Eeyore – A Rossall Legend?  

It is common knowledge that the superhero Dan Dare was a pupil at Rossall School. However, few Rossallians appear to be aware that the real-life inspiration for Eeyore was a teacher at Rossall. These days, our  Common Room is a very cheerful place and our teachers are endlessly positive so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the inspiration for this depressed, gloomy, pessimistic and dour old donkey was once prone to slumping in an armchair in our Common Room whilst moaning about pupils, colleagues and the colossal inconvenience of being alive. 

So who was the inspiration for Eeyore and how did he find his way to Rossall?  Sir Owen Seaman (1861-1936) was born in Shrewsbury and distinguished himself academically as a scholar at both Shrewsbury School and Clare College. His dazzling intellect led to a distinguished teaching career which took in both Rossall and Magdalen College School, Oxford. Seaman taught at Rossall between 1884-87 but it is clear that he retained close contact with the School thereafter. When C. H. Lloyd composed ‘Rossall – An Ode’ in celebration of the school’s fiftieth anniversary; it was Seaman’s verse that he chose to set to music. The Ode was published by Novello and could be purchased for the princely sum of two shillings. 

Seaman went on to teach English literature at Durham College of Science in Newcastle (1890-93) before changing careers and taking up law. In 1897, he became a barrister at the Inner Temple. During this period he started submitting material to the satirical magazine ‘Punch’. He won many plaudits for his light-hearted verse which poked fun at notable figures of the day. One such example is his poem ‘Rhyme of the Kipperling’ which emulates the style of Rudyard Kipling to such an extent that it amounts to little more than an excruciating blast of huffing and puffing. Seaman was a prolific publisher of parodies. ‘Horace at Cambridge’, a collection of such parodies, appeared in the same year as he wrote the words for ‘ Rossall – an Ode’. Seaman was appointed assistant editor of Punch in 1902 and then became the full editor in 1906. Remarkably, he remained editor of Punch until 1932  – thus presiding over the magazine during a period of immense social and cultural change.

One of his assistants at the magazine was none other than A.A. Milne.  Like Seaman, Milne’s association with the magazine grew from the fact that he had started contributing material on a freelance basis.  Milne considered Seaman to have a dour disposition with a depressingly jaundiced view of the world. Various literary theorists have contended that Seaman was Milne’s inspiration for Eeyore and there is no denying the fact that he describes their characters in strikingly similar language. 

Owen Seaman – National Portrait Gallery

The irony is that Seaman became what he had spent much of his life sniggering at and railing against. The outbreak of World War One inspired him to start writing copious amounts of verse designed to rally the troops. In an article in the ‘New Statesman’, Frank Cottrell-Boyce writes of Seaman, 

Before the war, and long before he was writing stories about his son Christopher Robin and his bear Pooh, Milne (1882-1956) had enjoyed a star turn at Punch under the editorship of Owen Seaman. Seaman was a gloomy character who was partly the model for Eeyore, Winnie-the-Pooh’s miserable donkey. He was also an enthusiastic publisher and perpetrator of the kind of patriotic doggerel that cheered those ten million up the line to death. Milne was painfully aware of the part that culture played in soliciting sacrifice. “Wars are fought for economic reasons,” he wrote, “but they are fought by volunteers for sentimental reasons.” Seaman whipped up a lot of sentiment.

A particularly depressing example of Seaman’s dreary verse was his menacingly entitled poem,   ‘To the Shirker – A Last Appeal’. Seaman was too old to fight himself during the First World War. Instead, he was one of many older men who enthusiastically called for young men to sacrifice themselves for King and country. 

By contrast, A.A. Milne was wounded leading an attack at Mametz during the first Battle of the Somme. He was patriotic but utterly horrified by the reality of war.  In 1934, he published a monograph entitled  ‘Peace with Honour’. He described this book as his greatest achievement. 

An example of Seaman’s war verse is ‘Pro Patria’. Consider the contrast between this poem and Wilfred Owen’s poem that bears the same title. Seaman is entirely sincere in his reference to  Horace’s line ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ whereas Wilfred Owen evokes it with irony and fury.  Seaman had become what his younger self had identified and mocked in others – a pompous windbag.

Pro PatriaEngland, in this great fight to which you go
Because, where Honour calls you, go you must,
Be glad, whatever comes, at least to know
You have your quarrel just.

Peace was your care; before the nations’ bar
Her cause you pleaded and her ends you sought;
But not for her sake, being what you are,
Could you be bribed and bought.

Others may spurn the pledge of land to land,
May with the brute sword stain a gallant past;
But by the seal to which you set your hand,
Thank God, you still stand fast!

Forth, then, to front that peril of the deep
With smiling lips and in your eyes the light,
Steadfast and confident, of those who keep
Their storied scutcheon bright.

And we, whose burden is to watch and wait–
High-hearted ever, strong in faith and prayer,
We ask what offering we may consecrate,
What humble service share.

To steel our souls against the lust of ease;
To find our welfare in the common good;
To hold together, merging all degrees
In one wide brotherhood;–

To teach that he who saves himself is lost;
To bear in silence though our hearts may bleed;
To spend ourselves, and never count the cost,
For others’ greater need;–

To go our quiet ways, subdued and sane;
To hush all vulgar clamour of the street;
With level calm to face alike the strain
Of triumph or defeat;–

This be our part, for so we serve you best,
So best confirm their prowess and their pride,
Your warrior sons, to whom in this high test
Our fortunes we confide

That Seaman was immortalised in the grumpy character of Eeyore seems a fitting memorial. Should we be proud of the association between Rossall and Seaman? Not especially, but it is a fascinating connection and demonstrates, once again, how intimately Rossall was connected to the literary world of the early twentieth century. Also, the presence of figures like Owen Seaman helps us to understand why so many Rossallians appear to have enthusiastically embraced the values of muscular Christianity and bigoted imperialism.

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School