Shortly after the new Headmaster, Mr Knight, took over at the beginning of the twentieth century, a team of inspectors descended upon the school. In their report, they declared that they were satisfied with the academic instruction, and with the organisation of the boys’ athletic activity. But they were less happy about the cultural dimension of the school’s life.
Mr Knight, somewhat stung, responded. True, in the following years, he built new laboratories and a cricket pavilion, and he set up a Rifle Club. But he also established a Reading and Debating Society.
This appeared in 1903, 113 years ago. It was strictly formal with “Mr” This and “Mr” That; there were proper motions to be debated; main speakers, speakers from the floor, voting, and so on. Minutes were kept. We still have these minutes, right up to 1926.
What did they talk about? All sorts of things; hunting, professionalism in sport, the Yellow Peril; votes for women. Topics which filled the papers at the time. But there were some surprisingly modern debates too. Among them were the reform of the House of Lords and a Channel Tunnel – in 1907!
Then, mysteriously, the Reading and Debating Society was abolished. And we don’t know why. However, almost immediately, there in its place the Phoenix Society, clearly rising from the ashes of its predecessor. We have all the minutes for that too, with one exception: one volume was destroyed in the school fire of 1930.
The Phoenix still survives and thrives. It provides, for many pupils, their first experience in standing up to address a group of people, in developing an argument, in replying to criticism, and in thinking on one’s feet.Berwick Coates
About the author...
Berwick Coates was educated at Kingston Grammar School, and read History at Cambridge. Since then, he has been at various times an Army officer, writer, artist, lecturer, careers adviser, games coach, and teacher of History, English, Latin, and Swahili. He has published nine books, ranging from A-Level History and popular history to memoirs, humour, cartoons, and light verse.
He has taught every age and every ability from primary remedial to Oxbridge entrance. He has lectured to audiences of all ages and backgrounds, on subjects ranging from Alexander the Great and Hannibal, through medieval and early modern history, to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
His latest book is a collection of fifty views of Christmas (illustrated by himself), entitled 'The Perfect Christmas Present'. He has also written four historical novels and one modern one. He is at present finishing a book of teaching memoirs.
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