An early memory from the years we lived near Stowe was the sight of my father pushing our front door firmly shut in the face of one of its headmasters, who was attempting to force his way in and apologise for some misdemeanour. He had, I believe, tried to seduce my mother. Later on I shared a London flat with a Stoic, a dark, mysterious, gipsy figure who worked on Ready, Steady, Go but was principally a beautiful tennis player, mentioned here for having helped Stowe win the Public Schools Championship in successive years. Sometime after I left, he was found by the police dead in the bath.
Nights there had been full of incident. His old school friends would pour in through the windows at all hours, some with their girlfriends, and the next morning the floor would be littered with their bodies. Stoics then seemed a reckless, raffish set, epitomised by David Niven. They danced better than anyone else, drove faster cars and married stars such as Deborah Kerr and ‘Georgeous Gussie’ Moran.
Their ruthless self-assurance owed something, no doubt, to the aristocratic background and atmosphere of where they were educated, once a mock-classical palatial home, surrounded by long lawns that sloped down to lakes, temples and pavilions, views that inspired Whistler’s murals in the Tate. The estate had been created by Lord Cobham. He had fought under Marlborough, then in an expedition to Spain destroyed most of Vigo, before retiring to the country, where he erased Stowe village, forcing the inhabitants to move elsewhere. Eventually ‘in his last moments, not being able to carry a glass of jelly to his mouth, he was in such a passion, feeling his own weakness, that he threw jelly, glass and all into Lady Chatham’s face and expired.’ His descendants rose to be Dukes of Buckingham. The last heir to Stowe was killed in 1915, leading a platoon against the German trenches.
The mansion, with 1400 acres, was put on the market. It was bought eventually by the Rev. Percy Warrington, an enigmatic presence in the educational world, who founded schools all over England as he toured the country in his chauffeur-driven limousine. The charismatic J. F. Roxborough was appointed headmaster, after being prompted to apply by Amabel Williams-Ellis, the literary editor of The Spectator, to which he contributed classical reviews. Her husband, Clough, was already in charge of converting the building into a school.
On 11 May 1923, Roxborough stood on the steps below the colonnades, dressed in his habitual spats and double-breasted suit, while the first 99 boys filed past and shook his hand. The opening hymn that evening was ‘Through the night of doubt and sorrow.’ There was no hot water. Squash courts were used as classrooms and classrooms became dormitories. Masters had to climb up to their studies on ladders, and camp outside at night in the temples. For some time, no provision was made for wives, so masters were forced to leave to get married.
Roxborough was determined to create a school that was different from any other. He believed in the ‘philosophy of the enlightenment’, in the effect of Stowe’s beauty on the character of the boys, rather than the forced religion and chapel advocated by the more Victorian headmasters of his time. His vision had more in common with aesthetes like Walter Pater, who felt the nobility of the Spartan character was somehow derived from its susceptibility to the ‘local influences’, drawing ‘strength and colour’ from the surrounding hills, the oleander and cypress, the plane trees and the River Eurotas, ‘impetuous in winter, a series of wide shallows and deep pools in the blazing summer.’ On warm evenings, Stowe boys would climb the cedar trees and recline on the branches, ‘chatting idly and gazing out supposedly over five counties’. They were encouraged to ride over the hills, play music in the Grecian valley, and swim in the lakes. When these were frozen over, they skated to Strauss on the ice. Soon they began to excel at more conventional games. Ten years after Stowe’s foundation, Bernard Gadney captained the England rugby team throughout an unbeaten season.
In his choice of staff, Roxborough liked to mix the solid and the dependable with others who were more colourful and creative. He took risks, among them T. H. White, author of The Sword and the Stone, who was lucky to survive, after two earlier risqué novels, published under the pseudonym James Aston, were revealed as White’s by one of the boys. A parent wondered why ‘such a depraved specimen of human garbage’ was allowed to remain there.
G. Wilson Knight, the Shakespearian scholar, spiced his application form with a photograph of himself almost naked as Timon of Athens. His speculations remained remote and mysterious, beyond the comprehension of even Anthony Quinton. The most memorable was John Davenport, although he only stayed for two terms. Looking like, in his own words, a ‘sort of gigantic dwarf’, though speaking in a ‘soft, lisping voice’, he enlivened history with references that were amusing and diverse. One lesson could ‘encompass Palmerston, Jack Johnson and Hollywood.’ He was there in the war, and according to John Gale, the future Observer correspondent, ‘though not a jingo, he taught us to love England’.
Masters such as these treated the boys as adults and encouraged them to be unconventional, to view things from a fresh and original angle. When only 14, Michael Ventris, with a party of Stowe schoolboys, was conducted around an exhibition of Minoan civilisation by Sir Arthur Evans. At some point, the archaeologist drew his attention to several tablets that defied interpretation. Ventris, who went on to be an architect, took up this challenge. His eventual decipherment of Linear B, which revealed that Greek civilisation stretched back to a far more remote past than previously thought, proved to be one of those great classical discoveries that illuminate the ancient world. Stoics tended to be more liberal-minded than other schoolboys of the time. John Cornford was killed at 20, when far in advance of his men, fighting for the Republicans in Spain.
A chapter is devoted to Stowe’s contribution to the last war. As individualists, many were recruited to fight with the Maquis or the SAS. Those recovering from wounds in hospitals all over the world would receive telegrams of condolence from Roxborough, and his letters to parents who had lost their sons were more cherished than any others. Masters who enlisted were often startled to find themselves commanded by men
they had recently taught. One of them, McElwee, recalled certain Stoic moments, chance encounters on the front line rather than some crazed pursuit such as Baden-Powell’s, who wandered around Mafeking at the height of the siege in a desperate search for an Old Carthusian with whom to celebrate Founder’s Day. Stowe provided many heroes — one airman gave away his parachute to a man behind him who had lost his, before plunging down from a blazing plane — but the greatest of them, Leonard Cheshire, is hardly mentioned. It is a pity his exploits in the air are not related somehow to his schooldays, as are Pemberton’s, a brilliant leader and hero of the Battle of Britain, killed soon after when flying into a storm, whose final report from Stowe had lamented his ‘failure to gain respect’.
Roxborough retired soon after the war. The rest of the book, that traces Stowe’s evolution into a school much like any other, though a fine example of its type, is inevitably less interesting. All that made it unique is gradually lost. ‘Herculean efforts’ are now made ‘to provide an education of the kind demanded by modern industry and business.’ The head-master’s office, with its galaxy of flashing screens, resembles ‘the operati
onal deck of an aircraft carrier’. The boys’ studies, no longer heavily draped and cushioned bowers, have been transformed into little offices, the armchairs and caged ferrets thrown out in favour of desks and computers. No doubt the school couldn’t have gone on as it was. Conditions have changed and it would have needed all Roxborough’s vision and energy and charm to make it work. The transformation was never easy. One crisis nearly closed the school down, when a successor of Roxborough’s, Crichton-Miller, was challenged by the senior masters over his efforts to restore discipline, then forced by the governors to resign.
The author, Brian Rees, was originally commissioned to write the book by the governors. They wanted an objective account. As a writer who had taught at Eton, then been headmaster of Merchant Taylors, Charterhouse and Rugby, he seemed the ideal choice. But when the book was on the point of completion, they mysteriously changed their minds and went back on their decision to publish it, giving no reason. The author was forced to have it published himself. The governors should now be grateful for such a beautifully written and enthusiastic tribute.
More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us.