Rossall School Archives & F.W. Harvey

To S.A.K
Snow covers the ground
Save where in a little ring
Cold crocuses are showing
With green grass round
As if their fire glowing
Had melted the snow, and Spring
(When all was bare and bound)
Kept there here dwelling

Even so in the snowy cold
Of Life shine you, my dear,
A sunny place, a flaming
Small ring of crocus-gold
And taming –
Yet with no fiercer thing
Than innocence, the sheer
Savageness of Winter to crocus-crowned Spring

F.W. Harvey

Rossall School has produced many poetic souls of which F.W. Harvey is perhaps one of the finest. He was born in Gloucestershire and educated at the King’s School in Gloucester before attending Rossall School from 1902 until 1905. Frustratingly little is known of his life here at School, but he did win the School Singing Prize shortly before leaving. Quite the sportsman, he gained places in both the football and hockey First XIs and earned a formidable reputation for reciting lengthy chunks of poetry. Upon leaving School, Harvey started a legal career and converted to Roman Catholicism. Curiously, a good number of Rossallians converted to Catholicism in early adulthood. In particular, one thinks of Thomas Byles, who ministered to third class passengers upon the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic.

The above poem was written by F.W. (Will) Harvey to his beloved wife, not long after returning from several years of captivity in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Perhaps it is a rather unremarkable poem but there is a devotional tenderness contained therein which is touching. F.W. Harvey first met Anne Kane, back in 1913 and, in 1921, they finally married.

Anne had been born in County Sligo, where her father was a farmer. When she was just two years old, her father decided to go for a swim to cool off after spending a hot day in the sunshine harvesting golden sheaves of wheat. Tragically, he disappeared into the cold Atlantic waves and was never to be seen again. Anne’s widowed mother sold some land in order to pay for her to attend a French Convent School. After this, she returned to Ireland before travelling to England where she trained to become a nurse.

Throughout his life, Harvey was, by inclination, a poet and writer. His main subject was the county of Gloucestershire. Indeed, he gained the affectionate appellation, ‘The Bard of Gloucestershire’. Friends with such well known figures as Herbert Brewer and Ivor Gurney, Harvey was part of Gloucester’s thriving music scene. Revelling in the idyllic countryside of this most beautiful of counties, Harvey and his companions immersed themselves in an achingly bucolic world that seemed far removed from the march of modernity. During this period, many of Britain’s finest poets and musicians (such as Holst and Vaughan Williams) seemed to seek comfort and inspiration from the English pastoral. In a world that was about to be blown apart by the onset of World War One, there appeared to be a collective desire to preserve a rural way of life that was fast disappearing.

Harvey was not just a literary figure for he was also interested in distributism and when he eventually died in the 1950s, he did so as a man who had divested himself of any real interest in the material world. He was considered ‘recklessly generous’ and I think there are few more beautiful tributes to a person than that.

Despite being at odds with the modern world, it was the maelstrom of war which served to forge his reputation as an outstanding poet. Like Sassoon and Owen, it was during this period that he produced his finest poetry. He was wounded repeatedly and honoured on account of his gallantry. He survived the Somme but was captured in August 1916 whilst reconnoitring behind enemy lines. He was to spend more than two years in prisoner of war camps where faith and comradeship served to save him from despair. His most famous poem ‘Ducks’ was written in response to a picture that a fellow prisoner had placed above his bed with the intent of cheering him up. Conceived in his deepest gloom, the poem is an outstanding expression of joy and humour.

Harvey’s war poetry burns with a yearning for Gloucestershire and often reflects his unflinching faith, and horror at the human cost of war. The new world order of which he had dreamed during his earlier days never materialised and Harvey was to spend the rest of his days writing poetry and working as a defence solicitor. He became known as the ‘poor man’s solicitor and was usually impecunious. In the late 1920s, Harvey became a respected broadcaster on BBC Radio Bristol. All but forgotten now, he is still revered with great delight in the Forest of Dean.

There is so much to admire in Harvey’s life and it is difficult not to be inspired by his courage, honesty and constant devotion to his home county. He belonged to a generation that was forever damaged by the ravages of war. He lost so many friends and those who did survive (such as Ivor Gurney) would forever struggle to make sense of the post-war years.

During much of the last two years, the Archives at Rossall School have been largely deserted. The hand of history rested heavily upon our shoulders during the pandemic and whilst the Chapel seemed to epitomise the soul of the School community, the archives received much less of our attention. Ever so occasionally, I would make a lonely visit to that cluttered and musty room of photographs, old house journals and faded blazers. As the world around appeared unfathomable, this was a place which felt safe. On one particular visit, I promised myself that, once the worst of the pandemic had passed, we would work very hard to preserve the School’s wonderful history for future generations; not least so that in times of hardship, they too might seek comfort and inspiration from those who have passed through this community in former years.

Consequently, I am thrilled to announce that Rossall’s own Richard McDowell has been appointed Rossall School Archivist. As well as overseeing a student led archival activity on Thursday afternoons, he will head up the redevelopment of our Archives and Visitors’ Centre. Ensuring that our archives become a living, breathing, part of our collective identity as a School community is an enormous undertaking, but in Richard we have secured the services of a brilliant intellect who possesses a schoolmasterly devotion to preserving and promoting the history of our beloved school.

F.W. Harvey’s poetry did touch my heart during lockdown. I cannot quite explain why but the simplicity of his verse reached out to me during the most difficult of times. Over a hundred years since Harvey left Rossall, it is remarkable that I should still have felt his influence so keenly. As a historian , I believe that one of our most important duties is to rediscover the humanity of those who have gone before. In doing so, we discover something worth knowing about ourselves.