The West Buckland Archive was set up in 1998, and, as teacher, writer, and historian, Berwick Coates seemed an apt choice to run it.
Over the years, he has scoured the school to put together a fascinating collection of records which have accumulated over the 150 years of the school's history – books, photographs, governors' minutes, balance sheets, reports, confirmation lists, school magazines, old pupils' gatherings, celebrity visits, irate letters, architects' drawings, cups, caps, bats, blazers - anything which may give off a whiff of the past. They have been found in dusty cupboards, the backs of drawers, a ship's luggage trunk, old boys' lofts, a games pavilion, even a few (quite literally) underneath the floorboards.
He works to bring order and purpose to this collection, by making its contents available to anybody who wishes to inquire, and by making people aware of it. He places bulletins on the Archive corner of the notice-board - a regular dose of anecdote, curiosity, gossip, wonder, or scandal. He gives a talk every term at morning assembly. He has delivered many lectures around North Devon. Some of his discoveries are reported in the local press. He has appeared on national television. He has published three books about the school.
He is a devoted believer in the value of the past, provided of course it is kept in perspective:
'You cannot get away from the past any more than you can pretend that your parents didn't exist. We must all learn the links between the past and the present. Luckily, most of us want to know how we started, what made us. It helps us to make sense of our lives, and to face what is in front of us. As President Chirac said at the commemoration of D-Day in 2004, "There is no future without remembrance."
Of course the present and the future matter very much. We want our pupils to look ahead, to take the world by storm, to reach up to the stars. But they also need to know where they come from.
The past and the Archive represent the school's roots. Without roots, nothing grows.'
Berwick Coates holds a Cambridge MA degree in History, and has been at various times an Army officer, a writer, an artist, a lecturer, a careers adviser, a games coach, and a teacher of History, English, General Studies, Latin and Swahili. He has published eight books.
His first book about the school is entitled simply West Buckland School.
It is not so much a straight history as a series of sideways looks at episodes in the school's past. These reflections might by triggered by a teacher's report, an old prospectus, a file of yellowing letters, a seventy-year-old blazer, a faded portrait, a conversation with a retired school servant or an old boy, or wood-dust falling out of the back of a hundred-year-old team photograph. Give anything a shake, hold a piece of paper underneath it, collect on it what falls out, stir into it some history, sympathy, and imagination, and you have a mixture of interest, amusement, sadness, and nostalgia which will provide compelling reading for anyone who has been associated with the school in any capacity - teacher, parent, pupil, servant, neighbour, even perhaps critic. The book is copiously illustrated in black and white with over 150 images.
It was published in 2000 by Halsgrove [now Ryelands], and costs £19.95.
The Ryelands Press is now at Halsgrove House, Ryelands Industrial Estate, Bagley Road, Wellington, Somerset, TA 21 9PZ.
Tel: 01823 653777
The second book is entitled The Natural History of a Country School.
It looks at the life and work of the school through the eyes of a wide spectrum of its inmates - a junior pupil, a secretary, a headmaster, a foreign student, a benefactor, and so on. By writing like this about one independent country school, one is writing about all independent country schools.Add in some essays on subjects like the origin of school exams, school heroes, changing fashions in the curriculum, and the impact of world wars. Decorate with little vignettes, anecdotes, coincidences, and generally useless information. Varnish with history, sympathy, and humour, and you have a mosaic of a vigorous, multi-faceted establishment which is far more than a few teachers and clutch of pupils.
Over a million parents send their children to independent schools; that is a sizeable slice of the educational life of the nation. It is time some of the schools in it were better understood - whether you send your children to them or not. A school does not have to be a celebrity in order to be interesting. It does not have to be perfect, or fashionable, or rich. It has simply to be human.
It was published in 2005 by Woodfield Publishing Ltd., Babsham Lane, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, PO 21 5EL.
It costs £15.00
Tel: 01243 821234
The third book is entitled West Buckland, the Diary of an Edwardian School.
The School celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008. This diary presents the School as it approached its 50th in 1908. Thanks to a remarkably varied set of surviving records, we possess the names of every boy in the School in that year, and every member of staff. We have a full school photograph, and many group photographs as well. We have their cricket scorecards, their exam results, their house match details, the titles of the books they won as prizes, the results of their unending cross-country races. We know what they talked about in their Reading and Debating Society - reform of the House of Lords and a Channel tunnel, for example. We know what their Governors did at their meetings. We know what the school Inspectors wrote in their report. We know who sang what songs at the Old Boys' Dinners and Socials.
We meet scores of Old Boys, whose careers were celebrated in the pages of the Register, the school magazine. One discovered a cure for leprosy; one worked for the Emperor of China; one was almost certainly a Government spy. We know quite a lot about what these pupils of 1907 did after they left school. Sixty-four of them served in the First World War. Twenty-four were commissioned. Eight were decorated. Eight died. This out of a school roll of under eighty. One lived to be ninety-nine. Another made it to a hundred, dying in 1995.
Put yourself in the position of a likely parent, and read the school prospectus. Share the drama of a year which saw the appointment of a new headmaster, the imminence of bankruptcy, the voluntary liquidation of the school company, and the re-naming of the school. The Devon County School became West Buckland School. Quite simply, make the acquaintance of a totally un-self-conscious community, secluded in an obscure, quiet corner of the Exmoor countryside, going about the absorbing business of living a hundred years ago.
It was published by Ryelands in 2008, and costs £19.99
Ryelands is at Halsgrove House, Ryelands Industrial Estate, Bagley Road, Wellington, Somerset, TA 21 9PZ
Tel: 01823 653777