BY CANON JAMES M. WILSON D.D.
Worcester, 23rd July, 1924.
My friend, the present Principal of King William's College, writes to me (8th July, 1924) that " the Editor of the Barrovian is anxious to get a series of articles describing life at the College at different times of its history. Is it too much to hope," he adds, "that you might give us one? Your reminiscences would on many accounts have a unique interest."
Such is the origin of this paper. I will try to carry out his wishes.
Certainly my connection with the College is of exceptionally long standing. It dates. I am told, from an early hour on November 6th, 1836, in the reign of King William the Fourth, when I first saw the light of day. as the younger of twin boys, born to the first Principal of the College in the eastern portion of the main building, then the Principal's house.
The 'Historical Retrospect,' which introduces the valuable "Register" of King William's College from 1833 to 1904, compiled by Mr. H. S. Christopher, supplies all the necessary outline of facts and dates for the early history of the College, and allows me to proceed at once to an attempt " to describe life at the College at different times of its history."
This attempt naturally divides into two unequal portions memories of incidents that occurred in the earliest years of the College, as related to me by my father and other eye witnesses ; and memories of the years 1848-1853. when my brother and I were ourselves at King William's College. To this section perhaps I may append a few recollections of my visits to T. E. Brown, about the years 1857-'60, when he was Vice-Principal of the College, and lived at Derbyhaven.
My father, the Revd. Edward Wilson, M.A., was appointed the first Principal of the College in 1833. He had been Bell's University Scholar, and a double first at Cambridge in 1825, and then fellow of St. John's College. In 1832 he became engaged to be married to the eldest daughter of the Revd. James Pears, Head Master of Bath Grammar School. They began their married life at King William's College.
I often heard him speak of the utter bareness and treelessness of the neighbourhood-a fearful contrast to the cultivated beauty of Bath. A pair of robins, lovers of men, he told us, came to live near them ; and could find nothing better than a cabbage in his kitchen garden to nest in.
The main building stood grimly by itself. without a tree or a shrub near it. The ruins on Hango Hill, and a cottage on the shore road between Hango and Derbyyhaven, were the only objects that caught the eye.
There were two boarding houses. My father had about twelve somewhat selected boys at the eastern end of the College ; and the Vice-Principal, the Revd. R. Dixon, a somewhat larger number at the other end. The birth of the twins was celebrated, so John Howard, Vicar of Onchan, declared to me, by two half-holidays, insisted on by a clamorous deputation.
The event which made a deeper impression on those who took part in it, and by whom, more than once, I was thrilled as they told the tale, was the news brought by a boy rushing in to my father at dinner one day, that the boys in Dixon's house were murdering him. My father and some of the boys, among whom were my cousin W. G. Wilson, and George Hills, afterwards a Bishop, whom we knew well, seized their knives, and ran to Dixon's house and found poor Dixon surrounded by a clamourous gang brandishing their knives and threatening death unless he gave them better dinners ! There was a fight ; but the knives were not used seriously ; the leaders, some wild Irishmen, were overpowered and locked up ; police were summoned ; and in a day or two some three or four boys left under escort for Douglas, to proceed to Dublin by an early steamer.
Life was very primitive then. There were no games ; no exterior examinations, no traditions of any kind to start with ; no preparatory schools, so that boys of all ages were admissible into any forms. It must have been desperately hard work to start the School: but there was some good material among boys and masters; and my father and mother put their whole hearts into humanizing the somewhat rough material in their hands.
I will tell one story of my mother. She was loved and trusted by many of the boys in the house; and one of them, on leaving, came to bid her an affectionate farewell. He asked her, urgently, to be so kind as to tell him of any faults, in order that he might amend them. Reluctantly, and very gently, she told him that he had one fault, which he would do well to avoidhe had a habit, she said, of somewhat abruptly contradicting his seniors. " No," he instantly exclaimed ; "that's a thing I never do."
There was no school and no Sunday service at Derbyhaven in those days ; and my mother, as I heard some twenty years later from the people themselves; started a school, and a Bible Class ; and my father took a Sunday service there, and they were much appreciated. Few of the cottagers at that time I was told, could read or write. In my school days some of them came up to the old school Chapel. Of course it is remembered that the block at right angles to the main buildings, on the north of the tower, was originally the chapel.
In 1838, my father was offered the living of Weston-superMare, then a small sea-side village, and was, I believe, glad to give up school, and to take to the pastoral work which was more congenial to him. He was a close friend of Bishop Ward and Governor Ready, and his memory was quite fresh ten years later, and insured us a welcome in many houses.
I now come to my own recollections which refer to the years 1848-'53.
Dr. Dixon had been visiting my father in Lincolnshire in August, 1848; and with him we two boys travelled by coach to Sheffield, and rail to Liverpool, and steamer to Douglas. I well recall the landing; the gun fired to announce the steamer's arrival: the going down the ladders to the packet rowing boats ; the landing on the green and slippery seaweed-covered stones below the old pier ; the climbing the stone steps, and the drive to the College. It was still summer holidays. No boys were about. It all looked very bleak. The trees in front of the College were from 5 to 20 feet high. No other building near except the " Ball Alley," with a little copse of trees behind it. But it is not the buildings or the surroundings I am asked to describe, but " the life." How can this be done ? It is vividly before my eyes and memory, but except by writing a ' school story,' and attempting to reproduce actual people under changed names, I doubt whether it is possible to present any adequate picture. And we cannot forget that the 'school story' has been written. "Eric; or Little by Little," by F. W. Farrar, is a true impressionist picture-not a photograph-of the school life into which my brother and I were plunged. It was a caricature of boys, but not a libel on the school. Farrar left only one year before we entered. The book contains much unwholesome sentiment, but it does not do an injustice to the school. I say deliberately that for the first two or three years of our life there, I doubt whether any school could have been worse. We suffered from neglect, from dirt, from horrible bullying, from indecencies indescribable, and from very bad teaching. But we took it all as a matter of course, and never spoke of it at home, and, strange to say, were not made wretched by it.
The bullying roused a fierce spirit of resistance, and if possible, revenge. There was the excitement of war. I suppose I trust give some examples.
The dining room opened out of the playroom-the two rooms facing south, west of the library and tower. On Sunday there was always cold beef for dinner. Outside the dining room door stood a group of big fellows, some of whom nearly always gave to me or other youngsters a piece of paper in which to ` prig meat' for them: in other words some one generally claimed half of my slice of beef, the whole of which was not enough for me. Sometimes I came out, beef safely inside. Then I should be kicked, and spat at: and sometimes tied in a suitable attitude to the banisters of the staircase in the tower, and flogged with one of those elastic stalks of seaweed like gutta percha that were plentiful on the beach. There was a gang of such fellows, who thus supplemented their Sunday dinner.
At tea, not on Sundays only, the group outside the door was again formed. The door was opened, and a rush to our places followed. Plates piled high with thick slices of bread thinly buttered were placed ready at intervals along the tables. The plates were often empty or nearly so before we youngsters could get to our seats. Yet we were compelled to 'prig' bread and butter. A master was always present; but he read a book, and never looked up. More bread and butter was asked for from " Rabbi," and was brought; but the plate was sometimes empty before it reached the table. I know what hunger is, and what it drove us to. We stole food whenever it was possible. It was possible, owing to an unscrewed bar to a window in a passage, to get out after dark ; and I have gone to a field and eaten raw turnip.
Then there was revenge. One biggish fellow-I will not give his name-who had nothing to recommend him, excited our special hatred. We two, and two Irish boys, Chapman by name, formed a solemn pact that we would not take anything out for him; and if he thrashed one of us We would all set on him. One day he had ordered my brother to prig him some bread and butter. When we came out he was standing by the door with a half pint mug of hot tea. Edward had prigged none. The hot tea was flung in his face. Tommy Chapman sprang on the fellow, hands well in his collar, knees in the small of his back, throttling him ; Fred hammered his face with his fists ; I dashed his head again and again against the ironbound edge of the table in the play-room, We young savages were dragged off and well thrashed; but we had made a picture of that gentleman, and he never repeated the experiment.
The bullying in the bedrooms was worse. The little fellows went to bed earlier than the seniors. It was a favourite amusement with them to carry off me, or one of us, out of bed, stark naked, down a passage, past a master's bedroom, to their own room. Then I had to run the gauntlet, and dodge up and down while they flicked me with towels-the corner dipped in water. Probably the reader does not know- the exquisite pain a skilful flick from a wet towel will inflict, and the triangular blister it will raise.
On one occasion 1 was carried past the master's bedroom door. I screamed and kicked the door. It opened. I was instantly dropped on the floor: the master came out cane in hand; asked no questions, but let into me as I rushed down the passage. It may complete the picture if I add our revenge on the master. He was an Irishman, and usually came to bed on Saturday more or less drunk. Two of us stealthily got into his bedroom late one night. He was sound asleep, with a stocking round his neck, his clothes lying about in confusion. We put there all, and his boots, into a foot-pan, and emptied every vessel in the room into the foot-pan and retreated safe. We heard no more of it.
That is enough; perhaps too much. It was a lawless, neglected, dirty, degraded life. No doubt most of us suffered much : specially the gentle and sensitive; but it was the bullies, and not the victims, who suffered permanently in character. And the atmosphere of the house changed greatly in our later years, when another set came to power.
Let me now say a word as to the teaching. There were nine classes. The 1st was taught by Dr. Dixon in the Library, the central room in the main front. There were shelves of bound books which I never saw out of the shelves ; and some stuffed monkeys, &c., on the top of the shelves, one of which was found by Dr. Dixon one day occupying his chair. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th classes were taught in the room next the library on the east by Cumming and Hollis. The rest were in the room over this, taught by Harvey and some assistant. The room over the library was the mathematical school under Davidson ; and a small room adjacent was used by a French master. There were no other classrooms. Drawing and water-colours were taught in the large classrooms at certain hours by a visiting master, Mr. Lemon.
The school hours were 9 to 12, with a 10 minutes break at 11: and 2 to 5, with a similar break at 3. Half holidays on Wednesday and Saturday. Two chapels on Sunday, and long preparations. Hollis was in charge of the 4th and 5th classes ; one up and one down. We started in the 5th class. We stood, and took places. Sallust and Ovid, and the Analecta Minora were our text books. Nonsense verses began in the 5th class ; sense verses in the 4th. A Latin exercise book, with short sentences, was the text book for Latin Prose, if it could be called so. A Theme was set for Saturday : and part of an awful book called "Doctrine and Duty," from which we had on Sunday to look out and copy out all the texts referred to as proving something. I do not remember that either exercise was ever looked over. The writing alone was glanced at. Mine was always bad, and I think I must have been caned, (on the hand, pandies, we called them, from pande manum), every Monday morning for a year and a half. Hence I took early and effectively to fives, of course without gloves, and was soon indifferent to 'pandies.'
I remember little of the teaching in class. But we read and learned something of Latin and Greek. I wrote elegiacs and even a birthday sapphic ode, to my father on his 50th birthday before I was 15. We wrote verses, of a sort, readily ; but no continuous prose. We two were at the head of the School in 1853, and got many of the prizes. But what my Latin Essay could have been like I cannot conceive.
Mathematics were at still lower ebb. We said and wrote out our Euclid, but were not allowed in writing to vary the letters used; and no problems were set. A very clever boy Arthur Bluett and I used my father's copies of Bland's Geometrical Problems, and his Algebra, by ourselves. and reached a point beyond the range of the mathematical Master ! We actually got to Quadratic problems of two unknowns, and even Progressions and the Binomial Theorem.
French was taught by a visiting master from Douglas, as an extra, out of School hours. Some five or six of us learned it. One, Arthur Griffiths, known as Frenchy, really knew some French, having lived abroad. I learnt it for my last year ; two hours a week ; and the first French Prize adorns my shelves at Worcester. How did I get it ? Boully, the French Master, was incomparably indolent. For the examination he set us all for translation a piece of Télémaque out of our reading books; and for composition-what think you ?-the Ten Commandments, neither more nor less. And poor Frenchy could not remember more than two of the shortest. and a shot at a third ! He was afterwards a distinguished man,
Hebrew we learnt something of in the 1st class, and I made the most of it in a College examination at St. John's in a Greek Testament paper in my first May. The Examiner sent for me ; admitted that he did not know a letter of Hebrew, but said he would give me credit for it if I declared it was genuine.
Perhaps this is enough about the teaching. There was of course no science ; no English ; of history only Roman and a very little Greek ; and there was no School Library. We left before we were seventeen, and I had then two years of first-rate teaching under Evans at Sedbergh School ; and for the first time learned what scholarship and mathematics were.
What shall I write about next ? Games? None were compulsory. There were occasionally football, and cricket, and hockey for which we cut sticks from the little copse : and we ' travelled' from tree to tree in the said copse like squirrels. All was quite unorganised. I remember one match in cricket ; with a Cambridge team from Douglas. There was fives ; we made our own balls, and in summer sea-bathing. A very favourite game was played in the short break. Some big fellows took small ones on their backs, and charged all others and tried to unhorse their riders. George Corrin, a giant as I remember him, used to take me as his rider. My duty was to grapple some other rider by coat collar or anything. " Have ye got hoult ? " he would ask ; and then, holding me fast by the legs, tear away like a locomotive, till something happened. Something happened occasionally to one's jacket.
So I could go on. But perhaps I have already written more than your editor wants or can find room for. I will conclude at any rate for the present. If he wants another chapter, I will try to give it him.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
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