If you happen to find yourself in the Karslake Hall, you cannot fail to notice the name M.R Roberts on many an Honours Board.
Here WBS Archivist, Berwick Coates shares his thoughts on a remarkable man....
West Buckland is typical of many schools like it, in that so many things just ‘come up’, like the sun. Weekly assemblies, school lunches, fire alarms. They are inevitable and unavoidable. You just accepted them, probably without thinking very much about them, except possibly to moan about them now and then. They are part of the punctuation of the day. Lessons, games, exams, cross-country runs. You shrugged and accepted.
Other things ‘came up’ too – prizes, awards, medals, clubs, coaching, advice, interest, encouragement, somebody being there. You accepted all that too. You may say, ‘Well, why not? Our parents paid good money for it.’ Well, yes, that`s true, they did – but it is only half a truth. I put it to you that a lot of what ‘comes up’ does not figure in a School end-of-term bill or a balance sheet. What am I saying? I`m saying that a lot of people do a lot for the School with no expectation of payment, or even of recognition. And often the most unlikely people.
Take Michael Roberts. He came to the school as a little lad of eleven from Ilfracombe. Just like a lot of other little lads. A bit weedy possibly, maybe a bit worried, nothing special. The school would have been about a hundred strong when he arrived. If you had seen him then, you would have marked him down as a typical ‘new kid’.
If you had seen him fifty years later, in brigadier uniform – pips and crowns, red tabs, medal ribbons, peaked cap, white moustache, and the rest, you would have pegged him as a typical elderly Army officer of a bygone age – the archetypal ‘old buffer’. And we don`t take old buffers seriously, do we?
‘New kid’ and ‘old buffer’. It is so easy to think in cliches. Let`s dig a bit deeper.
Michael Rookherst Roberts was born in 1894, and came here in 1905, as I said, from Ilfracombe. Stayed till 1912. This is what he did in between.
He was a holder of a Shepard Law Scholarship, he passed the then equivalent of the 16+ and 18+ exams, and the Entrance Exam for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. He played cricket and football for the School, won his colours at both, and in 1912 was top of both batting and bowling averages. He won the Donegal Badge for Shooting, he was Athletics Champion, and, just for good measure, he won a couple of Exmoors, the second one in record time. He was President of the Debating Society, Head of School, and, of course, a holder of the Fortescue Medal. He appears to have been pretty popular too, because Old Boys years later were referring fondly to ‘Mickey’ Roberts, and you don`t usually get names like that if you are not liked.
You will see his name in the Karslake, on three of those boards up on the wall.
He went into the Army, naturally, just in time for the First World War, in which, among other things, he was gassed on the Western Front and won the MC. After the War, he stayed in the Army, and ended as a brigadier in the Gurkhas. He served throughout the Second World War, and won the DSO. He began a second career as a writer, and was the author of four volumes of the official history of the War against Japan. In 1960, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He was also Chairman of the Gurkha Brigade Association.
During all these years, he regularly attended all sorts of Old Boys` functions, and served as President of the Old Boys` Association twice. He also sat on the Board of Governors, and was its Chairman for several years. When he gave up that office, he served as Chairman of the Friends of West Buckland, an organisation devoted to raising funds for the School. He found time to be a Committee Member of the Governing Bodies Association of Public Schools, and to come down in 1949 to present the prizes at Speech Day. When he died in 1977, he had been associated with the School for 72 years.
During the whole of that time, everything he did for the School was done without payment, or indeed any expectation of payment. He did it because he wanted to. He was grateful to the School; he wanted to put something back.
You may be reading this and thinking, ‘Yes, that`s all very well, but we can`t all be like good old Mickey Roberts.’ Yes, that`s true. You can`t all win the Exmoor twice, or come top of the batting averages. But you all have the capacity to put something back, if you feel like it.
Not the day you leave, no. You are all still on the receiving end. It`s all still coming up, like school lunches and the pat on the back. And many of you may have said, on that day, ‘Right – I`m off.’ And you were. And rightly so.
But somewhere along the line, perhaps you paused now and then to remember. You were told about the Old West Buckland Association, and you thought, ‘OK, but not just now.’ After a while, you just happen to be passing, and you drop in just to see how the old place is getting on, and tell yourself that things are not what they used to be. You attend an Old Members` Dinner; you buy a raffle ticket; you lend a hand at a School fete. And that`s how it all begins.
What are you doing? You are putting something back. You are doing what Brigadier-General Michael Rookherst Roberts did. And you won`t care tuppence whether people think you`re an old buffer or a has-been or some relic from the previous century. Look around you – there`s another Mickey Roberts out there somewhere – maybe several of you. And you will all do it for nothing.
Berwick Coates, March, 2021
Notes for the Old School Registers, including Michael's letter to Harries whislt he was fighting on the Western Front.