James M. Wilson
An Autobiography


James M. Wilson

This extract is taken from chapter 1 (pages 7-18) and describes life at King William's College 1848-1853. - for a slighly earlier account see that by E S Beesly.

James Maurice Wilson was an major figure in the evolution of the mid-Victorian public school; initially at Rugby 1859-1879 and then Head at Clifton 1879-1890. It was during this later time that he was a colleague of T. E. Brown who was then in charge of Modern Studies.

Wilson's connection with both Brown and the Island stretch back much further. His father, the Rev. Edward Wilson, was the first headmaster of King William's College established in 1833, staying there despite much hardship, until 1838 when his wife's deteriorating health forced him to move to Weston-super-Mare. In 1838 he wrote to Bishop Ward:

First then, y' building has now been opened for ye recepn. of pupils more yn 4 years, of whom it has had from 100 to 150 and upwards within its walls, and yet those walls are not finished. A large portion of ye interior walls remains to this day not even plaistered and they both are and look cold and repulsive to ye eye of boys and parents who must and do behold 'em. Again ye exterior walls require, in this searching climate, additional cementing. The wet comes in thro' the whole S.W. front, and you may perhaps give me credit for not murmuring more when I assure yr Lordship we repeatedly catch 2 or 3 gallons of water on a rainy eveng. in our drawing-room.

James Wilson and his twin brother, Edward, were, in their father's view 'quite phenomenally stupid', and it was an immense relief to everyone when it was decided to send them, at the age of twelve, to King William's College in the summer of 1848, the journey was made with Dr Dixon who had succeeded Wilson having been appointed headmaster in 1841. J.M.Wilson's son who put together the autobiography stated that

In some very brief suggestions for a Memoir to be written after his death, my father said of this section of his own autobiographical notes: "Better leave out all the King William's College part, it is too horrible."

Farrar, author of Eric, or Little by Little, first published in 1858 and a thinly veiled account of his schooldays at King William's College at about the same time as Wilson, had to apologise in the second edition for harm reputed to have been done to the College.

His first wife whom he met and married in 1868, whilst in the Island recovering from an operation, was Annie Elizabeth Moore, a cousin of William Fine Moore, father of A.W. Moore who was then a pupil in Wilson's house at Rugby. She died suddenly after giving birth to their fourth child in 1878.

King William's College

It is harder to describe the nature of life in the school at this time. It is all vividly-before my eyes and memory; but except by writing a " school story," and attempting to reproduce the actual people, I doubt whether it is possible to present any adequate picture. But I say deliberately that for the first two or three years of our life there, I doubt whether any school could have been or could be worse. I am speaking of course only of the boarders, and only of the Principal's House. The day boys only suffered from bad teaching—teaching I imagine almost as bad as it could be. But we suffered also from dirt and slovenliness, from insufficient food, from horrible bullying and indecencies indescribable. We took it all as a matter of course and never complained at home.

First I will describe the material condition. The boys' entrance was under the tower, on the left was the Chapel, and a stone staircase led up to the first floor, on which were three classrooms; one for the Lower School, in which the Rev. Gilmour Harvey with an assistant taught the lowest four classes, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th; one for the Mathematical Master, Mr H. C. Davidson, who had also an assistant, and taught a sort of modern side; and one for a French Master. There was also a museum of fossils on that floor, but I never saw it open. A staircase led from this floor to our dormitories, which were of the nature of attics, at one end arranged on each side of a corridor, at the other opening into one another, like cubicles, each for four beds. At the top of the stairs between the two sets of dormitories was the house tutor's bedroom. On the ground floor there was the library, central, opposite the Chapel, in which Dr Dixon taught the first or highest class, and the main schoolroom on the left of it in which Cumming taught the 2nd and 3rd classes, and Hollis the 4th and 5th. There was a desk in a corner of the room for a Drawing Master, Mr Lemon, who appeared periodically with a portfolio of sketches. The same corridor from which we entered the upper schoolroom and the library led to Dr Dixon's boardinghouse. There were two rooms opening into one another, the playroom and the dining-room. Beyond these were locked doors and the private house. There was no bathroom, but in a small room on the first floor in the tower was a room with benches and iron basins, and once a week we were supplied with what was known as " tosh-water " to wash feet.

School hours were 9-12 and 2-5 on four days in the week: no afternoon school on Wednesday and Saturday, and preparation in the playroom under a master every evening from 7-8.30. Roll Calls at 3 and 5 every half-holiday.

 As to the teaching: we were placed in the 5th class with some 14 or 15 others. Poor Hollis had the 4th and 5th classes on his hands, one of the two constantly up saying lessons and taking places. The cane was ever in his hand and frequently used. A false quantity was his great abhorrence, out went the hand and down went the cane. Failure to say the repetition perfectly always brought a caning. If one's handwriting was bad (as mine always was) no matter how much pains one took, down came the cane. I received eight cuts every Monday morning, I believe, that I was under him, for my two exercises shown up on Monday. One was a Theme or Essay —I cannot remember that it was ever looked over; the other writing out in full the texts given in the margin to prove every statement in a dreadful manual called Doctrine and Duty, with Scripture Proofs. The plain fact is that no one on the staff was a scholar, and no one even a tolerable mathematician. I know that my solutions of ordinary quadratics of two unknowns were kept and copied by the Principal, in case anyone in the future should reach such a high-water mark.

But I must turn to a less pleasant subject. " Dixon's House" was certainly the worst of the three. Harvey's boys were better dressed, and better mannered. They looked like gentlemen, no one could have said that of us. There were some among us, as I can now see, of good birth and breeding, but these were swamped in a very rough lot. A good many were Irish, one or two of my special friends were Irish or Manx, but the mass, seen at this distance of time, were of a lower middle class. The school was cheap and it had an Evangelical reputation. Some of the very worst boys were the neglected sons of Missionaries. Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little, was no caricature of this school, though it was a caricature of the human boy. The bullying and cruelty from which we both suffered in the first two years was almost incredible. Always on Sunday we had cold beef for dinner. As a crowd stood outside the door, some big fellow would give me a sheet of paper to " prig meat " for him—i.e. to slip into my lap half of my pittance, which was never enough to satisfy my hunger. Sometimes I came out, beef safely inside. Then I should be kicked and cuffed, and on more than one occasion tied over the banisters in the Tower with a rope tying my neck to my knees through the banisters, and then flogged with one of those elastic stalks of seaweed that were like gutta-percha. The bullying in the dormitories was the worst. A small boy-—it was very often myself —was carried off out of bed (we went up earlier) by one of the big fellows who slept in one of the passage rooms I described above. Then I was stripped naked and they were all ready with towels the corner dipped in water, and I had to run the gauntlet backward and forward while they flicked me. It will be remembered that I should have to be carried past the door of the master's bedroom. On one occasion I kicked out as we passed the door; the fellow instantly dropped me; out rushed the master—this was not Hollis but an Irishman, O'Reilly—with the never-failing cane. He asked no questions but simply thrashed me till I roared.

It may add to the picture if I describe my revenge. He generally came to bed more or less drunk on Saturday night. Relying on this, two of us stealthily crept into his room. He was sound asleep with a stocking round his neck. We put all his clothes into a footpan, and from every vessel in the room poured their contents into his boots and the footpan and retreated. We heard no more of it.

It was a lawless, dirty, degraded life, and few survived it without real damage. I have very often applied to myself that verse of the hymn:

When in the slippery paths of youth
With heedless steps I ran,
Thine arm, unseen, conveyed me safe
And led me up to man.

The outdoor life was our salvation. There were very few organised games and no one was obliged to play. So on the half-holidays we wandered everywhere. The Langness rocks, Fort Island, Santon Glen and its caves, Scarlett and Poolvash were all familiar. The neighbourhood is of unique geological interest, though I did not then know it. Within two or three miles of the College we have the Old Red Sandstone, lying unconformably on the Silurian; faults throwing up both of these side by side with Carboniferous Limestone; limestone in magnificent folds, intersected by volcanic dykes, and striated by glaciers; basalt, volcanic ash, a splendid glacial series, a submerged forest. It ought to be put under a glass case and kept as a geological model. There were fossils too at Poolvash. I once found there the extremely rare and interesting Goniatites Henslowii, which I put in the Rugby Museum. Then there were longer excursions, to Port Erin, Barrule, Spanish Head and the Calf, but these could only be visited when there were short holidays, as at Easter, when we did not go home. 

I remember one day of tremendous and painful excitement. It was summoner time, and a special holiday with no roll-calls, and we went far and wide. I was one of four or five expert " nesters " who went out beyond Santon Glen to search the cliffs and ledges of rocks for hawks', gulls', kittiwakes', cormorants' and other eggs. In the late evening the rumour reached the School that one of the " Scholar lads " had fallen in climbing and was killed. A boat had gone from Derbyhaven to bring back the body. Who was it? No other party but mine was known to have gone to those cliffs beyond Santon. Edward and scores more were in the Close, looking out towards Derbyhaven hour after hour. At last we were seen and recognised; the shouts of joy utterly perplexed me, for we had heard nothing. Soon it became known that it was Robert Woodhouse, of Harvey's House, who had tried to get a nest which I had seen and declined to attempt. He fell about sixty feet and was killed at once. One of his friends ran back to fetch a boat, another, Paton by name, climbed down one of the headlands of the little creek, dived into the sea, and swam in to stay with poor Woodhouse's body till the boat came. I remember the indescribable feeling of relief manifested by the House when it was known that we were all safe, and then the after-shock when we realised about Woodhouse and his friends. His memorial is in the Chapel:

Casu miserrimo flebilis occidit

I think I was the best climber: certainly I had the reputation of being so. Years afterwards I once visited Santon Glen, and met there, just at the mouth of the caves, a party of K.W.C. boys, also nesting. We got into talk and they showed me a crow's nest, in a niche over the chief cave, and told me that Wilson, when at College, had climbed up to it. I asked them what became of him, but they did not know farther than that he was a swell of some sort at Cambridge. But it was true. I had climbed by a long and circuitous route up the face of the cliff to that nest.

One of the things I most disliked in the School was the taking of our small pocket-money by one of the masters as a so-called " voluntary contribution " to the Church Missionary Society. The manner of doing it was this.

Dr Dixon seated at the desk in the playroom called up each boy and gave him 6d., 4d., or 3d. —this being the scale. Twice in the half year— changed to once in the term when the school adopted the 3 term system in about the year '50—a master, Mr Barton, came in and sat at a little table close to the desk. Each boy, as he passed Barton, was expected to hand him the coin he had just received, and did so. My brother Edward started to question among some of us youngsters, what would happen if one of us refused? The idea was irresistible to me. He suggested, I executed. When I got my threepenny bit and Barton put out his hand for it, I refused. He said I must give it. Again and again I said I would not. He appealed to Dr Dixon, sitting just above him. He said I must give it. I remember clenching it in my fist and saying it might be taken from me by force but I would not give it. The whole of the house, or perhaps only those who had not yet got their money, were present. Dr Dixon addressed me, no doubt in very suitable language, but in vain. I was to hear of it afterwards. But I never did, till many years afterwards he and I met on a C.M.S. platform in Rugby—or rather in the Committee Room—and he reminded me with a smile of my rebellion—" and you were quite right too! "

One result was that these collections absolutely ceased. Another was that when I became Headmaster of Clifton College I almost invariably dissociated Mission Sermons and Addresses from collections. When Johnson, afterwards Archdeacon Johnson of the Universities Mission to Central Africa, addressed the School on a Sunday evening and told us how he wanted a steamer on Lake Nyassa, it was not I but the Head of the School who, at the end of the address, rose to suggest that the School should have a chance of helping him. The Thursday following was Ascension Day, and I said we would give a collection after morning prayers in Chapel. It exceeded £50, and the Head of the School said: " We know a man when we see one."

We rose together rapidly through the sth, 4th and 3rd classes, spending two years in these, one year in the 2nd and two years in the highest class. During those two years we were left much to ourselves and I think my real education was got from my own studies quite undirected and indeed much misdirected. I wrote many long letters in Elegiacs to my father and on April 5th, 1851, his fiftieth birthday, I wrote him a Sapphic Ode, and he wrote me one in reply, of which I can recall only the first line of the last stanza:

Interim Musas colite insulares.

I also wrote him occasionally some Greek Iambics. I read a good deal of Homer, Virgil and Euripides, outside my school work in old editions. Reading Homer in Clarke's edition, in which contractions were freely used, stood me once in good stead, for at some viva voce examination, probably for a scholarship at St John's, I was handed a book of contracted Greek, and pleased my examiner by reading it with ease.

Our study, up in the tower, was a great joy as soon as we were high enough in the school to have one. Ours was the smallest, the middle of the three on the west side, looking over Castletown to Port Erin and Fleshwick Bays, and the glorious western hills. There were other delights beside reading there. We were experts in making toffee and pancakes. We even cooked herrings which we possessed in this wise. There were three brothers Harrison—David, Stephen, and Bowyer—sons of the Vicar of Maughold. Steenie and I were friends; he was below me in the school and had no study though he was older. We formed a company to salt and store herrings. Edward and I contributed three shillings each, which bought loo on Castletown pier, and Steenie gutted and salted them somewhere. They were packed in one of the "tosh-water" footpans, described before, and then conveyed to the far end of a long tunnel, under the Chapel, in which ladders were kept. The key of the door was missing, and one of us would crawl in, in the dark before lock-up, and bring back the precious herrings, which we fried over the fire.

But where could we conceal the frying-pan? If that study is still in existence, it will be found that one of the boards which formed the partition between it and the study to the south is neatly cut, and a piece about a foot long is pivoted, so as to open like a door. In the space between the boarded partition of the two studies there was room for a cupboard, large enough to conceal a frying-pan and other necessaries. Never were herrings as good as those, with adventure for their sauce as well as hunger.

I do not remember ever writing Latin Prose, but one of the prizes set was for a Latin Essay, and in my last year I won it; what stuff it was I did not guess until we went to Sedbergh and Evans smiled grimly at our Latin Prose. There was also a French Prize. There was one boy Arthur Griffiths, a year my junior and a great friend. He knew French far better than any of us, having perhaps lived abroad. He was known as " Frenchy." Of course he ought to have got the first French Prize, but the prize was given on examination, and the lazy French Master, Boully, to save himself trouble, only gave us two things to do, to translate a long and easy piece of Télémaque into English, and the other to translate the Ten Commandments into French. I could do the first nearly if not quite as well as Arthur Griffiths; but when it came to the composition I had it all my own way, for, try as he would, poor "Frenchy " could not remember the Ten Commandments!

To sum up my impressions of the School, we were shamefully neglected in every way, but in the two last years of the five we were left alone, and educated ourselves. It was a perilous experiment and failed with the great majority of boys, but it was bracing treatment for those who were not ruined by it.


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