The search for Stowe’s first Headmaster was an anxious one. The new school’s fine premises were distinctly run-down; the finances tight; the academic facilities negligible. The whole project might swiftly collapse without very special leadership. By a piece of good fortune, that vital commodity was found.
Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect tasked with converting the tired 18th century mansion into a viable boarding school, returned home one day in 1922 to find his wife, the Literary Editor of The Spectator, chatting to one of her book reviewers. The visitor, a Lancing Housemaster, exuded scholarship, charm and elegance. A dazzlingly erudite conversation was in progress and Williams-Ellis listened spellbound. Before the day was over, the Stowe Governors were informed that their search was over. John Fergusson Roxburgh was their man.
The Governors were soon under the spell of the urbane thirty-four-year-old. Not only was he crisply articulate and immaculately dressed, he also had an exciting vision for Stowe. Most of the public schools, he stated authoritatively, were still entrenched in their formative Victorian ways, unhappy places of stern repression and discouraging of independent thinking. As Lancing’s Deputy Headmaster (in all but name) he had made a start in creating change; as Headmaster of a new school, shorn of traditions, he would have far greater scope. His emphasis would not be on the herd, but on the individual; his goal, a happy school of independent thinkers. A few months later, on 11 May 1923, he was on the North Front steps, greeting his first ninety-nine pupils with kingly courtesy. The whisper went around that a fourth Duke of Buckingham and Chandos had arrived.
Roxburgh’s Stowe was to be inspired by the sacrifices and demands of the First World War. He himself had served on the Western Front as a subaltern and lost his younger brother in the Battle of Jutland. Eight of the nine Masters he had appointed for that first term had their own grim memories of horrific battlefields. They would quickly identify with Roxburgh’s simple but revolutionary vision, which had flowered with the poppies in Flanders’ fields: The glorious dead cried out to the survivors to fashion schools’ intent on furnishing the country with a new kind of leadership: people free enough in their thinking to challenge prevailing orthodoxies, creative enough to meet future needs for the general good. Roxburgh was soon articulating this vision. Stoics later in life were to be “leaders of English thought and taste and the chief creators of an enlightened public opinion”, capable of “seeing the events of today against the background of all our yesterdays; capable of taking up a new knowledge and making it part of the general consciousness; of resisting superstition, mass suggestion and stampeded opinion…”
This redefining of a liberal education would not be easy, particularly as Roxburgh intended to fashion change within the prevailing public school system rather than outside it. Of the nine first members of the Common Room, the youngest only lasted a term; two others, too progressively inclined to worry about little things like awarding marks, were soon on borrowed time. Only four made it through to the Thirties. There were some inspired appointments, however, in those all-important inter-war years, bright young people whose talents ensured that Stowe became known for its attractive new ideas.
Stowe also became known for the remarkable JF Roxburgh, presiding with such panache over his kingdom. “Because JF was always interesting and always different,” recalled Richard Heron Ward, a Stoic of the Twenties, “Stowe itself was interesting and different. The stamp of his personality was on every aspect of it; he made it, he was it and it was he.” As he was arguably “the most polished teacher, the most enlightened reformer and the greatest Headmaster of his generation”1, it was indeed fortunate that Roxburgh’s Stowe remained his for a whole twenty-six years.
The most polished teacher, the most enlightened reformer and the greatest Headmaster of his generation – Noel Annan
So all-pervading was his influence, he was bound to have a few critics. One of them, the aforementioned, talented but disgruntled writer Richard Heron Ward, suggested that he was simply an actor luxuriating in the role of the distinguished Headmaster. But an intended litany of failings dissolved into an illustration of his vitality: “He was at his greatest on great occasions; his ‘big scenes’ never found him off form: when he spoke from the pulpit, when there was something of moment to be announced to the assembled school, on Speech Day, in the event of a royal visitation, JF was never the retiring or scholarly Headmaster, a hidden power behind the scenes of the School; he was the actor-manager, not the stage director. Indeed, he gave the impression of being everywhere at once; his audience could feel his presence even when a scene was being played in which he did not appear. And he did appear, with the keenest and most genuine interest in everything which went on at the School, even on the least expected and least official occasion. If he was an Olympian, he was not a god who disdained to descend to earth and take cognizance of the affairs, however trivial and juvenile, of its mortal inhabitants.”
There would be others later on, most notably Brian Stephan, who similarly took against JF’s unique form of panache. But this was very much a minority view. In 1973, at the time of the 50th anniversary, the Common Room still contained several of JF’s appointments. Virtually all of them spoke of him with passionate admiration. The young school needed his showmanship. It was JF’s panache, day in, day out, that helped mould Stowe his splendid way. That dazzling mixture of scholarship, charm and elegance, which had amazed Clough Williams-Ellis, played a significant part in enabling his interpretation of a liberal education – one that would nurture the change makers of the future – to take first root at Stowe.
Mr Tony Meredith (Former staff 1973–2003)
1 Noel Annan, 1954, shortly after Roxburgh’s death.