I must say that coming here today I felt something like a modern Rip Van Winkle. (Laughter.) It seemed to me that the familiar scenes of my boyhood had either passed away altogether, or been so transformed that I could hardly recognise them. It may perhaps seem strange to some of you that when I went first to the King’s School Canterbury – I don’t care now about revealing the time – in 1839, I was a small boy eight years old, and probably at that time the very last thing that would have entered my head, if I had thought about dinners at all more luxurious than legs of mutton, would have been the idea that I should ever have presided over a meeting of this sort.
In those days there was only, beside Bell Harry tower, a tower and a tenth to the cathedral. The other tower, which I suppose has existed so long that most of you have forgotten it was called the new tower, was then about 12ft high; in fact I was tempted as a small boy to stand by it and wonder how many times it was higher than myself. (Laughter.)
The old buildings of the King’s School that I remember are gone. There is not much trace of them left; and I can say this, that if the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury never did anything else for the rising generation other than pulling down those old buildings they deserve an immense deal of praise and credit at our hands. (Hear, hear.) The old school, when I first knew it, was by far the most abominable structure that ever existed in this kingdom. (Laughter.) It had every fault that a building could have. It had one fireplace, the heat of which went up the chimney. (Laughter.) It had eight windows containing panes that were broken within a fortnight of the beginning of the half-year. The Archdeacon asks me whose fault that was. It was the fault of the boys of course; and there was a regulation, intended to correct that fault perhaps, that no windows should be mended during the half-year. (Laughter.) And you may imagine what a chamber, about the length of this room, about three times its height, and half its width, was like, with every one of its windows broken in December and January, even, Mr Archdeacon, in this healthy city. I went there at the tender age I have mentioned without a cold in my head. I got one the following November, and I do not think I got rid of it for the ten years I remained at the school. (Laughter.)
These are not pleasant memories but I see by me one or two who will bear out my statements. I see my friend Waddington, who sniffled and snuffled with me 40 years ago. (Laughter.) I see Alderman Frend who, happily for himself, was only a day boy. He had a kindly mother, whose hospitality, I am bound to say, was open to us all. Nothing gave her greater pleasure than to get a selection of hungry boys and feed them; and, though Alderman Frend deserved popularity and got it for his own sake, I am not quite sure that he did not get it a little more for the sake of his mother. (Hear, hear.)
I remember my first entrance with three other small creatures; and the question was what to do with us. An examination was entered upon, which was conclusive, but, as far as the examiner was concerned, not severe. I was the third boy, and a great friend of mine, Henry Benson, was just above me. We had come from a dame’s school in Hawk’s-lane, a school which had the honour of introducing into literature my friend, Mr Waddington. the then head master, who had a way of going straight to the point, said to the first boy, who, I believe, was a Frend, “How do you spell soot,”, pronouncing the word as ‘sut’.” The boy did not like to risk it. Benson was never daunted, and he said s-u-t. (Laughter.) The method of spelling having been disposed of, I, with some power of calculation, tried another sound and said “s-o-o-t”. So I went first to the form; and I remained in the school ten long years. Harry Benson was next to me the whole of the time.
I cannot call to mind that stern struggle that Dr Blore was depicting between two small boys – how with towels round their heads they sat late into the night conning Euclid and puzzling their heads over Greek grammars (laughter); but, whether it was from keen competition of from a desire to please the genial and pleasant master we both loved, Benson and I closed our career as second boy and third boy.
Still those were great days. We were bullied and knocked about. There were scenes in the old dormitory that I should not like, after dinner, to recall. There was one man I recollect. I would not mention his name for the world; but he was my pet aversion. I do not think he behaved kindly to me. I looked at him in his bed and out of it, and I registered this resolve. “If ever I catch you when I am big enough to thrash you, you shall have the best hiding you ever had in your life.” (Laughter.) But he went off to peaceful pursuits. I went to the University and to the bar; and it was not till 25 years after we parted that I met him. The amusing thing was that I did not hate him the least in the world. (Laughter.) I had been made a recorder of one of the boroughs of this county, and a peaceful, quiet man in spectacles came up to me and said, “You will remember so and so.” I looked at him and I laughed. He said “Why do you laugh?” I replied “Nothing in the world shall induce me to tell you.” I did not tell him, and to this day I do not suppose he guesses how vehemently and determinedly I hated him.
The school in those days numbered 70 scholars in all. When I went I made the 69th, but 70 was about our number. But with our limited number even then we did not do badly at the university. We sent an average of three boys to the university, which I think is almost the proportion you send now, and those boys held their own and held their own fairly well. The school then was a typical middle class school. I think that is much what you would wish it to be regarded as now. (Hear, hear.) I believe that there is no desire on the part of the masters to look upon it or advertise it as a second Eton or Harrow. They wish rather to fit their boys for the stern struggle of life. (Hear, hear.) They do not desire mere ornamental scholars. They do not wish for titled names on their lists. Probably you would say, “If they did they would not get them” (a laugh), and I think very likely that is the case, and fortunately for the school that is so. I hope for myself that I may not be considered egotistical when I say that I owe my whole career to this school. (Cheers.) When I went away from it I took with me what was the main help of my life. I was an exhibitioner of this old school fund. At that time unless I had got that help I could not have gone to the university. Without it I could not have followed the profession which I have struggled on in so long and which I love. Pray do not think that in saying that I am guilty of any vanity or any notion that I have achieved great things. Very far from it. I can look back, and I know that if I had done my best with the start that was given me here I might have done even better than I have. But let that be. I was enabled to follow an honourable profession, and to avail myself of opportunities which have given me the position which I now hold. For many others this school has done the same; and I may say, humble as my own career has been, it must be encouraging to boys who are beginning their walk in life to find that even moderate success has been achieved by men who when young were no better than themselves. Considerations like that give these gatherings their great importance and considerations like that have helped this school to be what it now is. (Hear, hear.)
Mr Wallace was as kindly a man as ever lived – a kindly, genial gentleman. (Hear, hear.) I have heard since that his scholarship was somewhat superficial. Whether that was so I do not know, for I never had enough to test it myself. (Laughter.) So far as I was concerned he seemed to me to always have the right word to put in the right place, and he had above all the tact of making lessons agreeable and pleasant. You went to him feeling that it would not be a dull set task, but that there would be something to enliven it – often a pleasant jest. Of course we all laughed at his jests. That a boy is bound to do. He must laugh at his master’s jests just as men at the bar laugh at the jests of the dullest of the judges. (Laughter.) This I will say for Wallace, a great many of his jests were worth laughing at. (Hear, hear.)
Then the second on the staff was old Beatson. (Laughter.) Some of us – many of us – know him well. Such of you as did not know him know his son, and can imagine pretty well what manner of man he was. He was a capital fellow for finding out what a boy knew and what he did not know, and I am afraid he was rather prone to what we call generalisation. His notion of his form was – and he carried out by means of the cane with very considerable energy – that two or three boys in his form knew or ought to know whatever question he thought fit to put, that two or three pupils possibly might know, but that as to the rest it was hopeless. (Laughter.) He used to begin something in this way. He would put a question to Benson. No answer. “Biron.” No answer. “Jones, Smith, Brown, Robinson, you, sir! You! You!” He walked down the rest of the form, and had a good cut at the last five or six. (Laughter.) If that didn’t wake ’em up he tried his chance later on in the day. Now and then a fellow from the lower ranks would get out of the way of the cane. Beatson stopped, and if the boy answered rightly up he went. But if it was wrong, O, dear me, did not that boy get it. (Laughter.)
He had his genial time too, and no one was more pleasant that old Beatson then. I remember we were near an examination, and I was one of the bad boys in what was then the 3rd form, the top of the lower school. I had been doing badly; and at last he said to me with mingled gravity and humour, “Biron, you must be ill at this approaching examination.” I said, “Good gracious, sir, what do you mean?” I thought he was going by physical means to reduce my system. (Laughter.) But now he was kinder, and merely said more in sorrow than in anger, “you must go on an unwholesome diet.” He was bold enough to suggest that I should take lemon and a tumbler of milk on top of it. He assured me that that would make me so seriously unwell that I should be under no peril. I did not like the motion, even in those days od something extremely nasty to drink, (laughter), so I set to work and passed as decent an examination as usual.
To convey how shorthanded we were in those days, I may mention that junior masters were unknown. There was an upper master and lower master, and an English master. The last (old Fisher) was in his way a character. And I believe one of the most genial fellows that ever trod the earth, a man of strange ability, of singular histrionic power. He would have made an actor; he would have made an author. He, if he had had an opportunity in this world, was fit for any position that a man could attain to. Yet he was a humble usher in the school with about £80 or £90 a year, coming in to have his dinner with the boys, living over a little green grocer’s shop in Northgate, but a gentleman from one year’s end to the other, a kindly, honourable accomplished gentleman, poor but in his poverty a man that now I should be only too glad to shake hands with. I would welcome him and be proud to say he was my friend in any company I have ever had the chance of mixing in. (Hear, hear.)
The French master – poor old Martinet – was an eccentric in his way. We persuaded him on one occasion that he was the only Frenchman who knew how to ride, (a laugh) and he provided himself with top boots and breeches and made a match with a little man who was a professional jockey and used to keep the Fleur de Lis Hotel, to ride three miles across hurdles on Barham Downs. What is more he attempted the feat, but happily the first hurdle was too much for him. (Laughter.) He fell off, and there was an end of his career so far as sporting proclivities went. (Renewed laughter.) He too was a man of accomplishments; and, though it was the custom in those days to humbug Frenchmen and though we played the fool with him as boys will, out of class there was not one of us who had not an affection for him. (Hear, hear.)
Well then to talk of the school as it then was and to contrast it with what it is now, a man ought to know more about what it is now, and therefore I shall attempt no such contrast. I will only judge by the results; and though I will not say that boy for boy there is a better set or a set better able to hold their own in the world. I know great things have been done. (Hear, hear.) It is no light matter in these days of competition to maintain the prosperity of this school when everything, one would think would tend against a school in a country town, or even in a Cathedral town. (Hear.) Cheap locomotion is now at the disposal of everyone. There is not a school in the Kingdom that is not well within the reach of a humble purse. Yet instead of numbers decreasing and boys being attracted elsewhere from the county and from the city, they throng to this school because they know they can get as good an education here as is available anywhere.
The list of honours read this morning is so long that it makes me almost astonished when one reads down the names. I was recently at Eton, on the 4th of June, and there a list of honours won by Eton boys was read, and I assure you it was not much more than double the number you can display here today, though there they have 900 boys against your 170 and they have the very pick of the boys throughout the whole of the kingdom. (Cheers.)
Robert Biron (1830-95) was at King’s from 1839 to 1849. He went to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and was called to the bar. He was Recorder of Hythe and of Sandwich and Deal, and then Police Magistrate at Lambeth Police Court. These reminiscences, in a speech at the annual dinner of Old King’s Scholars and friends of the School at the Fountain Hotel in 1883, were published in the Kentish Gazette.