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)

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