If you climb the big stone staircase outside the Memorial Hall, half-way up you will see a headmaster who will remind you of Hitler. It is the moustache. The fact that he was known as a fierce disciplinarian only deepens the likeness. But this man was a great deal more than a holy terror with a toothbrush under his nose.
Samuel Elliott Howells came to the School in 1918, after service at schools in London, Cambridge, and Chelmsford. His record shows that he had been 'privately' educated, which, coupled with the fact that he had not served in the First World War, suggests that he had serious health disabilities. It is difficult for us today to realise the depth of frustration (even sometimes shame) that tormented young men who were not able to do what so many of their friends were doing at the time – serve their country in uniform.
For Sam it had to be service in a teacher's gown. But he had a distinction in his Certificate of Education to start him off, and he soon showed that he had sterling gifts to offer. He became a legendary teacher of English. I have spoken to Old Boys who were taught by him, and they claim that they can still recite poetry he taught them over sixty years ago. Clearly, he was one of those rare teachers whose influence was such that, when they had finished teaching you, you stayed taught.
Incidentally, he taught Biology too. In fact, he began the whole subject in the Sixth Form. And I believe that he had taught it to himself first.
On the face of it, he did not seem to have the makings of a great figure in the profession – the poor health, the lack of a military career (at a time when it mattered very much to have one), the lack of connection with the games field (the poor health again), the suit which always smelt of tobacco (the boys used to refer to his 'Gold Flake' suit), and, perhaps, what was most inclined to make boys laugh at him: he could not say his r's properly. So, when he was cross with a class of juniors, he would shout, 'You wetched little spawwows!'
But nobody ever laughed at Sam. It is true, I have heard uncomplimentary remarks about him, but they are vastly outnumbered by the fervent, often fond, reminiscences.
When the Second World War came, Sam showed yet another gift – that of leadership. The Headmaster left to join the Forces, and the governors asked Sam to take over for the duration. He made such a good job of it that, when it was over, he was confirmed as the 'proper' headmaster, and continued in that post till declining health forced his resignation in 1952.
Again, we in the 21st century cannot fully appreciate the weight of the burden that Sam carried during a world war – the blackout, the bombing, the food rationing, the shortages of staff (all the young ones had joined up), the shortages of practically everything – petrol, building materials, paint, books, paper. He just had to do the best he could. As an old caretaker once put it to me, 'We bodged on.'
These stand-in headmasters, hundreds of them, were men in their middle years who had not sought to become headmasters – certainly not in wartime. But they accepted what had to be done, and they got on and did it. With their experience, and wisdom, and patience – yes and no doubt guile too – they held countless schools together during the worst decade of the century. They are among the unsung heroes of the profession.
Of course Sam soldiered on in the classroom too. The overwhelming testimony from those who remember him is he made you mind; he made you think; he made you feel; and he made you remember. Isn't that what all good teachers are supposed to do?