A Tale of Three Headmasters
The separate careers of three consecutive headmasters of Gowerton Boys Grammar School have been portrayed in the book ‘Something Attempted Something Done’. They were Dr TJ James, Mr J Morse and Mr AB Daniel. The second was in fact Acting Headmaster in the interregnum between the other two appointments, but effectively trisected my own schooldays from 1964-1971. Dr James retired at the end of the academic year 1967 and it was a sad and moving occasion. John Morse led the school for a further two years until the arrival of Afan Daniel, in September 1969. My fellow schoolboy entrants thus had three years under Dr James, two years under both Mr Morse and Mr Daniel. It is now perhaps timely to look back and provide some insights into these very different leaders, although my perceptions may by now have faded. Comparisons between each of them may not be entirely fair owing to the changes in my own attitudes, ability to appreciate and criticise with age: growing up through the teenage years does undoubtedly produce marked changes in taste and allegiances. These were times when most forms of deference and respect for authority were in decline and discipline was beginning to break down. May the reader forgive my occasional digression, especially as it was a time for the expression of a very benign form of humour - however sarcastic this is found to be - but much to be preferred to the violence and substance abuse found in our present schools.
Dr James had a legendary reputation (according to the obituary writer of his son), became Treasurer of the Headmasters Association and was a household name in West Glamorgan and further afield, somewhat like Dr Arnold of Rugby School. He had been Dylan Thomas`s first English teacher, although Dylan had absorbed so much from his father, the Senior English Master at Bishop Gore Grammar School, and by reading their impressive collection of books kept at home. Gowerton school had matured under James to be one of the perhaps half a dozen to maybe eight schools in Wales that arguably could offer an academic education equivalent to some of the mighty English Public Schools, although the latter might prepare their pupils more specifically for various professions and callings. He had overseen the output of many outstanding boys, while the school became one of the finest rugby academies that have ever existed, but he also encouraged musical participation to a high level of performance.
His appearance, bearing, mode of speech, gait and personality was that of a Welsh gentleman educated at London, The Sorbonne and Cambridge. His soft voice held charm and he was never seen to raise his voice. He was placidity personified. The assemblies were models of compassionate but controlled reading and graciousness. His favourite prayer was that of Lady Jane Grey, which he would read emotionally. His love of music, personal enjoyment of the School Orchestra and his fondness for certain compositions were exemplified by both his charming smile and his delayed signal for exiting the crowded floor, as he wished the boys to enjoy certain compositions.
He was magisterial at the annual remembrance service, where he would be most emotive: he would read the names and ranks and manner of death of his own past pupils; he knew each one for Gowerton was not a large school before and during the War. Tears were, at least on one occasion, visible and his voice become conspicuously dry. Headmasters, in time of war, also shared the responsibility – with the men from the Ministry- of deciding who would be chosen for national service and where they might best be deployed. For example, the top few boys in science might be offered pilot training; the need for being physically robust was also considered. Some gifted pupils were given the choice of reading for degrees in Mining to help the war effort and this would involve negotiation of scholarships with the private mining companies. One such boy was Oliver Morgan who later lost an arm underground; their war continued for the remainder of their careers. Medical Training was another option, but fees needed to be found for such a long course.
Dr James also made occasional and memorable addresses about the achievements of past pupils, and at Christmas Concerts. I remember him entering one of our music lessons to tell Mr DH Jones that his son, Dr Meurig James, had purchased a harpsichord for his home in London. Before he left Gowerton, he ensured that the school also would obtain a harpsichord and we had three consecutive annual Christmas Concerts. Meurig James became a Consultant neurologist at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead and continued his interest in music by advising musicians about stage fright.
Dr ‘Tom’ James governance was benign and he led by example. Behind closed doors he was apparently strict with the teachers, demanding the highest standards and discipline – to be exerted by them. He was greatly missed and I would have enjoyed to have conversed with him about many subjects.
He had been a very low-key teacher of junior mathematics and economics, taught then only in the sixth form and for which there was not much demand. He was affectionately nicknamed “Johny”, had a private income and teaching appeared to be a pastime designed for his personal enjoyment; he drove Jaguar cars, which the other teachers could not afford. He spoke with a rather military, clipped accent and could have been type-cast as Colonel Blimp. He was a great raconteur about his wartime experiences, but always flavoured his anecdotes with good humour, although his occasional wrath could be targeted at some poor boy who could not grasp basic arithmetic or algebra. He avoided geometry and I doubt if he would have managed the diagrams well. He attempted to teach by a minimum of board work and probably disliked chalk as he wore expensive, well-tailored clothes. His personal appearance had more of the air of a successful banker than that of a teacher and would often talk of his favourite shops in Jermyn Street. He also lead the very popular stamp club and persuaded many a pupil, including myself, to invest in first editions, although the investments have yet to realise a profitable return in my own case.
His business contacts in Swansea and elsewhere were invaluable and there is ample evidence that he recommended certain less academic boys to good firms to pursue commercial based work. He also helped by finding summer jobs for many boys.
When Dr James retired, the popular Mr William “Bill” Bowen, the longstanding deputy headmaster, also retired. This meant that Morse had almost no experience of deputising and it was immediately evident that he became flustered at assemblies; these mishaps, including some spoonerisms, did become less frequent with time. It was also a time of great social change and he attempted to be seen to rule with an iron fist for a while by introducing some draconian measures, especially on the lower school, as he probably estimated that he could not adequately control the sixth form. He would repeatedly try to make an example of isolated individuals during assembly….”you boy, you there with the auburn hair, get out and go to my room”, was not infrequent and room was pronounced very nearly as “rum”. His sartorial elegance increased and it was easy to predict that he would be attending the county cricket games at Swansea later in the same day by his wearing of an immaculately cut lightweight navy suit with matching Glamorgan Tie.
The school appeared to prosper but remained under the threat of conversion to the Comprehensive system. Whether things were more chaotic in the staff room, I cannot know, but it appeared that the teachers had greater autonomy than before and he did seem faithful to his staff and harder on pupils, although no one detested him because of his likeable traits. Boys often wondered whether he polished his bald scalp which shone particularly well while he held court at the Headmasters desk, our high altar, in Assembly.
During this time and for many years later I would see him at The Grand Theatre: his powerful guffaws would be evidence of his wit, as he was usually the first to laugh following a humorous episode on stage; he preferred the stalls to the circle and so I would prefer the latter. He would also hold court in the circle bar, which had to be avoided until one was of age; in later times he would always offer a drink, which had to be politely refused.
Another favourite venue of his was St Helen`s County Ground. He would walk the boundary and the many aisles of the Members Enclosure, panama-hatted and wearing a cream coloured linen suit, to converse with Gowertonians of any age and rank. Very touchingly, after such a conversation of about fifteen minutes, he would place a few shillings in the hand of one of the more senior boys and bid him to buy ice creams all round.
His final coup –and mark of genius- was to create a formal office for himself as Deputy Headmaster on the arrival of Mr AB Daniel. It was located sufficiently remote from the Headmaster`s Office (on the lower north-side of the school), thus giving him the best possible location for a relatively quiet existence on the upper floor of the south-side and close to the library and art room. He appeared to enjoy his final post and seemed to become much more humane again, without the overall responsibilities of leadership and sought more popularity again. He would venture into the library and chat. On one occasion, he brought in a pamphlet about careers in the Bank of England and ended with the throw-away line “And don’t bother to show this to X, since it does not contain the Governor`s job.”
His reputation preceded him: that of the firm and intolerant headmaster of Ystalyfera Grammar, where he had fought a protracted battle to avoid the formation of the Cwm Tawe Comprehensive school. Having finally conceded defeat, his consolation prize was to be moved to the last surviving grammar school in West Glamorgan, Gowerton, until its final dissolution a few years later. He also had a formidable reputation as a rugby player and a no-nonsense approach to running a school, but with an enhanced academic reputation, particularly for university and Cambridge entrance (he was not well disposed to Oxford).
His background was interesting. He had been raised from a humble but chapel-going family in Cwm Afan, hence his name, showing prowess in school and sport. His family attended the Welsh chapel in that small industrial village cramped between the glaciated valley, just north of Port Talbot. This is the small region that produced two great actors in Richard Jenkins (Burton) and Anthony Hopkins. Afan was quite unlike them, being naturally diffident and probably under-confident in speech, having a quiet voice and the major disadvantage, in Welsh, of not being able to pronounce the letter r. This however has advantages in producing a more Anglicised form of speech (as exemplified par excellence by the late Roy Jenkins). He gained entrance to the prestigious Trinity College after the war at a time when many, if not most, undergraduates had been military officers, with the confidence that the travel and the demanding experiences had bestowed upon them. He told me that he felt quite miserable there, while reading history, but distinguished himself in rugby football, later playing as Centre for Swansea.
His first assembly was memorable. Instead of the rather genteel walk of the previous headmasters along the side aisle with nods, occasional smiles and acknowledgements of the Masters along the way, he strode through at a fast pace with emphatic heel sounds; this immediately aroused the suspicion of a Gestapo tendency amongst the boys in the sixth form. It later appeared that his favourite period of history centred around the second world war. He was brief, to the point, and did not exude charm during assemblies. This was firmness to a high degree and appeared dictatorial. Seemingly petty rules were issued, but they proved, mostly, to be very functional. For example, he decreed that there would be wet weather days, defined by ringing the school bell when the Hall and certain classrooms would be open; this appeared to us absurd at the time. Beforehand we had always had a difficulty in staying in the school at lunchtime – this was especially difficult for boys who had been ill. Immediately, he introduced a much more competitive system of sports teams in the junior school but it did not appear to lead to more welsh internationals…in fact many a promising young footballer appeared to acquire injuries which may have marred their later sporting careers.
Initially, he appeared disinterested in the music but later appeared to enjoy it. Perhaps Gowerton School was his musical university?
He appeared ruthless by giving negative advice to some, whom he did not appear to think would have thrived at University; in this respect he would have been against present Government policy despite his upbringing in a socialist environment.
It was a novel experience to witness this relatively young headmaster refereeing invited rugby matches on the school field; always decisive and appearing to enjoy himself, he would produce twitters of concealed laughter on the touchline by announcing, after an emphatic whistle – “Swum down, Weds ball.” He would, though, court episodes of controversy, as might be expected from his relatively received accent, while referring matches in the West Wales Leagues.
He was at his best with Cambridge entrance for the few. Each half term break, and more so at the Christmas Term, he would trail the paths of the Cambridge Colleges and take his entitled high table dinner at Trinity and meet past pupils over snacks (and sherry) at another College where he had a friend as Senior Tutor. He tried his utmost to gain entrance for those whom he thought might succeed, or gain, from being in such a splendid academic environment. He would ask prospective candidates to meet him for a personal interview in his office, which was resplendent with books covering a wide range of knowledge, including large books on the Third Reich and the two World Wars, which all modern historians must possess, as well as those on modern biology such as circadian rhythms. In retrospect these were probably the cumulative result of his many visits to the Cambridge bookshops.
He gave sound advice for interviews, including a mock interview. In my case he was especially keen for me to succeed, perhaps because I was so very Welsh, had done well at examinations, had played for the cricket team and participated in several other school activities. He even asked me to call him at home on the Sunday before the interview for a final pep-talk. The advice proved helpful, but I soon also realised that he continued to do the same for his past pupils in Ystalyfera, which was for the benefit of Wales, and who became friends of mine.
After my father thanked him for is efforts at what was the second parent teacher event ever held, Afan was so glad and immediately (and surprisingly) ventured into his personal insecurity at reading or speaking to a large audience, but which he admired that I could do without any degree of apparent nervousness. And that he enjoyed my reading of Welsh beside him on an almost fortnightly frequency in Hall!
His marriage suffered; he had his personal torments and drank heavily at times, although abhorred smoking. There was also an unfortunate driving infringement after a party on a RN ship docked at Swansea. Some years later, his second marriage, to a lady called Rose Roberts, provoked some past Gowertonians to re-enact his proposal line…”Will you mawy me Wose?”
Nevertheless, he exuded a sense of personal responsibility and would effectively deal with any bullying. In assembly his favourite prayer readings were the translations of the modern-thinking and socialist catholic priest, Michel Quoist, despite his own non-conformist upbringing. Quoist`s homilies were well expressed in very simple logical terms, just as Afan`s most frequent justification for a change in policy was that “it was (r)easonable” for this and that. In fact we became a school based on such a philosophy of reason; perhaps this was Rousseau and Voltaire`s philosophies re-born and I assume based on Afan`s reading and interpretation of the French Revolution and its consequences. I later became aware, from reports of his occasional lessons in History, given at Ystalyfera, that he favoured benign autocracy as the best form of government. This viewpoint was certainly put into practice at Gowerton. This became apparent to me when I was in his office frequently during the sixth form. I was quite relaxed in his presence, but various Senior Masters, would appear to report events or seek advice and would only relate to him in a totally subservient and rather creeping manner. This may have been due to the fact that they were from an older generation than me. I do think that he was rather amused by their manner and he would sometime chuckle to me after they left the room. In some respects he knew that senior students knew what was going on within school more than some of the teachers. He was actually very good on a one-to-one basis and could be extremely gentle in tone and caring.
Comparisons of the three headmasters
Tom James was undoubtedly the most impressive personality: he had, over his long career, acquired great style and confidence, but it is possible that he hid behind a façade, however well-acted. The appearance of laissez faire was perhaps a mask, but when I had been ill for long durations in each of my first two years, he did not bother to speak to me or my parents. In retrospect, I am disappointed also that each of the headmasters did not give us all a single lesson or lecture (Morse did so only as Teacher). I would have enjoyed a talk perhaps to a group of say 100 or even more at a time. I only ever heard Tom James speak a few phrases of French to a visiting teacher. It would have been fascinating to hear James on the use of French words in English and Welsh, or perhaps on the ancient tales of Wales and Brittany; Morse on how to run a business or on Keynesian economics – interspersed with his considerable wit; and Afan on historical forms of government. They were all presumably busy persons, although I remain unsure what the job of a headmaster entails apart from Assemblies, signing off end-of-term reports, writing UCCA testimonials and guidance of the teaching staff. The latter must surely have entailed more work than we, as students, fully appreciated.
If handwriting reflects personality and character, then James and Morse wrote in very similar large-looped forms, while Daniel had diminutive writing that is thought to suggest under-confidence. I had the audacity to copy John Morse`s signature on some official school posters (such as Advanced Level Timetables or Scholarship advertisements), as “any queries, see me….J Morse”, and would have great pleasure in observing his baffled facial response to reading these from time to time.
The Second World War had influenced them in different ways. Dr James had to run the school during the most difficult of times, Morse served in the Intelligence Corps, while Afan Daniel experienced the aftermath of war in England and studied with former soldiers. I never saw james watching cricket, but unlike Morse, who wandered around the ground in search of conversation, Afan would remain within the precincts of the Vice–Presidents enclosure or the balcony bar.
Music occupied an important part of school life. Under James, we have already read that three successive annual concerts (of three nights duration) were held in the school Hall. In 1966 a further fourth consecutive evening concert was held in Morriston Hospital and transmitted by radio to the wards; this was not a qualified success in that we had very tired young voices and the Hospital had low ceilings, which did not encourage either the orchestra or our voices with sufficient reverberation. Morse resisted a further concert in his first term and allowed the ‘School Play’ loby to have their chance, as did Afan Daniel in his first year. However, the orchestral and choral opportunities were extended by use of St Mary’s Church early in the summer term in 1968 and 1970. This allowed not only some extra practice, but the experience of singing in a larger space with organ accompaniment and the opportunity to gaze on the interior of the church in greater detail, including some of Ceri Richards’ work. The greatest change occurred under Morse in 1968, when the Christmas Concert venue was changed to be the colourful and long Brangwyn Hall, which accommodated sufficient audience for there to be only one evening rather than three when held at school. This proved successful and popular, followed by a further concert at the Brangwyn in 1970 (with Afan Daniel at the helm) and who repeated the event for at least two successive years, which is sufficient evidence that he probably enjoyed these occasions.
How did they interact? The only example would have been the interaction between Daniel and Morse. I have a lively memory of their attempt to prevent the usual occurrence of a fire alarm being activated on the last day of term. Their strategy was as follows: Mr Morse would, weather permitting, lead the entire school on a hike up the narrow roads to Three Crosses, where a hymn or two would be sung under the capable baton of Mr DH Jones, Head of Music, followed by the downhill trek designed to induce tiredness. On arriving near the school gates, I remember seeing Mr Daniel, gowned, awaiting our arrival en mass. This was such a good opportunity to show our combined wit and choral prowess, so we began, at my behest, to sing the Londonderry Air. The sound of “Oh Danny boy” proved too much for Daniel, who retreated smartly to his office.
Of the three headmasters, Afan was probably the most competent administrator; Morse was regarded with more genuine affection by the boys and was the most ‘clubable’, but James commanded most overall respect. Afan in many ways prepared us for the harsher economic times to come, promoted self-reliance and he was in many respects was an effective prelude to the Thatcher Government, the subsequent thriving of free market economics within education and other areas of life in our country. He had known and debated with some of the most socialist local politicians such as Lord Haycock, from his home area. The fact that Afan wanted to retain the Grammar school system meant that he wanted more Welsh children to experience the highest possible level of secondary education and obtain access to good universities. In this respect he differed markedly from many utilitarian Labour Politicians who had emerged from much more privileged backgrounds. The Labour Government of 1964-1970 was Oxford dominated, including inter alia personalities like Anthony Wedgewood Benn and Anthony Crossland who were educated at Westminster and Winchester Schools respectively and could not possibly have had direct experience of how much the state Grammar Schools in Wales contributed to local and national society. I think that all three headmasters would have preferred the alternative of improving secondary education by a further moderate expansion of the grammar schools and especially of the more technical schools envisaged by Beveridge and recommended in statute by RA Butler. A more fluid arrangement between the three possible streams may have been the best policy in retrospect, but the post-war economy would not have allowed a full realisation of the potential of such a really comprehensive system. I can recall overhearing two Oxford dons talking at dinner during the mid 1990`s, when their conversation turned to a question: “where have all the bright Welsh undergraduates disappeared to?” It was embarrassing to hear such a question asked. To me the answer was quite simple: due to the demise of the elite Welsh Grammar Schools. There can be little doubt that such changes as were happening then, ranging from the reduction of deference and authority to the introduction of the Comprehensive system, did persuade many a pupil, including myself, not to follow a career in teaching.
Those of us who have experienced these three formidable headmasters, each in their own distinct ways, should be grateful for the privilege. Each one imparted something of value, whether in substance or style. They were the leaders that we observed and listened to at Assembly on four occasions each week. Many schools, in the present time, do not have such gatherings and this must be a disadvantage.
Persons of the intellectual calibre of these three gentlemen might nowadays be involved in activities other than teaching at school level. It might be of interest to speculate on what they might have become if educated today: James might have made a Bishop, a Whitehall Mandarin or even a mild mannered politician like RA Butler; Morse would have made a Hedge Fund Manager (although I am unsure as to the wisdom of following his advice on investments), while Daniel could have made an excellent chief executive of a large company or hospital, providing this did not require much public speaking. This period of time was when the Welsh Grammar schools were arguably at the very height of their achievement. Indeed, during my time at the school every head of department but one had a first class honours degree and the only exception had a Master of Arts by submission of a dissertation. The County Grammar Schools had not been in existence for very long – just over seventy years - until their complete demise. One senior Master, Mr DC Williams, told me a few years after I had left, that he thought that I had been at the school during its very best time as far as teaching experience, equipment, books etc were concerned.
I am proud to have been educated at Gowerton, under the overall stewardship of these three very remarkable and memorable Headmasters.
Bleddyn Jones, Oxford, 2009.