Brereton has an Idea

Joseph Lloyd Brereton was born in 1822, one of eleven children of a country rector in Norfolk. Because his health was not strong, he was educated at home till he was fifteen, when he was sent to Rugby. He was bright, and went to Oxford, but again poor health prevented him from doing well in exams, and so ruined his chances of an academic career. He had to settle for the clergy, and, after several false starts, came to West Buckland – once again because it was thought that Devon air would be good for his lungs.

He swept the 17-year-old daughter of another clergyman off her feet, married her, and fathered sixteen children on her, eleven of whom reached maturity.

The local aristocrats were the Fortescues, at Castle Hill, and Brereton formed a lifelong friendship with the man who became the third Earl (1861-1904). Together they cooked up a new scheme – secondary education for the whole of England – or at any rate for the 'middle classes'.

They discovered that their respective talents complemented each other perfectly. Brereton had the ideas, the charm, the drive, the energy; Fortescue has the money, the connections, the clout – he knew absolutely everybody.

So what did they produce? They produced the West Buckland Farm and County School. They were so keen to get started – well, Brereton was; Fortescue was more cautious – that by the end of 1858 they had raised some money, appointed a headmaster, advertised for and collected some pupils (three actually), only to remember just in time that they didn't have a school. For a few weeks they had to use a local farmhouse. It is still there. The parlour was the schoolroom and the bedroom became the dormitory. It was two more years and two more temporary homes before they were able to move into the building you see today.

This is typical of Brereton. He would go rushing ahead, spending money and devising yet more elaborate schemes, and Fortescue would come along behind, complaining about the lack of planning and the huge bills.

There is no room here for detail (see the chapter on 'Founding Father' in Berwick Coates' book The Natural History of a Country School), but, just to give you an idea, he set up, or was connected with setting up, schools in Somerset, Hampshire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Bedford, Norfolk, Suffolk, Surrey, and Durham. Over half of them failed. He set up a new Cambridge college; that failed. He set up an organisation for the education of girls; that failed too.

The trouble was usually finance – or the lack of it. Brereton, in his publicity, would go into elaborate details about his schools, and used miles of figures to 'prove' that they could not fail, but they still did. But such was his energy and obvious enthusiasm that he continued to conjure money out of a never-ending list of celebrities, including dukes and earls, even the Prince of Wales. When you read his writings, you can sense the siren voice; across the chasm of the years, you can feel the tug on your cheque book.

He spent fortunes – mostly other people's. Fortescue continued to complain, and they had numerous rows about it. But Brereton's charm usually patched it up, and Fortescue paid out yet again.

It wasn't as if he was just building schools. He envisaged colleges of further education to take in the products of his new secondary schools. He was involved in the first system of nation-wide public examinations. He championed the education of girls. He believed in religious education being tolerant of other shades of belief. Many of his ideas were decades ahead of his time.

In his way, he was a great man. But, like many great men, he was absolutely impossible. But among all the faults, the mistakes, and the failures, he also had one great success – West Buckland. Without Joseph Lloyd Brereton, we would not be here.

Berwick Coates