Rossall will be what you make it!

The infant Herbert Armitage James (1844-1933) with his mother

Winston Churchill is reputed to have quipped, ‘History will be kind to me for I intend to write it’. The provenance of this quote is uncertain but the sentiment is certainly relatable. The histories of hallowed institutions can be ineffably dull to those not intimately acquainted with the places themselves. There are a staggering number of turgid works devoted to the history of British private schools. Occasionally these works have been written by wizened erstwhile members of the common room who have a number of personal scores to settle and that can, of itself, be hugely entertaining. Inevitably, there is a tendency to look towards the past with rose-tinted spectacles. Those leading schools have their gaze resolutely fixed upon the future whereas members of the wider school community will often seek comfort in reliving the past. The creative tension that must exist between traditional and progressive forces is both essential and healthy.

It is the case that School histories tend to emulate the rhythm of the School year and demonstrate an obsessive interest in numbers. The pupil roll is poured over in great detail and the construction of new buildings or the visit of a minor royal is considered a matter of enormous interest. Very few volumes focus enough attention upon the lifeblood of a school; the fascinating pupils and members of staff who pass through. It has always amused me that school histories tend to have incredibly bland or unpromising titles. Take, for instance, the following examples:

The Best of Days? Memories of Brentwood School 

A Very Desolate Position: The Story of the Birth and Establishment of a Mid-Victorian Public School (Rossall) 

‘Rossall will be what you make it’

The title of the last book is drawn from a sermon preached by Herbert Armitage James in Rossall Chapel on 22nd August, 1875. Herbert Armitage James was without doubt one of Rossall’s finest headmasters. Shortly after leaving Rossall, he published a collection of sermons entitled ‘School Ideas’. The modest title does not do justice to the treasure trove of intellectual brilliance and wisdom contained therein. The impressive rhetoric and structural clarity of his sermons would count for little were it not for the humanity and compassion that his words exude. The fact that his sermons are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago is testimony to the fact that the most important lessons in life are eternal.

Herbert Armitage James in his prime. 
Possessor of an extremely fine intellect and Rossall’s finest beard. 

So who was Herbert Armitage James? Feted by the likes of Austen Chamberlain for the extraordinary power of his intellect, James was the son of a Welsh clergyman. He received his early education at King Henry VIII Grammar School in Abergavenny, a school established during the Reformation on the site of a dissolved monastery. Consequently, his early years were spent in a small market town. James won a scholarship to Lincoln College, Oxford in 1864. He was elected President of the Oxford Union, graduated with a first class degree and became a fellow of St. John’s College in 1869. He was friends with the future Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and he mixed in elevated circles. After graduating, he trained for ordination and was awarded a doctorate without even being required to satisfy the usual requirements set out by the university. 

He was, without doubt, one of the great educationalists of his generation. After a short stint as an assistant master at Marlborough College, he was appointed Headmaster of Rossall at the age of just thirty. He remained at Rossall for ten years and grew to be much loved by colleagues and pupils alike. One of his students was the brilliant classical scholar Henry Stuart-Jones whose edition of Thucydides ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’ was revered throughout much of the twentieth century. It was not all plain sailing, for at the end of his first year, it is reported that the boys gathered outside Chapel to hiss and boo at James as he took his leave of them. The first year of a new headship can be rather tricky. However, there is no doubt that the School improved immeasurably during his headship. Not only did the physical structure of the School take shape, but so did the house system. Academic standards improved to the point that, in 1886, the Manchester Guardian reported that Rossall ‘was in a league of its own’. He set up the house singing competition and enjoyed contributing to the bass line in the Chapel Choir. New buildings such as the hospital, gym and bakery were commissioned. Anchor House, Rose House and Spread Eagle all date from this period; so too does Sunnyside, which was the first house to be built for a married master.  

The headship at Rossall exhausted James and he resigned in 1885 due to health reasons. After a short period of recuperation, he became Dean of St Asaph. In 1889, he was appointed Principal of Cheltenham College where he was instrumental in the building of a spectacular new chapel to mark the School’s centenary. From Cheltenham, he progressed to Rugby School where he was considered every bit the equal of the great reforming headmaster, Thomas Arnold. 

At the age of sixty five James stood down from the headship of Rugby and returned to Oxford where he was appointed President of St John’s College. His later years were filled with honours – none greater than the banquet held to celebrate his elevation to the position of Companion of Honour by King George V in the Birthday Honours of 1926. He was an acclaimed preacher and was appointed to the role of Select Preacher for Oxford University on no less than three occasions. For forty years, James was a personal chaplain to Edward Alfred George (1848-1937), the first archbishop of Wales. His interest in philately led to him amassing a valuable collection of stamps that was considered one of the finest in England. A fine cricketer, he is attributed with teaching the amateur England cricketer, A G Steel how to bowl a ‘twister’ – a skill that Steel used against Australia on many an occasion. James was equally devoted to golf.

St John’s College, Oxford

James never married and upon his death, his estate was dispersed between the Church of Wales, his old school in Abergavenny and the various educational institutions that he had served throughout his life. We still have in School the gold watch that was presented to James upon his departure from Rossall in 1886. James’ reputation is unimpeachable and he is remembered with great respect and affection.

Rossall was very fortunate to secure his appointment and his contribution to our community is worthy of celebration. James was an exceptional man and the power of his influence reverberates through the years. Other Heads have achieved great things but none have come close to emulating the charisma and brilliance of James.

The title of Derek Winterbottom’s history of Rossall School declares that ‘The Tide Flows On’. Of course, this is true and one should not give too much thought to personal legacy. The health of an institution is rarely dependent upon the contribution of an individual and most of us are expendable. As one jaundiced member of Common Room in another school said to me with a wry grin, ‘Headmasters – they come and go. I have seen off a good few in my time. However, just occasionally, a figure like Herbert Armitage James explodes onto the scene and leaves a legacy that defines a school long after they have departed.

The Times, Thursday February 4th, 1932

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School