Saturday, 5 March 2011

Dame Miriam Rothschild DBE FRS

Dame Miriam Rothschild with Professor Richard Dawkins, photographed together during a visit to Oundle School Chapel in 2002

The early 20th century writer Marcel Proust, confined by asthma in his later years to self-imposed imprisonment within the cork-lined walls of his Paris home, allowed himself only the occasional nocturnal excursion in his sealed carriage. Heading out towards the countryside, so the story goes, he would drink in the sight of pink and white hawthorn in bloom, flowers about which he had written so lyrically in his masterpiece A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

A deep admirer of Proust – "he had the most vital of all gifts for a naturalist: a profound and sensitive understanding of the weather", she wrote in her book Butterfly Cooing like a Dove – Miriam Rothschild inspired as many stories about her life and her doings as the great novelist. One vivid picture has her being driven in the countryside around Oundle, scattering wildflower seeds on the roadsides, in a mission inspired by anger at the disappearance from the English landscape of cowslips, harebells, daisies and poppies, "flowers that are now being bulldozed and weedkilled out of our lives," as she put it.

The apparently derelict exterior of her home in Ashton Wold, where she worked and spent most of her life, helped to fuel even more vivid stories. "Guests, on driving into the courtyard, look at the tangle of unkempt plants and wonder uneasily if they have the right address. Can anyone really live here?" she asked with some justification. Tales of a tame fox sitting at lunch with her, of cannabis cultivated for strange experiments, of her mauve outfits and her white Wellingtons – she refused to eat meat, use cosmetics or wear leather – helped to create a picture of Northamptonshire's great eccentrics in the popular imagination.

A distinguished zoologist, Miriam Rothschild was an authority on fleas and butterflies, recognised in her later years as one of the influential voices who have made environmental protection a fashionable issue in the world today. From a German-owned engineering company seeking to beautify a plot of waste ground on its factory site in Corby, to the Prince of Wales establishing a wildflower meadow at Highgrove, his Gloucestershire home, people consulted her on a host of conservation matters. Her regular appearance on television, in mauve dress and matching kerchief, made her familiar to millions.

Born in 1908, Miriam Rothschild inherited her interest in parasitology from her banker father Charles, a keen naturalist who founded the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves as well as studying the biology of fleas while working as a partner of N.M. Rothschild & Sons, the family bank. Educated privately at home, she spent much of her childhood at Tring Park, the Hertfordshire home of her grandfather, the 1st Lord Rothschild, the first Jewish member of the House of Lords. Here she kept as pets an owl and a quail, studied ladybirds and played in the farmyard where she milked and groomed the cows – at the age of four, she was Country Life's "youngest milker." From her uncle Walter, whose memory she was to honour with her book Dear Lord Rothschild (1983), she learnt about more exotic animals: his private zoological museum at Tring included emus, kangaroos and salamanders, as well as more than two million butterflies and moths, and 144 giant tortoises. He is celebrated, among other things, for driving down Piccadilly and into Buckingham Palace in a buggy pulled by zebras.

Neither her father nor her uncle had shown much regard for conventional education, and although Miriam did enrol at the University of London she never received a formal degree and was somewhat dismissive of exam systems. "The types of tests devised by the appropriate authorities in Britain today assess the size of the child's bottom rather than that of its head", she was quoted as saying, in an article about her published in 1984. She was, however, a keen sportswoman in her teens, excelling to international standard in cricket and squash.

Seeking experience in parasitology, she took a post at the Marine Biological Association research station in Plymouth, investigating marine snails and the effect on their development of flatworm parasites. A 1938 paper on territorialism in black-headed gulls presented to the Zoological Society helped to establish her reputation. When war broke out the following year, she was employed by the Government to research the spread of TB in cattle caused by wood pigeons.

Her Jewish family made Miriam Rothschild more aware than most people of the inevitability of World War II. "This country was so sleepy compared to the continent; they knew a war was coming," she recalled. "It was like a sort of dreamland in England."

As antisemitic persecution grew in Europe during the 1930s, Miriam Rothschild used Ashton Wold, the 1,200-acre estate which her father had been given, as a refuge for 49 Jewish children aged between nine and fourteen whom she adopted and brought out of Germany. Charles Rothschild had died in 1923 when Miriam was 15, but he had renewed Ashton, providing running water for the residents. His daughter now found herself appointed as air-raid warden for the village.

In addition to her wartime agricultural research, Miriam Rothschild also spent time at Bletchley Park working on the secret project of decoding German communications sent by the Enigma machine. This was until her marriage to the Hungarian exile George Lane, whom she met at that time. Her husband's dangerous work as a commando engaged in cross-Channel intelligence-gathering operations meant that she was allowed to be billeted with him at training camps on the South coast. "Altogether we lived a very peculiar life", she recalled. With Captain Lane being away on raids almost every night, "we never knew if we would see each other again. It was very hectic - I was expecting our first child. I don't know how I survived it."

When George Lane was captured during one of these raids, and subsequently interned as a prisoner of war, Miriam Rothschild returned to Ashton. The area had been transformed by the arrival of 6,000 men from the USAAF at Polebrook Airfield, bordering the Ashton Estate, and she found herself welcoming and befriending many of them at Ashton. Among them was the Hollywood star Clark Gable, whom she remembered as a crack shot with the local rooks but lacking in any sense of humour. He was, however, grateful to her as a chaperone at the airbase parties; she recalled the apprehension he felt, surrounded by over-excited hospital nurses desperate to come away with a piece of his underwear.

Looking back on her wartime memories, particularly of Polebrook, Miriam Rothschild was adamant in her sense of the debt owed by the generations who escaped the threat of Nazi domination. "I don't think we realised how much we owed the Americans. They were incredibly brave, incredibly tough, incredibly dedicated, and I don't know what would have happened here if we hadn't had the American Air Force stationed at Polebrook and the various other places from where they operated. We must always be deeply grateful."

Many years later, when Ashton Estates announced its intention to terminate Oundle School's lease on Elmington Range, the Headmaster and the Bursar of the time made a last-ditch attempt to save this facility for the School's cadet force. A meeting was arranged at Ashton, where the owner was present along with her Estates Manager. "Mrs Lane," said the Bursar, G.I. Milton, an ex-Army man. "You do know that generations of Oundle School CCF have used Elmington Range for shooting practice. And almost all those former pupils served in the war." A few moments' silence passed before Miriam Rothschild spoke. "You're absolutely right, of course." And the School's use of Elmington Range has continued until this day.

After the war, Miriam Rothschild continued to research the biology of parasites, notably of fleas, publishing numerous papers. Among her observations at this time was her discovery of a fluid in fleas' hip-joints which allows them to develop an acceleration 20 times greater than that of a moon rocket re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. Her book Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos (1952), written in collaboration with Theresa Clay, formerly of the Natural History Museum, proved that she could communicate science in a lively and witty fashion. Between 1953 and 1983 she was responsible for co-editing the six volumes of the Catalogue of the Rothschild Collection of Fleas in the British Museum. As an authority of the subject of rabbit fleas, she served on the Government's advisory committee set up following the myxomatosis outbreak of 1954.

For those who know Ashton's pub The Chequered Skipper – until the 1940s it was called The Three Horseshoes – it would come as no surprise that butterflies were Miriam Rothschild's second great area of enthusiasm and study. One of her major contributions to our knowledge of these insects was her research into the way that they use toxic plant substances, not to sustain growth, but for defensive purposes. Ashton Wold's greenhouses were full of Cabbage Whites, Monarch and other butterflies feeding on a variety of specially grown plants, hence her licence to grow cannabis for the purpose. Her investigations into such matters led her into study generally of the way in which insects use mimicry of both scent and warning colouration to discourage predators. 

Her book Butterfly cooing like a Dove (1991) combined her passion for zoology with her love of literature and the arts. She wrote it to demonstrate that "one can find considerable enjoyment by mixing up the poetry of words or line with technical facts concerning natural history." Her devotion to the latter area had not been painless, she explained, and the book was a reflection of the daydreams which over the years had consoled her "for the harsh necessity of counting the bristles on the backsides of waistless, wingless fleas."

Official recognitions for the hard work of her research were numerous in her lifetime. She was honoured with many doctorates and fellowships worldwide. She was President of the Royal Entomological Society, receiving its Wigglesworth Gold Medal. She received the H.H. Bloomer Medal from the Linnean Society of London in 1968, also receiving the Victoria Medal, its highest award, from the Royal Horticultural Society. She was a Trustee of the Natural History Museum from 1967 to 1975, was appointed CBE in 1982 for services to taxonomy, and in 1985 gave the Romanes Lecture at Oxford entitled 'Animals and Men.' The same year saw her elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. She became a Dame in the New Year's Honours List of 2000.

Outside the world of insects, Miriam Rothschild threw herself into supporting a broad range of civic and social causes. Her home was a meeting-place for politicians, writers and artists, as well as for scientists and students. She campaigned for free milk in schools, supported the legislation of homosexual acts between consenting adults, and advocated the wearing of car seat-belts, which she claimed to have invented. She championed the better treatments of animals on the farm and in laboratories. Her humanitarian activities included founding the Schizophrenia Research Fund after the death of her sister, who suffered from the disease. For many years the farm buildings behind the Chequered Skipper in Ashton housed the Adamson Collection of paintings by mentally ill artists; the collection is now based at Lambeth Hospital in London.

Among her other local achievements she helped to establish the world-famous Ashton International Conker Championship, and in 1996 to set up the National Dragonfly Museum in Ashton Mill. But, like another close contemporary of hers with Oundle links, the co-founder of the World Wildlife Fund Sir Peter Scott, it is mainly for the cause of nature conservation that she will be remembered. She took a keen interest in conservation issues such as the protection of green lanes in the Oundle area, and was Patron of the local Wildlife Trust. The 150 acres of meadow garden that she planted at Ashton Wold – "John Clare's countryside remembered" as she called it – created to host the butterflies and insects that she loved, have left their legacy in the profusion of wildflowers along Oundle's roadsides. This is surely the most fitting memorial to Miriam Rothschild. She is survived by a son and three daughters.

Dame Miriam Rothschild DBE, FRS, zoologist, writer, gardener and conservationist, was born on 5 August 1908. She died at Ashton Wold on 20 January 2005, aged 96.

I wrote this obituary for the Spring 2005 issue of The Oundle Chronicle.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Making Oundle's War

This article is based on the talk I gave for the Oundle Festival of Literature on Remembrance Sunday 2008 about 'Oundle's War', a book that I wrote about the town's history during the Second World War.

It’s not a newly published book by an up and coming young writer, and perhaps has only a limited appeal for the friends of one small market town in Northamptonshire. But what better way could there have been for the 2008 Oundle Literature Festival to raise funds for wounded ex-servicemen and their families on Remembrance Sunday than to ask the author to talk about the background to Oundle’s War and the reprint which has just been launched? All profits are again being donated to the Royal British Legion, as they were when the book originally appeared in 1995.

Picture: The front cover photo shows tanks in Oundle Market Place during a wartime recruiting drive.

Of course I was the editor rather than the author of this book, which was subtitled Memories of a Northamptonshire Town 1939-1945. I chose to let others’ voices record the mixture of events – tragic and heroic, bizarre and even amusing – which for them made up the Second World War. Nor was I a professional editor, or even a specialist historian of the period. As I told former Blue Peter presenter Peter Purvis during an interview for BBC Radio Northampton, I’m not one of those people who knows the price of butter in 1943.

That 50th anniversary of the end of the war, when I decided to write a book to raise funds for the Royal British Legion is almost a distant memory for me now, as indeed is Oundle, now that I have retired to the other end of the country in Budleigh Salterton on the East Devon coast.

And yet there was one day earlier in the summer when, sunbathing on Budleigh’s famous pebble beach, I was struck by the sight of about 30 young men jogging along the Marine Parade towards the steeply rising coast path. On a weekday? Why weren’t they at work? Was it a football team in training? Suddenly – perhaps it was the haircuts – I realised that I was watching a group of Royal Marines from their base at Lympstone, on the Exe estuary. They would have been on a 30-mile training run which would eventually, no doubt, lead many of them to Afghanistan. Some would quite possibly never see their families again, or if they survived would be unrecognisable to their loved ones and would require constant care. I suddenly thought of the tragic losses among the young people of whom I’d written in Oundle’s War, and of course of the recent death of former Oundle School pupil Captain David Hicks.

And so, almost 15 years after the original publication, I’m pleased to be supporting once again the Royal British Legion. Thanks are due to Mike Murphy at Oundle School Bookshop for suggesting the idea of a reprint, and for handling the business side of things. It would also be right to acknowledge my debt to the original 1995 team of 20 pupils – ten from Oundle School and ten from Prince William School – who set to work under my guidance with tape-recorders and notebooks to interview veterans for the project.

Picture: Remembrance Sunday 1994 at Oundle War Memorial.

The publication of Oundle’s War was a community-based venture, and would not have succeeded without the collaboration of many people with local links: Brenda Durndell and Melvyn Chapman were vital for the typesetting and pre-press work, as were David Marsden and Simon Dolby in the design field. Old Oundelian Andrew Clay facilitated the printing, while Chris Piper at the Old Oundelian Club helped with marketing the book to former pupils. And finally I was grateful to my wife and family who read through the text so many times before it went to the printer.

With so many international problems now shared and solved in a positive spirit by the great powers, the grim and bloody squabble of World War Two seems even further away. But it’s no surprise that the 1939-45 conflict continues to inspire and to shock. No other event in History has inspired more films, for example: productions such as The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky or The Bridge on the River Kwai which I saw as a child, but also more recent and more costly blockbusters which have moved later generations – Saving Private Ryan, The English Patient, Atonement… The list goes and will go on and on.

Pretty extraordinary and dramatic things happened of course. Even in Oundle.

In 1940, Churchill had announced that Britain was about to be invaded. Home Guards everywhere stood ready. At Oundle, the sixth formers of Grafton House remembered being given rifles and live rounds of ammunition and sent up to the playing fields to await the Nazi paratroopers. And to calm their nerves, the Housemaster gave each boy a cigarette. Everybody was ready to defend the kingdom.

Everybody? Well, not quite. In one village not too far from Oundle, one of the residents whom I interviewed for Oundle’s War remembered only too well Churchill’s terrifying announcement. Ready for the ultimate sacrifice this person raided the family gunroom and went from house to house prepared to distribute shotguns, hunting rifles and handguns to the villagers, imagining that they would be desperate to repel the Nazi paratroopers. The reality came as a shock. Not one English household was willing to take up the offer, frightened as the community was of being caught with weapons by the invaders and of being shot as resistance fighters. There was one exception, but that was a German Jewish refugee family which had settled in the village.

That story was omitted from the book at my interviewee’s insistence. This person loved the village and did not want the media to descend on it in 1995 and label its wartime residents as cowards.

Another story which did appear was much stranger. In 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings, Glapthorn Road resident Vic Thorington remembered being posted to Doncaster racecourse where his task was to bleed horses. Why, I wondered? Mr Thorington had certainly been given no indication by his superiors as to how those thousands of bottles of horse blood would be used.

I suggested to a professor of veterinary medicine at Cambridge that the sight of the full bottles could have been to boost the morale of soldiers prior to D-Day, reassuring them that adequate medical supplies had been provided by the Allies for the invasion. He retorted that this would have been morally outrageous; horse blood is in any case incompatible with human blood. And in retrospect, it might well be argued, the sight of all those blood supplies might have weakened morale.

I never did discover the answer, and decided to leave the puzzle to be solved perhaps by future young Oundle historians.

Another story which was not included in order to protect a family concerned a young British officer whose Oundle widow told me of the nightmares which would trouble him for many years after the war. When the Allies did invade in June 1944, some of the most savage resistance which they encountered was from members of the Hitler Youth. One group had been captured by the officer and his patrol who had locked them up in a wooden shed while awaiting reinforcements. It was obvious from the sounds of rioting that the young but fanatical Germans were about to break out. Some of them would certainly have concealed weapons and they outnumbered their captors. The British officer’s only horrifying solution was to allow his prisoners out one by one and to have his patrol execute them in cold blood. Had the affair come to light he would certainly have been prosecuted as a war criminal.

In a lighter vein, the late Dame Miriam Rothschild told me the story of how she had acted as a chaperone for Clark Gable, stationed at Polebrook Airfield with the USAAF’s 351st Bomb Group as a B17 air-gunner. The Hollywood star, celebrated for his recent performance in Gone with the Wind, had been invited to a party at the local hospital and explained that he needed to be protected from the nurses who were apparently desperate to seize a piece of his underwear.

Picture: Clark Gable with local girls Delma Northen and Mavis Pollard. The latter, on Gable's right, was to become a GI bride.

Some of these more controversial stories were not included in Oundle’s War; I did not set out to write a troublesome work which might have caused embarrassment. The book had its origins in an eight-page supplement published in a 1992 edition of the Oundle Chronicle as a tribute to the USAAF; local newspapers everywhere were marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Americans in Britain. With the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two approaching in 1995, it was clear that the making of a book to involve Oundle pupils would be a wonderful educational opportunity, to provide, in the words of the town’s Royal British Legion former Treasurer Peter Francis “a lasting reminder to all, of what some ordinary people did during those six momentous years.”

That thought, in connection with an earlier war, had perhaps been at the back of my mind for the 25 years following the move that my family and I made in the 1980s to our own house in Oundle, a Victorian property on the corner of Herne Road. For there, etched faintly on the panelling we discovered the name of the decorator, H.B. Hancock, and the date, 1912. It was many months later while passing the war memorial, that I saw with a sudden chill and sadness the name of the poor man who had lost his life in the first year of the Great War.

Picture: Oundle War Memorial drawn by local artist Diana Leigh.

There are plenty of stories in Oundle’s War about ordinary people who found themselves caught up in dramatic situations during World War Two, as well as previously published exploits of well-known wartime heroes, many of them educated at Oundle. The book’s chapter-based structure allowed approaches from a variety of angles. Research for the first chapter, ‘Beginnings’, was a real eye-opener: the visit of a Hitler Youth group to Oundle in the 1930s, arguments for and against appeasement in the School debating society in the face of Hitler’s advances, the intensity with which poems contributed to the school magazine The Laxtonian treated the subject of war, the air-raid shelters built by pupils… such discoveries brought the period to life. They included the extract from former Oundle School Head of Music Robin Miller’s 1935 diary entry, recording how he sat a few tables away from Hitler in a Munich cafĂ©.

Picture: Robin Miller with his pre-war diary.

Research for the book led to the honouring of an Oundle-educated former Chief Scientist of GCHQ by the Master of the Grocers’ Company, when a plaque was unveiled in Laxton Cloisters in 1995 recording the vital pre-war work on radar defences carried out by former pupil Gerald Touch.

‘Oundle at War’, the second chapter, owed a tremendous debt to the O-level History coursework carried out by former Laxton School pupil Patrick Duerden; his research into evacuees, rationing, wartime fund-raising, the Women’s Land Army and the Home Guard was invaluable. Among the many amusing stories in this chapter was the reported arrest by US military police of the School’s Headmaster Dr Kenneth Fisher, who had been foolish enough to go bird-watching with binoculars near Polebrook Airfield; unfortunately he had set out without his identity card. But the section ends poignantly with the sight of ‘Bud’ Fisher in the Chapel and the news of Old Oundelians recently killed in action, as remembered by former pupil Paul Massey: “I remember him blubbing as he read out the names to the whole school. I didn’t understand why he was blubbing – I only 13 at the time.”

The third chapter, ‘Active Service’, is the longest: it combines a chronological history of World War Two with a record of the heroic deeds and the tragic loss of life among both young servicemen from Oundle town, and among some of the 2,480 ex-Oundle School pupils who had enlisted. Incidents such as the deaths of two brothers, Gordon and Michael Potts, killed on the same day in different parts of France, struck me as particularly sad. Other episodes in which Old Oundelians played an important role could be said to have contributed positively to the course of the war and the Allied victory; 392 former pupils were decorated and 372 were mentioned in despatches. It was an honour to meet Norman Jewell, captain of HMS Seraph, the submarine which played such an important part in the wartime counter-intelligence operation immortalised in the book and the film The Man Who Never Was. Yet another of Oundle’s war heroes, Robert Aitken, gave me a detailed and fascinating account of his 1943 journey across the North Sea in the successful X-craft midget submarine operation to disable the Tirpitz, Germany’s most feared battleship at the time. Equally absorbing, but grim in its depiction of the conflict was Geoffrey Bond’s account of the fighting in France following the D-Day landings; I changed nothing in this text from a former Oundle School pupil, better known as the television scriptwriter Christopher Bond whose shows would ironically include successful comedies like To the Manor Born and Keeping Up Appearances.

Picture: Captain Norman Jewell, MBE, DSC, on a visit to Oundle in 1995.

‘Friends and Allies’, the fourth chapter, included an extended version of the tribute to the American servicemen which had appeared in the 1992 Oundle Chronicle. From Polebrook Airfield alone, 405 airmen had lost their lives during World War Two. As Miriam Rothschild told me, “I don’t think we realised how much we owed the Americans. They were incredibly brave, incredibly tough, incredibly dedicated, and I don’t know what would have happened here if we hadn’t had the American air force stationed at Polebrook and the various other places from where they operated. We must always be deeply grateful.” Many were the stories, enthralling and touching, horrific and sometimes amusing, which I was told by Oundle’s wartime residents. A page in the book reproduces the entry made by the 15-year-old schoolgirl Lorna Sloan, recording the “whale of a party” that she had with Clark Gable until 2.30 am on 24 August 1943. “I had Clarky! He is really very nice but by no means good!” she wrote.

Picture: The USAAF memorial at Polebrook Airfield.

Also included in this chapter was the full account given by the ex-USAAF veteran Major Roger Johnson, who returned to the Polebrook area in 1992 to repay a half-century-old debt. His present of 94 new bicycles to local children was the result of his having borrowed a bike one night in order to get back to the airbase in time for an early morning bombing raid. For 48 years he had anguished over the fact that he had not been able to return the bike to its owner.

Eight-year-old Jodie Richardson, a pupil at Polebrook School, thanks Roger Johnson for his gift of a new bike.

The Americans were not Britain's only allies; chapter four also recorded some of the stories told by Oundle’s Polish residents. One of the most remarkable was that of Emil Skiba, the town’s respected clockmaker, whose 1,500-mile flight on foot to escape the Russians led him via the Middle East – where he learnt his clockmaking skills – to Italy where he took part in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.

Picture: Emil Skiba outside his West Street shop.

The penultimate chapter focuses on the servicemen with Oundle links who became prisoners of war. For Old Oundelians like Robert Aitken the School’s “pre-war moderately spartan style” helped to make life as a PoW tolerable. Others were involved in classic escape stories which have been made into books and films. The role played by the School Workshops in the making of Stalag Luft III’s vaulting horse, for example, immortalised in the book The Wooden Horse, is not generally known by Oundle people.

Yet other veterans in Oundle’s War found that their captivity challenged a stereotyped view of the enemy. Among local residents I found Ralph Leigh, whose experiences as a captive in North Africa and Germany could be described as life-changing. A chance meeting with a chivalrous Mussolini prompted his thought, “Who’s been filling us with all these stories about the people we’re supposed to be fighting?” Later, as a prisoner in his camp outside Dresden, the revulsion and anger at the sight of the horrific firestorm which destroyed the city in February 1945, would make him, as he put it, “a complete pacifist.”

Picture: Former prisoner-of-war Ralph Leigh.

In the Far East, feelings for the enemy were less ambiguous: Old Oundelian James Bradley’s account of the savage treatment of Allied prisoners forced to work by the Japanese on the Thailand-Burma railway provided many instances of man’s inhumanity to man. And yet Oundle resident Aubrey Clark, who was lucky enough to be a prisoner on the Japanese mainland, quoted numerous instances of his captors’ fair treatment of Allied servicemen, and even of their kindness.

As for enemy PoWs in Britain, this chapter of Oundle’s War included the story of Charlie Schoenrock, captured in August 1944 as Allied troops pushed into France. Morale was low, and resistance was not an option, he explained. “We were all just walking in a field like lost sheep.” Happily settled in the Oundle area and working for the School he became, in his own words, “a naturalised Englishman” as well as a friendly face for generations of pupils, especially at the Workshops.

Picture: Charlie Schoenrock outside Oundle School's Great Hall

‘The End’, the final chapter, included mention not only of the memorials and celebrations which marked the conclusion of World War Two but also veterans’ reflections on the conflict and the lessons which they believed they had learnt. For if, at the very least, as one reviewer has put it, the book has “ensured that many of the voices of that era will survive for posterity” Oundle’s War will have amply served its purpose.

The reprinted version of Oundle’s War, is available by phoning Oundle School Bookshop on 01832 277192 or by emailing

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Chronicling Oundle

Chronicling Oundle

Tony Blair found it “most enlightening.” Michael Howard was impressed by its range and pleased that it benefits charity, and Times columnist Libby Purves was delighted that it originated as a joint project between the State and the independent sectors of education. And I found it to be a thoroughly absorbing and challenging project during my fifteen years of advising and helping Oundle Chronicle teams. Educational for me as well as for everyone else involved. The failures were as valuable as the successes.

The Oundle Chronicle, which is designed and produced by a team of pupils working as part of Oundle School’s Community Action programme, celebrated its fifteenth birthday in 2006. With items of general news and arts reviews, with features on subjects ranging from house prices to holiday cottages, from dining out to diabetes research, from council elections to conker championships… there is something of interest to every reader with a connection to Oundle.

From the start, under the joint editorship of Jonathan Lane and Natalie Woodcock, sixth formers at Oundle School and Prince William School, the Chronicle was intended as a service to the local community. It has provided news and features over a wide range of subjects, in the form of a tabloid newspaper ranging between twenty and forty pages, and with a print-run of 2,000 copies. In addition it has been run as a business, to provide pupils with an insight into the publishing world, and has clearly been of educational benefit.

A number of former Chroniclers now work as professional journalists and many more work in media-associated careers such as advertising and public relations. Local retail outlets in the town are more than happy to sell the Chronicle, which donates its profits to charity. The original aim was for the newspaper to appear four times a year on a seasonal basis, but this has frequently proved to be too much of a challenge, given academic and other commitments. However the Chronicle tradition is now well-established, and few other British towns can boast a similar publication run as an educational venture.

When the Chronicle started in March 1991, photos were black and white and needed to be pasted manually to pre-press sheets; the production team occasionally found themselves working through the night on achingly slow computers to meet printers’ deadlines. Fifteen years later, the newspaper contents, designed by pupils, are emailed to the printers in seconds. The advent of digital technology has enabled the newspaper to improve its production methods, with pupils using their graphic skills to design advertisements for local traders and with an increasing number of pages in colour.

As the newspaper developed, the Chronicle launched its own website, and this has recently been re-designed and re-located at

Photos from the Chronicle archives can be viewed as follows:

Oundle Chronicle People 1991-1996

Oundle Chronicle People 1997-2002

Oundle Chronicle People 2002-2007

Oundle Chronicle @ Ashton Conker Championships, 2006

“Very good to see that The Oundle Chronicle is online and clearly prospering. I have many fond memories of the days (and nights!) spent on the first couple of editions. The experience obviously left an impression on me as I went to write and edit for my university newspaper (The Warwick Boar), and then onto a spell of part-time journalism in Japan. As you've heard. I'm an e-business consultant specialising in web and new media projects (a marriage of sorts of my love of media and technology), but outside work I continue to edit one of the sections of Kansai Time Out magazine in Japan, write a monthly column for them, and publish the odd freelance piece, the latest of which was published in The Press Gazette last year. I also completed a postgraduate diploma in journalism last year, which adds a few more letters after my name!”
(Richard Alderson, former pupil of Oundle School, D 92, The Chronicle’s first page designer, January 2003)

“Clearly a few ‘warts’ as you say, but nevertheless an interesting read!”
(John Allwood, former pupil of Oundle School, Ldr 1970, Executive Director, The Telegraph Group Limited, March 2006)

“I visited the new, improved Oundle Chronicle web page today and would just like to say that I was most impressed. The format looks superb, as does the content of the pages. I think that you have done a great job in orchestrating the transition from the hard copy to the electronic newspaper and would like to take this opportunity to wish you and the rest of the Chronicle team all the best for the future.”
(Ian Anderson, former pupil of Oundle School, L 2001, former Chief Editor, Oundle Chronicle, March 2002)
“Your sixth formers are doing a marvellous job; it’s an excellent training ground for a career in publishing.”
(Debbie Beaton, Editor, Crops Journal, September 1993)

“…the fattest and most newspacked school paper I have ever seen – congrats to the Editor.”
Lindy Beveridge, Author and public relations Consultant, Cambridge, July 2002).

“I, of course, remember David McMurray very well – and my days at Fettes – and found your article most enlightening!”
Tony Blair PC, MP, Prime Minister, November 1997)

“With great joy I held the current issue of the Oundle Chronicle in my hand a couple of days ago and started reminiscing about how exciting it was seeing the paper in the shops when one was writing for it, so thank you very much for sending the issue along. I had completely forgotten about my article never making it into a paper during my stay, and it is interesting to see that it is still not out of date, although it was written half a year ago. The paper I have to say looks great - very professional designand layout, more pages in colour, a new section, so congratulations on keeping to drive the paper forward.”
(Chris Blaum, former pupil of Oundle School, C 2006)

“...I found The Oundle Chronicle extremely interesting. I am sure it provides all concerned with valuable experience of the blood, toil, tears, and sweat which inevitably accompany creative enterprise. Of equal importance is the euphoria of success when hard work is suitably rewarded (or not, as often happens). Excellent training for anyone who aspires to a career as a writer.”
(Christopher Bond, former pupil of Oundle School, B.1937, script editor, television director and producer, writer of shows including To the Manor Born and Keeping up Appearances, November 1994)

“The Chronicle was an excellent journalistic starting point. It made me think seriously for the first time about how a newspaper is put together, not just in terms of writing and copy-editing, but in terms of planning, design and advertising too. Most importantly of all, though, it was great fun.”
(Nick Briggs, former pupil of Oundle School, LS 1998, former Oundle Chronicle Chief Editor, Sub Editor, Smart Investor Singapore, January 2002)

“...a splendid read and it is a credit to all those involved in its production.”
(Professor David Carpanini, University of Wolverhampton, August 1992)

“You have outlined with great clarity and interest the pros and cons of your amazing and important venture. […] From a careers point of view, from the point of view of leadership, of teamwork, of fresh community perspectives, this is an outstanding project for us and a brilliant idea of yours. […] From time to time one comes across something quite outstanding in our schools. This is definitely one of them.”
(Tommy Cookson, Headmaster, Sevenoaks School, August 2000).

“Our congratulations to all concerned for the excellent new site. I feel sure this will become a vital part of the community.”
(Steve Cunningham, Webmaster, St Peter’s Church, Oundle, March 2002).

“Thank you very much for sending me the ‘circus’ issue of the Oundle Chronicle. It is a very impressive publication. It is also nice to see the circus getting a fair deal for once.”
(David Davis, Editor, Big Top, January 2000)

“...the paper has excellent qualities and fills a real need for current local news.” (Barbara Ding, Clerk to Oundle Town Council, January 1992)

“I worked as Sub Editor on The Oundle Chronicle when it had just begun. It really gave me a feeling that I would like to be more involved in the daily running of a business within the media.”
(Miles Eames, former pupil of Oundle School, LS 1993, Operations Manager, BBC Radio One, January 2002)

“...most impressed...I am delighted that we continue to be involved.”
(Stewart Francis, Managing Director, Hereward Radio, July 1991)

“The Oundle Chronicle goes from strength to strength. […] As fairly recent newcomers to Oundle, my wife and I particularly appreciate the wide coverage of people and events in the Town.”
(Commodore K.A. Gadd CBE, August 1999)

“I know from personal experience what a worthwhile project The Oundle Chronicle is because I was one of the pupils involved in the original newspaper. Back in 1991, as a sixth-form pupil at Prince William School in Oundle, I had already decided I wanted to be a journalist when I finished my education. As well as writing articles for the publication, it also gave me my first taste of radio. Together with a pupil from Oundle School we went to Hereward FM studios in Peterborough to record and advert for the newspaper. Eleven years on, I can still remember the jingle. ‘It’s Oundle’s own. It’s Oundle’s first. Oundle’s own and first newspaper. It’s kids serving the community. For local issues, events and personalities. It’s The Oundle Chronicle. And it’s out on Friday!’ And I can still remember my embarrassment in the sixth-form common room when my peers heard my dulcet tones over the airwaves for the very first time. I’m still cringing now…”
(Rachael Gordon, former pupil, Prince William School, 1992, Features Editor, Peterborough Evening Telegraph, April 2002)

“extremely well produced and entertaining to read”
(Sir Max Hastings, Editor, The Daily Telegraph, May 1994)

“Very good... I wish there had been something like it when I was there.”
Anthony Holden, former pupil of Oundle School, Lx 1965, author, royal biographer, March 1993)
“I have been consistently impressed with the quality of journalism and the standards of production of the Oundle Chronicle. It provides a great opportunity for the students to learn the skills of producing a paper and is a reliable source of local news for residents in and around Oundle. Going on-line is a welcome innovation, making it easier for many people to access the Chronicle, and helping the paper to set a new standard in the information age.”
(Phil Hope MP, March 2002)

“I was impressed by the wide range of subjects covered by the Chronicle, and delighted to see that it benefits charity.”
(Michael Howard, QC, MP, Secretary of State for Employment, January 1992)

“I’ve had a look at the website – most impressive. Makes me feel quite nostalgic. I do miss Oundle. It was so nice living in a small community – and the Chronicle helped me to get to know that community even better.”
(Charlotte Hubback, ex-Oundle School pupil, Editorial Co-ordinator, Authentic Media, October 2005)

“An absolutely splendid effort. I think that we have not yet won the battle regarding the Station Road site, but good coverage of the issues here. Congratulations to all concerned on an excellent Election Special.”
(Cllr Glyn Hughes, member of Oundle Town Council, April 2003)

“Just had a quick peep at The Oundle Chronicle, it looks great.”
Sam Hughes, former pupil of Oundle School, W. 1997, radio/television producer, BBC Southern Counties Radio BBC, January 2000)

“Your paper is a most professional document and a great credit to its production team.”
(Stephen Keynes OBE, former Oundle School pupil, Lx 1945, Chairman, Whitechapel Gallery, London, merchant banker and television producer, January 1995)

“I have read it with great enjoyment, and it brought back many happy memories of the villages and happenings round about.”
Denis Lacy-Hulbert, former pupil of Oundle School, B. 1928, April 1997)

“I should like to say how much we all enjoy reading this local publication - keep on with the good work!”
(Nina Lloyd, Chairperson Oundle & District Care Committee, March 1993)

“Many thanks for your recent letter, copy of The Oundle Chronicle and cheque for £100.00. We really appreciate your continued support, and I enjoyed reading the latest edition. […] Please also pass on my compliments to the editor and all the pupils who contributed to putting the latest edition together. I hope they feel all their hard work has been rewarded, and wish them luck with their ventures in 2005.”
(Craig Linton, Fundraising Manager, Sue Ryder Care – Thorpe Hall Hospice, January 2005).

“This is an excellently produced journal which I much enjoyed reading, and you and your young journalists are to be congratulated.”
(Sir John Lowther KCVO CBE JP, HM Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, September 1997)
“I am delighted to see that the paper is thriving, which obviously reflects the enormous effort you have put into it.”
(Sir Cameron Mackintosh, West End impresario, January 1995)

“Thank you so much for the splendid piece in The Oundle Chronicle! And what a great paper it is. There’s so much to read, whether you live and work in Oundle or not.”
(Ann Mallinson, gardens historian and journalist, December 2006)

“What a lovely surprise to get your e mail and furthermore to see that you now have The Oundle Chronicle on-line!!! It looks really good and I am sure is yet another outlet for nurturing those IT skills at Oundle in both a fun and practical way. In publishing, web design seems to be invaluable!! As you may have gathered, I am out here in Munich working for Nature which, although difficult, is now all turning out to have been a great decision. I am selling advertising for the whole family of journals which means I learn all about what is going on in the scientific world, and get to improve my fluency in German. I also get to travel all over Germany, Austria and even into Switzerland which is a great bonus. You will be pleased to hear I even had the chance to practise my French last summer as we all went on a conference to Paris. It is amazing how purely by being in a country a language becomes so much easier and enjoyable. Anyway, thanks again for sending me link to The Oundle Chronicle. You should advertise it in the OO magazine so that old pupils can keep up to date on the latest developments in Oundle.”
(Catriona Morgan, former pupil of Oundle School, K 1995, European Account Manager, Nature Publishing Group, former Chief Editor, Oundle Chronicle, April 2002).

“How wonderful to read a newspaper full of wholesome constructive matter, telling us about good people and their achievements. National press, please copy!
(Monty Moss, President, Moss Bross Group plc, December 1993)

“I was very impressed with The Oundle Chronicle: a well rounded, informative paper obviously fulfilling a local need and displaying confidence and direction. Congratulations to the editorial team.”
(Sally O’Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief, Good Housekeeping, January 1995)

“I'm glad The Chronicle is still prospering - good to see it is now online,too. It was one of my first springboards into journalism and anything thatcan get budding writers to scribble must be a good thing! Any pupilsconsidering a journalism career will quickly find that editors wantexperience, whether it be on a school paper or a work placement. Speaking ofwhich, the stint you arranged for me at Performance Car stood me in verygood stead...”
(Tim Pollard, former pupil of Oundle School Sc 1993, Autocar magazine, April 2002)

“ just shows what can be done when people co-operate together....If only all newspapers in the country were as well produced, well edited and as informative as this one.”
(William Powell, MP for Corby, January 1992)

“I thought it was very impressive and am delighted that it includes the town’s schools. Keep it up.”
(Libby Purves, author and journalist, feature writer, The Times, November 1997)

“The Chronicle was and is a phenomenally useful institution for Oundle’s budding journalists. I got my first film reviews published in its pages, and though of questionable relevance to the readership (Oundle has no cinema) I certainly had a great time writing them. There could hardly be a better way of learning the ropes about every aspect of putting together a newspaper, from commissioning to layout to editorial decisions. And as a town paper run by students it must be just about unique.”
(Tim Robey, former pupil of Oundle School, Ldr 1996, film critic, The Daily Telegraph, former Oundle Chronicle Chief Editor, January 2003)

“I was very impressed with all the hard work which has gone into the creation of the Oundle Chronicle Online. Thank you for inviting me to its launch last Friday. The event went off very well and I greatly enjoyed meeting many of those involved.” (Richard Potter, former pupil of Oundle School, Lx 1954, Oundle resident, March 2002).
“I think the Chronicle’s a brilliant idea... Altogether, it is a lively product, well-rooted in its area and with plenty of talking points. Warm congratulations.”
(Charles Wintour CBE, former Oundle School pupil, Ombudsman, The Sunday Times, author of The Rise and Fall of Fleet Street, editor of The Newspaper Publishers’ Handbook, January 1995).


Thursday, 9 October 2008

Sanderson of Oundle, my hero!


Frederick William Sanderson (1857-1922)

When I invited Richard Dawkins to give the inaugural Oundle Lecture in 2002 it seemed somehow natural for me to suggest that one of Oundle School’s best-known former pupils should take as his subject the school’s most famous headmaster F.W. Sanderson. After all, I’d recently taken on the post of Sanderson Fellow: it was obvious that Oxford University’s Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science would have approved of the great headmaster’s achievement in making Oundle pre-eminent in the teaching of science and technology among British schools in the late 19th and early 20 centuries.

It turned out that Professor Dawkins knew very little of Sanderson’s life. However he set to work by reading as much as he could about the great man, preparing for his lecture on 27 June, a charity event including a dinner which would benefit the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

It was disconcerting shortly before the event to be told by the Bursar that I had made a serious error of judgement in my choice of inaugural speaker for the Oundle Lecture series. Some of the School’s Governors had apparently voiced their concerns, feeling no doubt that the man known as Britain’s best-known atheist might set the wrong kind of tone in a school which had just celebrated the installation of some noted stained glass windows in a chapel famous for its Piper windows.

They needn’t have worried. Professor Dawkins gave a wonderful lecture full of wit and passion. Clearly, Oundle’s greatest headmaster had made an impact. Indeed, he confessed to his audience that aspects of the great man’s life had moved him to tears. True, he used episodes of Sanderson’s life to attack one of his favourite targets, American creationists, but he also spoke about the stifling effects of exams, and the government obsession with measuring a school’s performance by them. 

He spoke in terms of which all Oundle School’s Governors would surely have approved, showing that Sanderson would have been “contemptuous of the pussyfooting, lawyer-driven fastidiousness of Health and Safety, and the accountant-driven league-tables that dominate modern education and actively encourage schools to put their own interests before those of their pupils.” He did however hint that Sanderson would today “have headed a large, mixed comprehensive.”

The professor evidently enjoyed his return visit to Oundle, which included a meeting with Ashton naturalist Dame Miriam Rothschild, whom he escorted during a tour of the newly installed chapel windows.

And the Bursar and Governors were surely pleased to read, ten days later, a two-page newspaper article which Professor Dawkins wrote based on his lecture, even though it appeared in The Guardian rather than in The Daily Telegraph. You can read it online at

The article was used the following year in a chapter of Professor Dawkins’ book 'A Devil's Chaplain'.

Eighteen months before the lecture, I had written about F.W. Sanderson and the setting up of Oundle School’s Sanderson Trust with something of the same enthusiasm and hero-worship that had inspired Richard Dawkins. For me it will always be a great honour to have been associated with that extraordinary person, truly one of Britain’s great headmasters, through my appointment as the school’s third Sanderson Fellow for six years from 2001 to 2007.

The Sanderson Trust was set up in 1992 to commemorate the achievements of Oundle’s greatest innovator Frederick William Sanderson, marking the centenary of his appointment by the Grocers’ Company as Headmaster of the School.


It was to Sanderson, during his time at Oundle from 1892 to 1922, that we owe many of the School’s best-known landmarks: the Workshops (1905), the Great Hall (1908) pictured here, the Science Block (1914), the Yarrow (1918), and the Chapel (1923), not counting the building of the boarding houses of Laxton, Crosby, Grafton and Sidney, and the opening of New House, Laundimer and Bramston.

A 20th century idealist

But more than on buildings, Sanderson’s fame rests on his whole approach to education and in his idealism: to make a school highly efficient, it was necessary to have a wide range of subjects in order for every individual’s imagination to be stimulated so that he might turn to learning to satisfy his craving for a rich and happy life: “We shall see what changes should come over schools. They must be built in a large and spacious manner, the classrooms being replaced by halls or galleries, in which the children can move in the midst of abundance, and do and make and research: not confined to a classroom. We shall see how much wider the range of the masters must be. We must have the crafts well represented, and a wide range of science, with workshops, scientific laboratories and gardens. Also several languages will be taught, and there would be a spacious library, an art room and a museum. The methods will change from learning in classrooms to researching in the galleries; from learning things of the past to searching into the future; competition giving place to co-operative work. And somewhere within the field of work each boy may find his own part, and so contribute to the creative life, and grow by doing it, and be ‘bitten’ with the desire to do, and gain in purpose, in determination, in self-determination, in confidence and outlook.”

Interestingly for today’s students of school league tables, Sanderson was dismissive in his attitude to tests and examinations. “Creative research work does not admit of orders of merit, nor can it be marked. No creative work can be subjected to the devastating attack of the red ink and blue pencil. Much of a boy’s work must be held sacred; it is his contribution to the common purpose. In course of time he will find where he has gone wrong and correct himself.”

Hostile Forces

Such ideas may seem the very stuff of common sense today. But the new Headmaster’s desire for change was far from being shared by his school when he arrived in 1892. “His very appointment was a condemnation of the school and the staff. He was appointed to reorganise, to innovate, and to put fresh life into a school which in most departments had sunk into a state of lethargy. He came to a school bristling with resistance, ready and anxious to see him fail.” And of course the Head was a scientist rather than a classicist, and a layman rather than a clergyman.

More seriously, Sanderson was not exactly a born communicator. “He was never a fluent preacher or speaker. He found words an obdurate medium to the end. He spoke in jerks and fragments, and his digressions were amazing digressions.”

“To us early Oundle Boys of the nineties Sanderson did not do himself full justice,” said a former pupil. “He did not explain himself - perhaps he could not explain himself - and, uninterpreted to the censorious young, many of his acts and pronouncements seemed fantastically wrong-headed.” There were further failings in the new Head in the view of his first pupils. “I know that we talked of him as ‘effeminate’, and credited him with a distaste for exercise and a liking for good living, chiefly because he had never been seen to play games and because he did not appear to be in ‘hard condition.’ It is an undeniable fact, I fear, that to command the full respect of the very young male a master must give some proof of physical prowess - or at least have some athletic legend attached to his name. It was even suggested that the Head was ‘not a public-school man and did not know what was what.’” In short, few headmasters can have been hated as thoroughly as Sanderson was.

A duty to the community

Certainly, neither Sanderson’s appearance nor his pronouncements would have endeared him to those who clung to an elitist view of society. Here he is addressing the Newcastle branch of the Rotary Club. “The system of education in the past has been based on training for leadership, i.e. for a master class, and its method has been a training of the faculties. But the sharply-defined line between the leaders and the led has been broken down. The whole mass of people has been aroused towards intellectual creative effort. The struggle going on in all communities and amongst all races is a struggle to grow and to have more of life.”

Being aware that the children of Oundle parents came largely from a privileged background did not prevent Sanderson from emphasising to his charges their common humanity. “Our real duty to our neighbours is to believe that others are of the same blood with ourselves and have the same feelings and loves and desires and needs and natural elementary rights,” wrote one of his prefects, summarising the Headmaster’s thoughts. “It is a hard duty,” wrote Sanderson himself, “and boys must be immersed in it at school. The outlook, values, and organisation of a school should be based on the fundamental fact of the community service. By habit of mind, and by the activity of the schools, boys should be imbued with this high duty. It means a reorganisation of methods and aims.”

A radical reformer?

“It is entirely misleading to call Sanderson a revolutionary,” claimed one of his biographers in 1923. “It was never his practice to pull down before he was ready to rebuild. All his reforms came gradually, each step tested and verified before venturing on the next. Every advance was carefully thought out, but he never stopped - untiring industry as well as bold imagination. It carried him much ahead of contemporary opinion. Men who did not see his patient experimental labour sometimes regarded him as an unpractical dreamer. Certainly he did indulge in dreams and would at times talk of them, but he also had an uncanny power of bringing them to reality - often only after years of reflection.”

In a world divided between the haves and the have-nots, Sanderson’s words have as much relevance as those of any of the great social reformers of our time. “There is the great pressing need of revolution in the laws and relationships in the social life. We may have visions of a regenerated social state, in which courtesy, justice, mercy, the spirit of the gentle knight, will show themselves in change of thought, of belief; we may have vision of communities guided by principles which we hope and believe rule in our great school. Care for the weak; clothing, feeding, housing, medical care for all; a crime to be poor, to be diseased, to be underfed; these regenerations controlled by the true and public spirit at the cost of the community. Laws for reform and redemption, and not for punishment. Each member of the state cared for, as it is our hope each boy of this school is. Great changes - essential to the well-being of a state, and to each member of it.”

Small wonder that H.G.Wells, the writer and visionary who also dreamed of a perfectly planned world in books such as The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1932) had great admiration for him. “I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy. He was in himself a very delightful mixture of subtlety and simplicity, generosity, adventurousness, imagination and steadfast purpose. I saw my own sons get an education there, better than I had ever dared hope for them in England. And all the educational possibilities that I had hitherto felt to be unattainable dreams or matters of speculation, I found being pushed far towards realisation by this bold, persistent, humorous and most capable man.”

F.W. Sanderson leading pupils on a hike in the Lake District

The best-loved of Oundle’s headmasters

Sanderson’s triumph was that his goodness and determination came to impress not just the progressive and modernist thinkers of his time but the pupils and staff of the school which had at first been so hostile to him. “The legend of his essential greatness soon came to be so well established that trivialities were forgotten and ignored in the radiance that seemed more and more to surround him,” said a former pupil. “He won over the boys steadily. He conquered the new boys who came, and not only the new boys. he won over old boys who had spent their school-days in opposition, so that they came back to talk to him and to learn from him belatedly and with an ever-increasing respect.”

“The roll of English headmasters has many great names, but few Heads have been such beloved Heads as was Sanderson,” concludes the author of the centenary booklet published in honour of Oundle’s greatest headmaster in 1992. This is certainly something of an exaggeration. Sanderson had many faults: he was not a particularly good teacher, remaining often incoherent when trying to express his ideas; his rages remained legendary and he made many enemies in the course of his career. His wife had apparently even contemplated suicide in the difficult early days. Oundle itself as a school remained after his passing marked by many of the defects which characterised such institutions of the period. Yet it cannot be denied, as his most recent biographer Richard Palmer has written, that during Sanderson’s time, “an ailing provincial school became a viable and vibrant laboratory of learning, placed upon the national stage and capable of growth into the future.” 

The clearest proof of his success is the dramatic increase in the size of the school. In the year before Sanderson’s appointment in 1892, the number of pupils had declined to 104. His final year as Headmaster in 1922 saw the school roll standing at 536. Former pupil Cecil Lewis, First World War air ace, writer and founding-director of the BBC, recalled his time at Oundle enthusiastically: “Even as schoolboys, we all had the feeling of participating in quite a new attack on the principles of education. ‘Beans’, as the Head was affectionately called, was a rotund but vigorous man. His mortar-board squarely planted on his big head, his robes flying in the wind, he was everywhere, directing, encouraging, teaching and, it seems to me now, always succeeding by a wide tolerance and humanity. He overawed us, of course, but we did not fear him.”

His pupils clearly respected him as possibly the greatest idealist whom they were likely to meet in their lives. In the words of Arthur Mee, in the guidebook to Northamptonshire written as part of the series 'The King’s England', Sanderson believed that they “should leave school with a strong desire not merely to earn their livelihood but to reconstruct the world and put right its wrongs. He died as he had lived, expounding his faith and proving it to be practical, and his ideals and achievements stand before us. Oundle School is like a torch which he lit to shine down the corridors of time.”

The Sanderson Trustees must surely have believed that Oundle’s debt to Frederick William Sanderson is incalculable, and that his ideas have as much meaning for the 21st century as they did when they were first formulated. It was thanks to Sanderson that Oundle became known as a Science and Engineering School, and in recognition of this fact the Sanderson Trust’s chief purpose, from its inception in 1992, was the appointment of a Fellow, briefed with the task of furthering “in every possible way the opportunities open to Oundelians to understand the importance of industry to the prosperity of the nation.”

However, Sanderson was not merely a believer in the educative value of science and engineering. He also had an ethical ideal, as former Oundle pupil Raymond Flower has written. “He maintained that individual creativeness should go hand in hand with a spirit of cooperation. While wanting boys to concentrate on the things they did best, he believed that they should collaborate together rather than work individually, and thus bring into being this spirit of cooperation. What he disliked most in other schools was the competitive atmosphere. Rather than compete against each other, he felt that boys should be spurred by the feeling that their personal exertions were contributing to the communal effort.”

Oundle today offers an ever-widening range of such non-competitive extra-curricular activities of which Sanderson would have approved. In the most successful of these, boys and girls should, as recent Oundle headmaster Dr Ralph Townsend put it, with “language and number skills, consideration of social and ethical issues, and use of technology, form a coherent approach to and preparation for a good and useful life in service to the community and nation, in short connecting the practical with the aesthetic, the imaginative and the ethical.”

Sadly, for reasons best known to the Bursar, the Sanderson Trust was disbanded after ten years. The concept and the title of the Sanderson Fellow survived, however, and I shall always be grateful to Dr Ralph Townsend for inviting me to take on the post in 2001 after my 26 years of teaching in the Modern Languages Department. Among my tasks, as I saw it, was the work of making Oundle pupils aware of the heritage that they enjoy thanks to F.W. Sanderson’s efforts on their behalf more than a century ago. To keep pace with the range of such activities I was allowed to operate on a broad basis, arranging training, study and work experience for pupils and staff in areas such as high-tech industry, e-commerce and general business, as well as in manufacturing industry. Close liaison with the Oundle Foundation, the Old Oundelian Club, the Careers Service and the local community was also a necessary part of my function in encouraging pupils’ teamwork projects, particularly those which develop entrepreneurial skills in a philanthropic context. It was absorbing and profoundly satisfying work which has left me with warm memories of a very special school.

Further reading:

Sanderson of Oundle (1923)
H.G. Wells, The Story of a great Schoolmaster (1924)
Cecil Lewis, All my Yesterdays (1993)
Richard Dawkins, A Devil's Chaplain (2003)
Richard Palmer, Sanderson of Oundle: a new assessment (2006)