The Reverend Thompson Sends a Telegram

The Reverend Thompson

The Reverend Thompson

At five minutes past ten on the morning of 24th May, 1912, the Reverend Joseph Thompson walked into the Post Office at Warkleigh in North Devon, and sent a telegram.

It had to be written out on a special form, and handed in to the Post Office clerk. The message was sent by wireless telegraph to the Post Office at Filleigh, where it was received at twenty-seven minutes past ten. Another clerk typed it out, or, in this case because it was North Devon, wrote it out by hand. (We still have it in the Archive.) He then gave it to a Post Office delivery messenger, who brought it in person – by motor cycle or bicycle – to the person to whom it was addressed – Mr Taylor.

It said: 'Afraid unable come Barnstaple please apologise Thompson.'

Adelbert Taylor was a teacher at West Buckland School, and he was also the Secretary to the Governors. Joseph Thompson was the first Headmaster of the School. He had been appointed in 1858, at the age of twenty-one. In those early days, the School was known as the Devon County School. He remained Head for the next thirty years, and watched the School grow from its original three pupils to over 150.

For years afterwards, he continued to come to the Old Boys' dinners, and was a familiar figure in his black clerical clothes, complete with dog collar and monocle. He continued to take a passionate interest in the fortunes of the School.

Round about 1907, the School ran into bad times. It recovered, but part of the recovery process involved the School company going into voluntary liquidation and being re-formed as an independent fee-based establishment, with support from the Devon County Council. It was also given a new name – West Buckland School. The old Devon County School slipped away into history. The whole process took four or five years.

The final meeting to complete the business – the final, ultimate, really, absolutely last meeting to wind up the affairs of the Devon County School was arranged for 24th May, 1912, in the liquidator's office in Barnstaple, and Thompson, as the first Headmaster, was invited to attend.

By this time Thompson was seventy-five years old. He had been retired from the headship for twenty-four years. He had built the School from nothing – well, from three pupils in a farmhouse. He had seen the new buildings rise, stone by stone. He had watched as the numbers and reputation of his school grew steadily, year by year. He had supervised the planting of every tree and every shrub. Each one had been to commemorate a special event, and he knew them all. He had taken pride in the School's academic successes – when, for instance, the Devon County School came top of the national league in the Cambridge Local Examinations three times in succession. He had kept contact with generations of Old Boys, and now enjoyed the status of a sort of gruff great-grandfather.

Now – suddenly – they were going to change the School's name. His school. It wasn't going to be the Devon County School any more. His brain told him that the School was going to get a new lease of life under a new system. But his heart must have told him otherwise. It was a bit like a parent, after three or four decades, being told that his son was going to change his name. He would have to get used to the child he had nurtured and loved changing from Sam to Fred. His head would have told him that it was the same underneath, but his heart told him that it wasn't – not quite. Was that why he sent that telegram to Taylor to say that he couldn't come? To the meeting that was going to write in the name 'West Buckland School', and cross out the words 'Devon County School'. It wasn't his school any more.

Berwick Coates

Sam Howells

Sam Howells - in 1919, 1929, 1939, 1951

Sam Howells - in 1919, 1929, 1939, 1951

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?

Berwick Coates

Putting Something Back

Michael Roberts 1905 - 12 B

Michael Roberts 1905 - 12 B

When you are at school, you accept things; they just come up, like assemblies, the sun, exams, lunches, lessons, cross-country runs. But other things come up as well – like prizes, awards, medals, advice, interest, encouragement, opportunity, somebody being there. You accept all that too. If pressed to say why, you might have remarked, 'Our parents paid good money for it.'

Yes, they did. But that is only half the truth. A lot of what 'comes up' does not figure in a School end-of-term bill or a balance sheet. What am I saying? I am saying that a lot of people do a lot for the School with no expectation of payment, or even of recognition. And often the most unlikely people.

Look at this photograph. At first glance he seems a typical old buffer. And we don't take old buffers seriously, do we?

He was a brigadier actually. Brigadier Michael Rookherst Roberts, DSO, MC. Seeing him like this, one finds it hard to picture him as a small, very new boy. He was born in 1894, and came to the School in 1905, from Ifracombe.

Before he had left, he had played cricket and football for the School, won his colours at both, and was top of both batting and bowling averages. He won the Donegall Badge for shooting, he was Athletics Champion, and won a couple of Exmoors, the second in record time. He was President of the Debating Society (before it was reincarnated as the Phoenix), Head of School, and – of course – holder of the Fortescue Medal. He appears to have been pretty popular too, because Old Boys years later were referring fondly to 'Mickey' Roberts; you don't usually get names like that if you are not liked.

He won the MC in the First World War, and the DSO in the Second, and ended, as I said, as a brigadier, in the Gurkhas. He also became a distinguished historian.

During all those years he regularly attended all sorts of Old Boys' functions, and served as President of the Association twice. He sat on the Board of Governors, and was Chairman for several years. After that, he was Chairman of the Friends of West Buckland. When he died in 1977, he had been associated with the School for 72 years.

In all that time, everything he did for the School was done without payment, or indeed any expectation of payment. He did it because he wanted to. He was grateful to the School; he wanted to put something back.

Now many of you may be thinking, 'Yes, that's all very well, but we can't all be like good old Mickey Roberts.' True; we can't all win the Exmoor in record time, or come top of the batting averages. But we all have the capacity to put something back, if we feel like it.

You don't think about things like this when you are at school, not even when you have left, and you are building a life. But somewhere along the line, you may pause and remember – a friendship, an escapade, a perceptive teacher. A friend tells you he has joined the OWBA. You get curious. After a while, you are just passing, and you drop in just to see how the old place is getting on, and tell yourself that things are not what they used to be. You attend an OWBA dinner; you buy a raffle ticket; you lend a hand at a School fete. And that's how it all begins.

What are you doing? You are putting something back. You are doing what Brigadier-General Michael Rookherst Roberts did. And you won't care tuppence whether people think you're an old buffer or a has-been or a relic from another century. Look around you – there's another Mickey Roberts out there somewhere. Maybe several. And you will all do it for nothing.

Berwick Coates

The Exmoor

The Exmoor between the wars

‘The Exmoor between the wars.’

There was once an English actor who enjoyed a long career in British films called Wilfrid Hyde White. Always the polished English gentleman, well groomed, frightfully well spoken. A familiar face for years. Couldn't act for toffee. He had been to drama school though. He said he had learned two things from drama school: 1. He could not act. 2. It did not matter. For which he was always grateful. And we were always grateful to him, simply for being such a delightful man.

I have been a history teacher for a long time. Do I expect my pupils to remember all the facts I taught them? Of course not. But that, as Mr Hyde-White would have said, does not matter. What matters is that History makes you grateful – grateful that you live in the twenty-first century, and not in any of the others that came before.

By the same token, pupils at West Buckland School today can be grateful that there is only one big cross-country run per year. In the (bad) old days, if you added up all the junior runs and the senior runs, it came to fifteen. Imagine – fifteen cross-country runs.

Like the Exmoor, they all had names – the Bray, the Beeches, the Tuck, the Leary, the Westacott, the Stoodleigh, and so on. One or two had less romantic names – the Railway, the North-West, and the somewhat sinister Long (which, according to Robert Clarke, who was in charge of the runs, was even worse than the Exmoor).

As one might expect, such a tradition has thrown up its star performers. Arthur Pearce, who left in 1908, won thirteen out of fourteen races. A boy called Cecil Farmer, during the First World War, won nineteen out of twenty, and would have won the twentieth but for an accident. Incidentally, he also won eight events out of nine in the School Sports of 1917 – all in one afternoon. Herbert Tully, between 1931 and 1936, won the Under-13 Exmoor twice, the Under-15 Exmoor twice, and the 'Exmoor' Exmoor twice. Thirty years later, his son also won the Exmoor. In the 1950's, J R Jones won four Exmoors – on the trot, as you might say. So we are grateful for our stars.

Over the years, all the other runs have gone. (Thank God, eh?) But the Exmoor survives. It has been cancelled only twice in 150 years – once in the arctic winter of 1947, when the Taw froze; and once in 2001, because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic. It is far and away the oldest tradition in the School's history, and the boys (and girls too now) are proud of it.

It involves a six-mile walk to the Poltimore Arms for the start, and a nine-mile run back from Five Barrows to the School (if you are a senior boy, that is - if you are a junior or a girl, you do rather less). It is the oldest, longest, roughest, toughest, regular, scheduled, compulsory school cross-country run in the length and breadth of England. Well, that's what we've been saying since 1859, and nobody has come up yet with anything to disprove it. West Buckland may not be famous for very much, but a lot of people in the educational world have heard of the school with 'that run'.

Because of this, the School fancied that it might be able to drum up some publicity with the hundredth Exmoor. They invited television news teams to West Buckland to film it all. The BBC crew made the runners start twice because they needed time to get somewhere else. The ITV crew got tangled up with a flock of sheep, and missed the finish, and made the first seven or eight runners finish again. The whole school crowded round the telly in the evening to watch. The BBC provided sixty seconds. ITV forgot about it altogether. But that, as they say, is show business. Mr Hyde-White would surely have understood.

Berwick Coates

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