Q and Education in Cornwall

by David Fryer


Early Involvement in Cornish Education

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ('Q') was born in Bodmin in 1863 and died in Fowey in 1944. He was famous in his own time as a novelist, poet, critic, essayist, Liberal politician, journalist, anthologist, classical scholar, Cambridge professor, commodore, folklorist, historian and generally revered as a Cornish sage and 'King of Fowey'. Amazingly, Q found time to be a leader in public affairs in his beloved County of Cornwall and, in particular, to make a major contribution to the County's education service. Even when he became the second and distinguished King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge in 1912, he still found time, during the university vacations, to continue his tireless work for education in Cornwall – indeed much outstanding work was still to come.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Q was still 'writing for his life' and books emerged like The Ship of Stars, The Westcotes and Hetty Wesley and the famed Oxford Book of English Verse of 1900 – the latter becoming, in common and vulgar parlance, 'a nice little earner'. However, about this time, Q began to be appointed to public bodies and was a JP and Chairman of the Fowey Harbour Commissioners. In 1904, Q (then a county councillor through the aldermanic route) was appointed as a member of the newly established County Education Committee in succession to Thomas King who had recently died (interestingly a non-resident Fellow of Jesus College where Q would become a resident Fellow).

Q was persuaded on to the education committee by R. G. Rows, the chairman. Q was a great admirer of Rows, a fellow Liberal, who was a farmer and formidable Methodist local preacher from Helston. Q later wrote about Rows (1939) – 'a self educated philosopher, widely read but a Platonist "naturaliter" with a consuming fire to impart his aspirations to the young'. Q held similar views but without the non-conformist fiery rhetoric – they were to make a good team.

Just before Q joined the education committee, at the turn of the century, the Liberals, including Q, took a public battering by opposing the Boer War which was being carried along on a tide of patriotism. On a famous occasion, Q chaired a dramatic and disastrous public meeting at Liskeard Town Hall which included Cornish MP Leonard Courtney, Lloyd George (ironically to become a future war leader) and Emily Hobhouse – 'that bloody woman' as Kitchener put it. The platform was stormed by an angry mob and the meeting broke up. Q and the platform party escaped in an undignified manner with cheers for Lord Roberts ringing in their ears. Q said later that he thought someone was carrying a gun to shoot Lloyd George. However, after all this, such was the respect and admiration for Q in Cornwall that he was soon back in favour with the public and those he served. 

The 'Balfour' Education Act of 1902, which was one of the outcomes of Matthew Arnold's earlier campaigning, was a huge catalyst for change in education. The Act established Cornwall County Council (first formed in 1889) as the Local Education Authority and brought some 100 uncoordinated and 'mixed ability' School Boards responsible for elementary education under the LEA. Additionally and importantly, the Act gave the Council powers to develop and expand secondary education. There was also provision to take on most of the revenue costs of church voluntary schools. This latter aspect, as Q put it, 'had the immediate effect of fanning old religious and political fires into a blaze, nowhere more so than in Cornwall, with its tradition of non-conformity grafted by Wesley on a racial individualism'. So called 'Passive Resisters' went to prison rather than pay rates to fund C of E schools but Q, a liberal Anglican, did much good work of reconciliation in this sensitive field – but it took him a good 30 years to see his wishes largely fulfilled. Even today the position of church/faith schools as publicly funded institutions is often hotly debated by a new generation of dissenters – Q is having a quiet laugh about this somewhere!

At R.G. Rows' request, Q became Chairman of the School Management Committee which involved much visiting, at all times of the year, to the 300+ schools scattered throughout Cornwall. In 1982 I felt something of what Q may have experienced when visiting faraway Morwenstow Primary School. The long serving HT, seemingly in direct line to Parson Hawker, asked the whole school to stand and sing 'Trelawney' as I entered the hall. Q's visits would often be with F.R. Pascoe, who was appointed as Cornwall's first Secretary for Education in 1903 and who retired in 1934. Pascoe guided the elected members and the local education system with enthusiasm and sometimes despotic firmness – which left its mark at all levels including central government. I am proud to count myself as a successor to F.R. Pascoe – I was Secretary from 1988 to 1994 and the last to be so named in the UK as the more managerial and increasingly less appropriate titles of 'Director' and 'Chief' came in.

There is no doubt that the driving force of the post-Balfour reforms was the distinguished and able 'triumvirate' of (as A.L. Rowse said) – 'R.G. Rows...supplied enthusiasm and rhetoric, Q gave authority and distinction and F.R. Pascoe...provided organising drive'. The right team at the right time. Q was carrying on with his writing through all this and his novel The Shining Ferry (1905) draws on his experience of improving elementary education, of sectarian conflict, of class divisions, of the demise of the 'Dame' schools, of school managers and of the early type of HM Inspector of Schools. Q really enjoyed these experiences and pleading the cause of good elementary education. His views were deeply rooted – for instance, in Q's preface to the 1920 Art of Reading he states'The real battle for English lies in our Elementary Schools and in the training of our Elementary Teachers' – and that was for a university audience. Q wrote something similar in his 1929 Studies in Literature.

During the First World War the official minutes show that Q was not able to attend many meetings of the Education Committee – he was busy with other matters including taking a leading part in the formation of the Territorials in Cornwall. Q had a temporary commission to raise and train a pioneer battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. However, in May 1919, Q was elected Vice-Chairman of the Education Committee under R.G. Rows' chairmanship. Q replaced William Hawk who became Chairman of the County Council. Soon the main thrust of activity was the founding or adapting of a secondary school within reach of every boy and girl in Cornwall. By the close of Rows' chairmanship in 1923 there were 21 secondary schools maintained by the County Council providing for 3,700 pupils. Admission to this sector (sometimes confusingly called higher education at that time) was by selection examination – so in more modern parlance they were all a type of selective grammar school. Fees were payable and in the mid-1920s stood at £3.5s per term with some free places for winners of minor scholarships. Fees were not abolished until after the 1944 Education Act and Q must have been conscious of the fact that many potential pupils did not take up places because their parents could not afford the fees. Before the Balfour Act there were a very limited number of grammar schools of early foundation e.g. Truro Grammar School, founded in 1549 and known as the 'Eton of Cornwall' with distinguished alumni like Samuel Foote, Lord Vivian, Goldsworthy Gurney and Henry Martyn – but nothing remotely similar for the majority. It is a matter of some egalitarian irony that the great and the good (including Q) who fought hard to establish selective secondary schools in Cornwall, did not think them at all suitable for their own sons and daughters!

Chairmanship of Cornwall Education Committee from 1923

Q took on the chairmanship of the Education Committee on Rows' retirement in 1923 – with Rows' words on the secondary schools scheme ringing in his ears 'Well there the schools are – they can't be taken back to the quarries again'. Q spoke of himself, on succeeding Rows, as 'assuming Elijah's mantle' but also added modestly, that 'though he put it on he did not deem himself worthy to wear it'. Q had, for some time, stepped in for Rows who had become ill and virtually blind. Q's tribute to Rows recorded in the minutes of Oct. 23 is a moving one – 'The work of the Education Committee in these years has been arduous, detailed, often monotonous. It has had its critics because its policy, so largely shaped by you, has been far sighted, offering no promise of those cheap and instantaneous returns which no true system of Education can honestly promise to yield'. A very nice encapsulation of Q's own philosophy which some modern policy makers would do well to follow!

The vice-chairmanship was taken over by C.V. Thomas (father of the distinguished Professor Charles Thomas) who in turn succeeded Q as Chairman in 1931 with Q reverting to Vice-Chairman for a further two years. The DVD produced by the Q Memorial Fund Committee in 2008 contains much of interest – film, interviews, bibliography and archive locations. One of the items is an interview with Charles Thomas who recalls Q coming back to his home after committee meetings and playing with him on his knee. Q nearly always had a strong odour of his favourite tobacco and drink – he was quite a shy but convivial guest.

The taking on of increased education responsibilities by Q was some time after other important events in his life. He was knighted in 1910 (aged 47 then) for his services to the Liberal Party and he was appointed to the Chair of English Literature at Cambridge in 1912 and took up term-time residence at Jesus College as a Fellow. In 1919 his beloved son, Bevil, died of pneumonia after bravely fighting through the Great War – a tragedy Q never really shook off. Bevil was to have married May Cannan, the daughter of Charles Cannan – one of Q's closest friends during his time at Oxford. May wrote some beautiful poetry at this time, recalling happier days.

It is remarkable that Q, with his many commitments, remained on the Education Committee until 1933 when he was 70 years old. He led the committee with vigour even though he was restricted to university vacations. By then his journeys back to Fowey from Cambridge took on something of a 'royal progress'. Q, wearing a colour-coordinated bowler (he was rather a dandy), would be seen off from Jesus College by a retinue of 'retainers' with a few favoured ones allowed to accompany him to the station. The stationmaster would be in attendance and at stations along the line and particularly in Cornwall (change at Par for Fowey) he was given quasi-royal receptions.

Q had strong and powerful allies on the County Council, not necessarily from the Liberal Party, and in Q's introduction to the book on The Jubilee of County Councils (1939) he singles out for mention the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe (first chairman of the new council), William Pendarves (second chairman), R.G. Rows, John Tremayne (of Heligan found again by Tim Smit!), George Smith (of Treliske) and J.C. Williams of Caerhays whose name is immortalised in the williamsii camellia hybrids. I knew one of J.C. Williams' successors at Caerhays, Julian Williams, who became an able and well-loved Chairman of the County Council. Julian was a great admirer of Q and all he stood for and for many years chaired the Q Memorial Fund Committee. Just like Q himself, Julian Williams liked nothing better than visiting schools and engaging with children and staff – although I doubt whether Q would have been asked to plunge a hand into a 'feely bag' and then identify the sometimes horrible contents! The above allies were important figures in Cornwall and Q was skilled and diplomatic in gaining their support for the developments in education in the county and in healing the scars of the public versus church school controversies.

In 1927, from 30th May to 4th June, there was launched an ambitious 'Cornwall Education Week' and Q was the force behind this celebration of achievements since the Balfour Act. It was accompanied by a Souvenir Handbook (now a collector's item) which is a marvellous record of education in Cornwall at that time. The week was attended by some 20,000 visitors (of whom 12,000 were schoolchildren) and gave an unprecedented opportunity for ratepayers and others to see how far education had progressed. The frontispiece, showing Art-Deco influences, was designed by an art student and there are photos of the then Duke of Cornwall (later Duke of Windsor), J.C. Williams (Lord Lieutenant), Henry Grylls (4th chairman of the CC), Q in characteristic pose and dress and F.R. Pascoe.

Before the preface to the Handbook is a quotation from the radical moral philosopher, Thomas Carlyle, and surely it must have been selected by Q as the views expressed look very like Q's own views. Carlyle says: 

'Who would suppose that Education were a thing which had to be advocated on the ground of local expediency or indeed on any ground? As if it stood not on the basis of everlasting duty as a prime necessity of man.'

Would that this voice across the years was heeded by modern education policy makers. The preface is a marvellous essay written by Q – probably one of his very best, short commentaries on the state of things, at which he was an undoubted master. Frederick Brittain, Q's friend and 1947 biographer, was so taken with this essay that he repeated it verbatim on pages 121 to 123 of the Biography.

In the preface Q describes the problems of establishing the necessary elementary and secondary school places in building terms. But, despite fine buildings, Q says: 'Of course, the best results of Education can never be visible: its best results can never, in the nature of things be visible'; Q goes on to say: 'the last secret lies hidden in the children; and we who work for Education are condemned always to be working on faith – on the evidence of things not seen' – and then later on, Q adds: 'This secret. . . can never be exhibited, can never challenge public admiration; can never expose immediate results in the market place; and this for the simple reason that it is a spirit which, like the wind, blows where it lists.' What would Q have thought of Ofsted and simplistic league tables of results? Q also refers, forcibly to the battle, led by him and R.G. Rows against those who opposed (would you believe it?) the increased provision of secondary schools – and that included fellow members of the county council. Q memorably states: 'We had to build with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other'. The difficult time Q had dealing with the opposition to increased public funding of church voluntary schools was reflected in his comment: '. . . we wasted many months over bitter and barren sectarian debates, until the mute appeal of the children somehow became audible, and the reproach shook us together into a body with one strong purpose'. How many chairmen of education committees, before or since, have written so well?

The 1927 Handbook has an excellent section on education in Cornwall before the Forster Act of 1870 (by A.A. Clinnick) and then F.R. Pascoe takes up the story from 1870 to the mid 1920s. Pascoe also wrote an 'Epilogue' reporting to the Education Committee on the success of the whole project. There is a group photograph of Q with the Duchess of Atholl, F.R. Pascoe, W.M. Page (HMI), and T. Shopland – the latter contributing an article in the Handbook on 'Famous Men of the Past' (before women could be famous?) which included Richard Gundry Rows, Q's friend and mentor.

During his time as a member of the Education Committee, and particularly through first his chairmanship of the School Management Committee and then, V-C and chairman of the main committee – Q travelled the length and breadth of the county. Throughout the year he visited schools and came face to face with real issues that informed his thinking back at County Hall, as well as supplying material for his books. F.R. Pascoe reckoned that Q enjoyed this part of his duties more than his committee work which he more than once called 'tedious'. Pascoe recalls: 'Crossing from Q's jetty (at The Haven in Fowey) to Polruan in a tempestuous sea to quell a mutiny which had broken out in the boys' school. Q's report – I didn't write a word of it – was a masterpiece and tranquility was restored'. A marvellous letter to Pascoe from Q of Dec. 1912 describes 'a ridiculous governors meeting – or, if you prefer it, a meeting of Ridiculous Governors – at St. Austell'. After much amusing comment with Q 'forming a Committee of one to interview the Headteacher' Q says to Pascoe – 'It is essential that the CC appoint an entirely new set of CC Governors next March. The majority of the present Governors are not only ignorant of the processes of Higher Education, but their ignorance and jealousy are so tyrannical that no H.T. can have a chance unless he be both servile and incompetent'. Q could certainly be forthright and interventionist when school quality was at stake.

Q's hard work was legendary – A.L. Rowse recounts that Q 'spent most of New Year's Day (1924) at Truro in Committee – Mr Pascoe had been up to discuss a heap of things for it – and also he was in the Town Hall to try a runaway German sailor!' Rather interestingly, Rowse (perhaps true to his own character) said Q 'did not treat Pascoe, though Secretary for Education, as a social equal – nor was he'. I am sure that Q was too gentle and courteous a person to even have such feelings and certainly not express them. Social equal or not, I hope Q shared his customary glass of claret at County Hall with Pascoe. In the informative History of Cornwall County Council 1889 to 1989 (edited by Tony Dennis) – there is the speculation 'and can there be, one wonders, a surviving LEA officer anywhere but Truro who can recall as a junior being dispatched by his Chairman from County Hall to bring up the claret for his lunch?' Did members of the public espy Q walking up Station Road from his GWR train to County Hall (now the old hall) carrying a bottle of Château Lafite?

Amongst his multifarious activities and governorships etc. (he especially treasured Fowey Grammar School), Q was a great advocate and supporter for the Workers Educational Association (WEA) – now, alas, a pale shadow of its former self. In the Cornwall Records Office there are a substantial number of Q archives – including his brown bowler hat complete with Q's handwritten labels for railway carriage. In one of the two scrapbooks compiled by Frederick Brittain is a printed programme of the 1940/41 WEA, Fowey Branch, session. There is a splendid preface from Q referring to the basic 'idea' of the WEA:

'This idea may be put in a few words – that to learn is a habit to be practised through life . . . that instinct for inquisitiveness which, as we take it for natural in our children, we should accept as implanted in ourselves, at no stage of life to be impoverished, rather to be cultivated steadily to the end.'

Has the need for adult education and life-long learning been better expressed? (or long-life learning as a Cornish dairy farmer regularly described it!)

 Cornish Magazine

Another 'education' activity which Q started, some time before his Education Committee involvement, was the Cornish Magazine. Q founded it in 1898 and was the editor and occasional contributor. Eleven monthly issues followed but it was not well supported and finished in 1899. The issues are still worth reading today and show Q as the arch 'populariser'. The choice of topics was eclectic – mining, fishing, Newlyn artists, Fanny Moody (The Cornish Nightingale), wrestling, Henry Irving, daffodil industry, short stories, poetry, Methodism, Helston School, Admiral Boscawen, Samoa plus a regular debating section on issues of the day. In the spring of 1949, Denys Val Baker began the Cornish Review with a similar aim as Q. The first issue strongly emphasises the Q tradition and there is an article on Q by E.W. Martin. The first series ran for 10 issues and then folded in 1952. Val Baker resurrected the Review in 1966 and a further 27 issues were produced – before falling victim to local apathy and financial problems. The spirit of Q, the Educator, suffuses all these publications.

Final Years from 1934 to 1944

Q soldiered on with the Education Committee until 1934 after stepping down as chairman in 1931. In that year he wrote to a friend saying he had wanted to resign for some time but he had felt he had a role to play in the dealings with church schools. Q said 'the mere fact of one's being a churchman (however suspect) and not a Wesleyan was always something of a help'. Q also felt he could be of help in implementing the 1926 Hadow Report 'The Education of the Adolescent'. The principal recommendations were to raise the leaving age to 15 and extend the concept of secondary schools beyond the academic grammar schools to cover 'modern secondary schools' with a vocational bias. The Report foreshadowed the 1944 Act and the tripartite education system. Later in 1931, Q wrote, rather sadly, 'I have a feeling that all I've tried to do on the Committee has really been in vain – all except for the prolonged fight for fair treatment of the Church Elementary Schools . . . moreover, I have been considering the Income Tax and find that I must work. Well that's no hardship and I like it ever so much better than Committee meetings'. I think Q was considerably underestimating his wide contribution to the education service in Cornwall.

Thereafter, Q kept his interest in education in Cornwall but limited his active work to his Fowey Grammar School governorship and to the WEA. He carried on with his Cambridge and national work (with many speeches and prefaces for all and sundry) but began to feel tired and unwell in 1944. On 23rd March he had a fall in Fowey trying to avoid a passing car and his health deteriorated rapidly. He died on 12th May 1944 when Fowey was packed with troops and ships awaiting the signal for D-Day. The writer Derek Parker, an old boy of Fowey Grammar School, recently recalled the day (in the journal Slightly Foxed) when the history master, Mr Spreadbury, turned up with tears (or tears!) on his gown – and a posse of masters set out down the hill to the funeral of Q. The same Mr Spreadbury was a considerable local historian and a colleague of Q's on the local WEA committee. I did meet him myself once and felt I had met Q 'once removed'.

Death in 1944

When Q died the obituaries were in every paper from The Times through to the Halifax Daily Courier, Methodist Recorder (joint obituary with Dame Ethel Smyth), Children's Newspaper and Motor-Boat Yachting etc. The Huddersfield Daily Examiner called Q 'the last of the Victorians'. The Observer memorably stated 'he belonged equally to County and Country. His feet moved more surely on Parnassus where he shrewdly gathered "other men's flowers" as well as planting his own, because he was also a man of his parish, sworn to his Duchy, known to his own'. In the Western Sunday Telegraph, R.A.J. Walling pointed out that on the very day of Q's death, the great Education Bill presented by R.A. Butler was passing its third reading. Q had a reservation or two about the Bill but sympathised with its spirit and saw it as the realisation of many of his dreams. The 1944 Act brought in the three stages of primary, secondary and further education, modified the dual system of state and church schools and raised the leaving age to 15 with provision to raise to 16 when practicable – the latter took some time.

 Q Memorial Fund

 After Q's death, subscriptions were invited towards a Memorial Fund and a substantial sum was raised including donations from schools all over Cornwall. The response showed the affection and respect felt for Q. The legacy of Q still lives on through the Q Memorial Fund Committee which is supported by Cornwall Council. Members of the Committee (I have the pleasure to be one of them) meet once or twice a year to give grants to encourage and support writers in their research and in exploring the culture, identity and future prospects of Cornwall. In recent times interesting publications have been supported in a wide range of areas e.g. Catalogue of Jack Clemo's papers, John Blight, Delabole Slate, Daffodil Industry, Cornish Flora, Frank Baker, Henry Scott Tuke, Treseders Nurseries and Truro Union Workhouse – and many others. Three years ago the Q Fund produced a significant DVD which brings a lot of material about Q together in one place. It includes a new film about Q's life, a full bibliography, a listing of archives and their locations, something about the Memorial Fund plus many interesting extras e.g. Q's BBC broadcast in aid of the Launceston Hospital Appeal – one of the few, if only, surviving examples of Q's voice – it is soft and 'educated' with a slight Cornish burr which rolls the 'r' in Cornwall. Q's voice and work lives on through the Memorial Committee and other enthusiasts – Q would be very pleased to know this.

Q Memorial and Hall Walk

Q's granite memorial, at Hall Walk (where someone took a pot shot at Charles the First) was unveiled in September 1948 – it looks down the Fowey Estuary towards Q's old home at The Haven. There is a fine inscription on the memorial which includes the words:

'. . .he was eminent alike in learning and in his long service to both universities and to education in Cornwall, courteous in manner, charitable in judgement, chivalrous in action. . .'

Q was a great Cornishman whose contribution to many fields was immense. His dedicated work for education in Cornwall and his underpinning vision was truly outstanding and set the foundation for the school system that remains today. His great educational spirit remains with us.