Sopwith SS 1902

Sydney Sopwith 1902

A former colleague of mine, in a paper delivered to the Classical Association on the teaching of two great classical headmasters, Butler and Kennedy, has written a delightful note on the impermanency of the daily performances of masters in their form-rooms:

“Nothing, as schoolmasters well know, passes so easily into oblivion as the teaching of the form-room; nothing is so difficult to describe; so ready to elude recovery. The preacher, the political orator, the actor deliver their words to an audience ephemeral indeed, but adult, voluntary, capable of criticism and comparison. He who teaches in school has an audience immature and inexperienced, and, although highly critical, yet under conscription. He confronts them for months at a stretch and his appearance can have no glamour, no air of ‘occasion’, for those who hear him.”

He might have added that the school master’s performances are not merely twice nightly, like that of other variety artists, but four or five times daily; and that many of the interludes are occupied with even more varied performances in spheres other than the form-room.

Very Old Boys have many of the characteristics of Very Ancient Mariners, but they seldom have either the eloquence or the glittering eye that can stay the passing reader with pictures of the academic life of a school of their day; but it may be of some interest to try to recall some of the actors in the form-rooms of King’s at the beginning of the century.

Owing to the fact that I deserted the Classics for two years for the adventures of Science my experiences in school with the Headmaster – then Mr. Galpin – were limited to his lessons in Greek Syntax with the Fifth Forms. These were taken in the Parry Library, and each week we had to be word-perfect in some three or four pages of Thompson’s text-book. Galpin would come in on the stroke of the clock with a dignified but brisk purposefulness and glance rapidly round the silent and apprehensive form with what had every appearance of an excess of benevolence, as if he were welcoming us all to a party. This deceptive appearance was reinforced by his habit of rubbing his hands together with what we knew in fact to be a malicious glee. There was no introductory nonsense; a few questions to be written, and then the real business of the day. He began his questioning in much the same way as that in which Trollope’s Mr. Chaffanbrass might begin his cross-examination of a trembling witness, with a sort of oleaginous helpfulness which was designed to destroy the morale of his victims and lead them to total confusion.

“Now, Strahan, I am sure that you can tell us about the construction of a πρίν clause when the sentence is positive? Not quite the same, you will remember, as in a negative sentence. Shall we have the negative construction first? Yes, I think that would be the better course.”

“Ah, Budd, if I remember rightly you were not very strong on your examples last week. Perhaps you can give us an example which might clarify Strahan’s rather confused version of Mr. Thompson’s rule. Would it help perhaps if I gave you the English of a most admirable example first?”

After the complete defeat of the entire form in a few minutes, Galpin would suggest that we might feel more comfortable about our knowledge of the foundations of the Greek language if we were to learn those three pages again for next week as well as the next three pages. He would be delighted to go through these and give us any help he possibly could. His help consisted in altering the wording of nearly every one of Mr. Thompson’s rules and adding more suitable examples – “But I think you will be better equipped if you learn Mr. Thompson’s examples as well.”

Mr. Galpin and Mr. Thompson had, we were frequently told, been colleagues at Marlborough. Mr. Thompson, we were as frequently assured, was an excellent scholar; His text-book was the best yet written; but the impression we gained was that, like Wordsworth’s “Excursion”, it would never do.

“Ah” – and Galpin rubbed his hands together with more than his usual malicious heartiness – “the next time I see my old friend, Mr. Thompson, I must tell him that he might have made that rule just a shade clearer”, or, “He ought to have given us a slightly more memorable example, don’t you think so, Sopwith?”

It seemed unfair that I should be asked to arbitrate between these two old friends in their own field of classical scholarship; but it would obviously make things more comfortable all round if I gave an affirmative answer, and it was possible that an enthusiastic affirmation of my belief in his superior erudition might even dispel the glint of malice from the smile with which he was awaiting my answer.

“Yes, Sir, I am quite certain that it would be better.”

Galpin was above all things efficient. Whatever he set out to do he did. He set out to teach us Greek Syntax, and somehow in these paralysing periods he came as near to achieving his object as is humanly possible.

Galpin used to give to all Confirmation candidates a little book, Helps to Worship. I have mine still, and on the flyleaf, below his presentation inscription in his firm and serviceable handwriting, is also inscribed: I Timothy vi, 12. And whenever I see it I can still imagine Galpin rubbing his hands together – wholly benevolently now, I hope – and saying:

“Ah, Sopwith, what a neat and easy example of the Cognate Accusative! I think even you could remember that one. Perhaps St. Paul had you in mind.”

My first form was, I think, called Upper IVA, but form nomenclature differs so widely in different schools and changes so rapidly at King’s that I really don’t remember and it certainly does not matter. Its headquarters were on the ground floor of the Parry building at the School House end; and it was presided, rather than ruled, over by a young classical master, J. M. Edmonds, who was an easy-going form-master with an impish sense of humour. Our main bill of fare consisted of Virgil and Horace, chiefly memorable because we had to learn by heart some twenty lines of the first and rather more of Horace each week. One of the very occasional highlights in this form was the singing of Horace’s Odes to tunes which fitted all the intricacies of Horatian prosody. Sometimes this performance took place in Edmonds’ own room in the School House, where he was Tutor, and on rare occasions in the form-room, where there happened to be a piano. Although this musical interlude seemed to give every opportunity for this easy-going form to stage a riot, it never did so. Above us in the Library, Jerry Guest would probably be in the middle of a complicated mathematical problem with the Army Class, and therefore we sang the more vigorously and at tremendous speed so that we might have as much of the fun as possible before an emissary might arrive from the Army Class with a mild and courteous translation of Jerry’s unutterable protest. In fact I believe that this was the primary object of the operation.

Another curious feature of this form was the system of marking by places. Edmonds could not be bothered with written tests, and all learning work was tested by oral questioning. If, say, No. 5 was asked a question and failed to answer it and it was finally answered by No. 10, then No. 10 took the place of No. 5 and all who had failed to answer the question moved down one. This made such lessons extremely exciting, and by the end of my first year I had acquired a useful technique for the game. I learnt the latter part of the lesson very thoroughly and thought out all the possible supplementary and unexpected questions – for Edmonds was an unexpected sort of man – rather as the cross-word expert studies the modes of thought in those who set such things. I would slide gently down the form to somewhere near the bottom and then wait anxiously for one of my “specials”. With the best luck one of those would start with No. 1, and there would then be the chance of the question arriving untouched, after the most excruciating suspense, at my lowly position. I could then take my place as No. 1, and again with more luck that would be the end of the period and I would get top marks.

How Edmonds correlated these haphazard and unfair estimates with the marks for the written exercises is not known, but the result was that large slabs of the form were always bracketed equal in the weekly orders; and we were always waiting for the final assembly of the term – when the Headmaster read out the end-of-term orders and promotions – and hoping to see Galpin rub his hands and hear him gleefully announce: “Upper IVA. The whole form bracketed equal, 1st”.

Edmonds also helped G.E.V. Austen, another young classical scholar, with the Classical VI. Together they produced one of the best editions of the “Characters” of Theophrastus. The theory was that Edmonds collected the illustrations while Austen did the work; but this is unlikely as Edmonds later, as Classical Lecturer at Jesus College, Cambridge, was responsible for some of the volumes of the Loeb Library. In the early days of the First World War there occasionally appeared in The Times what may be called national poems, such as Laurence Binyon’s For the Fallen, Housman’s Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries and Hardy’s Only a man harrowing clods. Among the less noted of these were two epigrams which could have been written only by a scholar steeped in the Greek Anthology:

These in the glorious morning of their days

For England’s sake lost all but England’s praise,

and On Some who died early in the Day of Battle:

Went the day well? We died and never knew:

But well or ill, England, we died for you.

These were written·over the initials J.M.E. But I remember Edmonds as my first form­master who infected his form with something of his easy-going courtesy and something, too, of his impish humour, who taught us to work hard, but how not to take it all too seriously.

If variety be the spice of life then the move from Edmonds’ form to that of the Reverend L.G.H. Mason, commonly known as Tar, was a great deal too spicy for me. Tar was an O.K.S. who had returned to the School as a master exactly thirty years before, and was now distinguished by a large paunch, heavy-bearded jowls, raul-drill eyes, and a gown that was green with age and wear. There were a few who could “take” him and may even have regarded his form-room appearances with some kind of dismal amusement. The oldest inhabitant of the form in my time could cat-sleep through the most terrifying periods and wake up at the appropriate moments to supply one of Tar’s favourite phrases from Conington’s Virgil, or to laugh at one of his biting witticisms directed at the trembling translator of the moment or at the notes and comments of the scholarly and majestic editor of Horace, T. E. Page, whom for some reason he held in special contempt and whom, for some still odder reason, he called the Gadfly. Some, no doubt, revered Tar for his scholarship and may have learnt much from him; but for most of us the year i n his form was a year of terror. I tried to reduce this time by working at all my written work for him as I have never worked before or since, but as everyone did the same my efforts were unsuccessful. A description of these performances would require a style compounded of Dante and Peter Cheyney; and I prefer to pass to one whose memory should really be embalmed in the leisurely calm of the prose of Walter Pater.


1905 Form V Upper EK Barber, V Arnold, IR Madge, LP Abbott, CG Williamson  // WN Kempe, JD Abrahams, KB Dickson, EB Hosking, ET Gage, SS Sopwith, GD Maclear  // EA Graty, AR Bellars, Rev LH Evans, CN Smith, CB Simeon  // RM Gent, DL Robertson, AB Emden

When I was in Tar’s form I escaped his Latin and Greek Verse work by nibbling at Science, and at the end of the year I went over to the Science Side altogether. But I was officially in the Reverend L.H. Evans’ form and worked with it for some periods, and of these I remember best those afternoon periods in the winter when he used to read to us some of his favourite passages from English poetry. Evans always looked and spoke as if he were just falling asleep, and for that reason, I suppose, he was universally known as Winks; in fact he also looked and spoke as if he were about to dissolve in tears. It seems strange now that his drowsy and lachrymose rendering of poetry should give us so much pleasure. His taste was Victorian, not unnaturally, since Queen Victoria had been dead less than two years; and I remember his reading the most Victorian of Tennyson’s poems, as Aylmer’s Field and The Holy Grail, though the poem that has always stayed with me was by Tennyson in another mood, Lucretius. Winks used to help me, too, in my struggles with Browning. He may have read to us in the summer too, but if he did, we must have fallen victims to his drowsy voice and the poems must have fallen into oblivion as he read them.

There was no official teaching of English at King’s then. It was in our written versions from Latin and Greek that we learnt to write English, and I suppose we learnt how to read it through the minutely careful study of classical texts. I read one play of Shakespeare at school, Hamlet. We prepared long passages from it and were asked to parse words, analyse sentences, paraphrase passages, give parallel quotations and so forth. We used Aldis Wright’s edition, and the typical note which we had to learn was one on the line, If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones:

mutine, mutiny. See Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, iii, i: ‘Had but thy legions there rebelled or mutined’. The verb ‘mutine’ does not occur elsewhere in Shakespeare. We have, however, ‘mutine’ as a substantive, Hamlet, v. ii. 6. Cotgrave gives ‘Mutiner, to mutine; Mutinateur, a mutiner’, i.e. mutineer. This form ‘mutiner’ occurs in Coriolanus, i. i. 254, but in Tempest, iii. ii. 41, the Folio has ‘mutineere’.

We may or may not have learnt a good deal about the English language, but if we learnt to love Shakespeare or English poetry I think the fault must be laid to those winter afternoon readings. I can hear his voice as in some superlatively tranquil dream:

The Gods, who haunt

The lucid interspace of world and world,

Where never creeps a cloud, or moves a wind,

Nor ever falls the least white star of snow,

Nor ever lowest roll of thunder moans,

Nor sound of human sorrow mounts to mar

Their sacred everlasting calm.

And that is just where Winks ought to be.

Sydney Sopwith (1901-05) went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After spells teaching at the Lycée de Poitiers and Northampton School, he taught at Shrewsbury School from 1915. On his retirement in 1948 he was brought to King’s by John Shirley and became the first housemaster of Galpin’s. He finally retired in 1967, aged 80, and died in 1974. These reminiscences were published in The Cantuarian, April 1956, pp. 394-97.