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.