A US President and Rossall School

The appointment of Richard McDowell to the position of School Archivist reflects our determination to preserve the School’s heritage for future generations.  It is the case that the School is blessed with a fascinating collection of artefacts donated by Old Rossallians  One thinks of Alice Meredith Williams’ sculpture of St George that stands in the Lady Chapel. A particular favourite of mine are the exquisitely carved Mouseman chairs that were crafted in the Yorkshire workshop of Robert Thompson (1876-1955).   

Fine tapestries and stunning works of art adorn the School. We possess the autograph score of Richard Strauss’ Opera ‘Elektra’ and a beautifully executed portrait of the composer, which was completed in 1927. We have in our possession a bench made partly out of rhinoceros horn and donated to the School in the aftermath of the Boer War. The monetary value of these objects might not amount to a great deal but, collectively, they are part of the School’s heritage and should be preserved. These objects speak of the School’s connection with the world beyond the Fylde. 

There is an old storeroom near the Performing Arts Centre that contains a bewildering array of boxes.  Alongside the School Foundation’s secret stash of red wine,  there are boxes overflowing with old photographs, plans of buildings and much more besides. Rather randomly, there are about fifty cut throat razors that were presumably once for sale in the School Shop. Yesterday evening, I went into the storeroom to look for some shelves that were missing from a bookcase that belongs in the newly refurbished Foundation Room (soon to become known as the Richardson Room).

Clambering around,  I stumbled across a scruffy old book with no cover. To my amazement, this  book or album contained a couple of hundred letters from famous individuals. It soon became apparent that this collection was  compiled by Herbert Armitage James who was Headmaster from 1875-1886. James went on to be Headmaster of Rugby School before becoming President of St John’s College, Oxford. He lived on until 1931 and one would presume that this cache of letters was donated to the School upon his death. He was evidently an avid collector because he left a substantial amount of money to the Royal Philatelic Society. Rather charmingly, he also left an engraved Golden watch for the use of future headmasters of Rossall. 

The album is a wonderful treasure trove of letters from eminent figures from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are handwritten letters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and J.M. Barrie. There is a letter from William Grenville, who succeeded William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister during the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. There is a handwritten note from the composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley and missives from poets, philosophers and churchmen. 

The historian in me is always thrilled by such discoveries but nothing could have prepared me for the excitement of discovering a letter written by future US President, Herbert Hoover.  The text of the letter states:

As it is impossible for people in Belgium to communicate with the outside world, it is not feasible for these young men to make a personal application to their College Principals without coming out of Belgium and interrupting their duties, I am therefore anxious to learn if the college will not grant a sort of blanket leave of absence to these young gentlemen, if they are willing to remain with us, without necessity for individual application.

I shall be going into Belgium within another ten days and if I could have your approval to the continuance of these young gentlemen in our service I would then secure immediate information as to whether they decide to continue in our service or not.

Yours faithfully,

H C Hoover 

Herbert Hoover was President of America from 1929-1933. The Wall Street Crash and ensuing Great Depression dominated his presidency and his policies were, frankly,  spectacularly ineffective. Indeed, his 1932 reelection campaign was utterly disastrous. He only won 39% of the popular vote and, in terms of electoral colleges, he lost 472-59. Hoover never escaped the Democrats’ damning charge that he was indifferent to the suffering of millions.  When he left office, he was uniquely unpopular….well perhaps until Trump of course! 

However, things were not always this way and, during the First World War, Hoover had headed up the Commission for Relief in Belgium. This was an international organization that arranged for the supply of food to German-occupied Belgium and northern France during the First World War.  It was massively successful and, without its work, millions of people may well have starved. During the war, the C.R.B. bought and shipped 11.4 billion pounds of food to 9.5 million civilian victims of the war.

The organisation. obtained foodstuffs from abroad and shipped them into Belgium. It was entirely dependent upon charitable donations and the C.R.B. had to contend with pressure from both the German occupying forces and the allies, who were intent upon blockading the Lowland ports. Various of the C.R.B.’s ships were sunk by German submarines. The mission was treacherous and Hoover and his team were dependent upon volunteers living with Belgium itself to distribute food. 

Hoover was a great administrator and during the War he used his logistic genius to organise the greatest relief effort that the world had ever witnessed. The letter that Rossall owns comes from this highly successful period in Hoover’s life. It is an example of Hoover the dealmaker ducking and diving in order to secure the service of young men to operate on behalf of the C.R.B. It acknowledges the privitations of those living under occupation and provides a compelling example of Hoover’s commendable  humanitarian impulses. 

Hoover was often derided as a failure and with good reason. He was perceived as a cold and aloof figure who did next to nothing to address racial segregation. However, during his early life, he had been a man of great vitality. His successful career as a gold mining magnate in Western Australia and his leadership of the C.R.B. during the First World War reflected his energy and organisational zeal. It is the case that he saved a nation from starvation but yet the disasters of his subsequent presidency consigned him to be remembered as a total failure. 

I like to think that the letter that we possess reflects the best side of Hoover’s complex nature and perhaps serves as a reminder that we are all capable of great deeds and colossal failure. That one man could get things so right and so spectacularly wrong is reflective of the human condition. The fact that compassion, courage and kindness can sit alongside moral indifference and failure should not alarm us. It should provide hope to all those who have faltered in life. We are all capable of great goodness and there is not necessarily anything intrinsically saintly about those who perform such noble acts. 

Oskar Schindler is a great hero of mine but yet he was also a black marketeer, alcoholic and womaniser. The fact that within the moral turpitude of his chaotic life, he committed acts of great courage is utterly inspiring and, arguably, redemptive. Dissonance and contradiction characterises many a great life and yet we live in an age that is iconoclastic. The desire to topple statues and expunge the memory of those who were once revered is both reactionary and reductive. We should not be blinded to the mistakes of those who have gone before but we should understand the importance of critically evaluating lives that are so often challenging and contradictory. 

Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School