The unknown centenary
This article is adapted from an assembly I gave on Monday, 14th May, 2012. You will see why the date is significant if you read on.
I consider that part of my job is to promote the image of the School Archive, To make people aware that we have an Archive, to tell them about what we have in it, to tell them things about the school`s history, to connect people with West Buckland`s past, and so on. It helps to feed that very human desire that most of us have – to know where we come from.
In order that these assemblies should offer a little more than thinly-disguised history lessons, I I am always on the lookout for a fact, a story, an anecdote, an ‘angle’ which might catch the interest. A useful starting point is often random useless information. Luckily, an Archivist never knows when he is going to come across such a titbit, which, with a little massaging, he can turn into a way of filling a few minutes on a weekday morning in the Memorial Hall.
This piece is a typical example of just such a scrap.
There is something special about the number 100, have you noticed? Nobody claps when a batsman reaches 99, but they don`t half clap when he reaches 100, and it`s only 1 per cent more. Your family don`t make a fuss when you reach your 99th birthday (well, they didn`t for me), but they really push the boat out when you make it to 100. Even the Queen sends you a telegram. So I`m looking forward.
Why a hundred? Is it the third digit? I shouldn`t think so. Nobody does much for the figure 101, or any of the others. Is it the two noughts? Maybe. If anybody reached his thousandth birthday, the celebrations would be world-shaking, wouldn`t they? I`m looking forward to that too.
What is this figure 100 to do with us today? Well, I`ll tell you. West Buckland is 100 years old this year, in fact this month. In ten days` time – 24th May.
Rubbish, you say; you`re right out of touch – been up in the Archive too long. West Buckland had its 150th anniversary four years ago. Well, yes – but only in a way. Because I`ve got news for you. A hundred and one years ago, West Buckland School did not exist.
Oh, there was a school here all right, but it wasn`t called West Buckland. It was called the Devon County School. It was the brain child of Revd. Joseph Lloyd Brereton. He conceived the idea of setting up a system of secondary schools for the whole country. Why? Because there weren`t any. Believe it or not, 160 years ago, secondary education in England, as a system, did not exist. Oh, yes, there were the posh, expensive public schools, like Eton and Harrow and Winchester. And some old town grammar schools. But no national system. There were millions of boys and girls whose education simply stopped at eleven – if indeed it had even started.
Brereton wanted to set up a secondary school in every county for what he called the ‘middle class’ – with moderate fees and modern subjects like Science and practical Maths. No endless Latin and Greek and Bible-bashing. The first one was here – that`s why he called it the Devon County School. As the years went by, he had a hand in setting up county schools in Somerset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Bedfordshire, Surrey, Suffolk, Norfolk, Durham, and so on. But we were the first. Many of these schools failed, but the DCS – the Devon County School – survived.
It became something of a celebrity. It was a pioneer. Journalists wrote articles about it. Celebrities came and had a look – cabinet ministers, peers of the realm, famous writers, a couple of archbishops of Canterbury. Headmasters of other schools came to pick up a few ideas. The DCS came top of the league for public exam results in the whole country – three times running.
But it had a weak spot – its finance. It ran as a limited company, with shareholders, directors, and all. When times were bad – as all times are now and again – the share value fell, and the dividends could not be paid. The school came close to being shut down – twice. At the end of the 19th century, we were down to 31 pupils, in a school built to take 180.
There was another crisis in 1907, and we came within a whisker of closing yet again. This clearly could not go on. Directors, benefactors, wealthy old boys, members of the county authority, and local celebrities put their heads together. They agreed that there was no future in trying to make the creaky old Devon County School Company keep struggling. They went right back to square one.
They decided that the company would go into voluntary liquidation – if you like that it would commit suicide. This took time, because they had to persuade all the shareholders to give up their shares and so lose most of their money. When they had enough agreement, they set up a new school, with a board of governors. But no more shares and no more dividends. The school`s income was to be raised entirely by fees. All the money was to be spent on the school. The local education committee agreed to pay an annual grant as well, provided that the school gave some places to bright scholarship boys from local primary schools. (No girls – yet.) That was the deal.
A new headmaster was appointed who was going to make the deal work. Luckily, he did. And on Friday, 24th May, 1912, the ultimate, last, really, absolutely final meeting of the Devon County School Company took place in Bridge Buildings, Barnstaple. The very last papers were signed, and West Buckland School was born. A hundred years ago. So – for the birthday you didn`t know you had – many happy returns.
Berwick Coates, 15th January, 2021