it is best explained in the 1974 Fiftieth Anniversary Booklet of Teifi Lodge, Cardigan: ‘Worshipful Brother Penn is singularly proud of the fact that he is a product of the Royal Masonic School for Boys.’

Life was no picnic for the young George when he was separated from his village friends, aged eight, and relocated to ‘H House’ alongside the stately corridors of the masonic school buildings. Despite the magnificent premises and open green fields, this could be a tough and lonely early existence for boys missing their families. But the Freemasonry movement instilled a sense of leadership and individualism in this young man, and George overcame all ordeals to present himself ready and determined to make a difference with his life. And indeed he did, going on to have a medical career spanning almost fifty years, including national service in Nigeria in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

‘As a servant of the community, George left his mark. And although he was gentle and unassuming in manner and speech, he was strong, resolute and ambitious.’

A spirited education

George’s individualism was recognised early on by his housemaster, Mr Riches. Disregarding school rules one evening, George gave the boys of his house a late party to bid farewell to a friend who was leaving the school. ‘Dear Penn, I am severely annoyed,’ began a letter from Riches, who, while reprimanding him, could not conceal his respect: ‘I treasure you too high, Penn, to quarrel with you unreasonably.’

Stephen Thomas, editor of the Old Masonians Gazette, enjoyed reading about this ‘unique philosophical exchange’, describing George as ‘a pillar of Welsh society’, who delivered ‘the very best his profession brought to Whitland’ during times of significant social change. Brother Jestyn Edwards recalls this commitment to his profession, citing an instance when George travelled up for a lodge meeting in Cardigan – a round trip of about sixty miles. After dining with his lodge, George got up to go. When asked why he was off a bit early, he said: ‘On the way I called with an old lady, who was quite frail. I promised I would pop in on the way home.’

Brother Cecil Williams was impressed by the efforts George made to attend meetings. ‘No one tried harder to put in an appearance. And how can I forget George bringing buckets of coal for the fire. Nothing pleased him more than the sight of flames in our open hearth. George was a one-off.’

As a doctor, husband, father and servant of the community, George left his unique mark. And although he was gentle and unassuming in manner and speech, he was strong, resolute and ambitious. A free spirit and a Freemason, he is best remembered by the words of a devoted patient: ‘There was never anyone like him. He was uniquely different from anyone else; he was a gem of a man.’ 

Beyond the Call of Duty: A Biography of Whitland’s Dr Penn, published by Gomer Press, is available online, in bookshops and direct from the publisher on 01559 363092.

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