Hoots from the Archive - "Speech to the Chief on His Retirement"

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 29 Jun 2023

Ian Bailey

We are currently in the process of sorting through a box of material belonging to the late Ian Bailey. The material includes typed transcripts of many of Ian’s assemblies and talks on the history of MGS, and is a treasure trove of material. 

We recently published High Master Peter Mason's first report to the Governors after two terms at MGS in 1962. The following speech was given forty three years ago, on the retirement of Peter Mason as High Master in July 1978:

"In 1924, I was a small boy at the North Manchester prep school, part of the vast assembly in the old Free Trade Hall, to see J.L. Paton retire; in November 1946, John Coatman, vice-chairman of the Governors spoke when D.G. Miller received his leaving present in the Memorial Hall and in Dec 1961, we said goodbye to Eric James. Now we are gathered together to say God speed to High Master Peter Mason.

It's quite a thought, over the last 463 years, since the School started, about 30,000 boys give or take a hundred or so, have come and gone; approximately 6 to 700 masters - but only 38 High Masters - in fact only 4 this century. Their influence is paramount; we assistants may have a pretty good conceit of ourselves and you can sing the praises of Francis Jones, old Broadie, Birdie Bruton, Puggy Dakers, Shandy Chevalier, Gadro Newbould, Simmie, Arty Moore, Haffie Field and the great Hyman Lob as well as many others who will loom over the horizon of your memories, but it is the Chiefs who make or mar the School. And they have had their hairy moments: - Barrow was HM for 43 years 1677 - 1720 and round about 1690 he had a riot on his hands, which lasted a fortnight; the boys barricaded themselves inside the school and fired at the legs of authority - I think it was something to do with the School meals! HM Purnell, greatly daring in 1752 decided to let the boys act in a play and some pretty sharp words were passed between him and John Byron - of Christians Awake fame - who did not approve. But Purnell stuck to his guns - and the Dramatic Society is one of the strongest in the School today - Robert Powell being our latest star. Henry Brook must have been more than a little embarrassed when he had to find a new Second Master in 1746 - the previous one having been hanged! I hasten to explain that Thomas Coppock, an old boy of the School, having taken his degree at BNC Oxford, was teaching at the School, but flung his mortar board to the winds and joined Bonnie Prince Charlie when he and his Highlandmen came to Manchester. Coppock was captured by Butcher Cumberland at Carlisle and summary Prussian type justice was meted out. Coppock died like a hero, in fact he said to other Manchester men on the gibbet, "Never mind lads, where we're going we'll not suffer from Cumberland's justice". Still, the HM was a very embarrassed man. (Brideoak is the only HM who was also an old boy and also a Governor - he was a bit of a crafty character and on his death got himself a fine statue in St. George's Chapel, Windsor.) I have always admired Charles Lawson who put in 58 years at Long Millgate (1749 - 1807). The School had boarders then and it turned out a remarkable list of eminent men for the Church, the Law and the Services. He was known as Millgate's Flogging Turk at one stage in his long career, but when De Quincey was there, in 1800, there was no corporal punishment at all - cynics would say that Lawson was too old by then to wield a cane properly - he was after all over 70. He always spoke to the boys in the third person:- pshaw, blockhead, what is he saying? was his favourite mode of address.

When asked how he obtained such remarkable results. H.M. Walker here just 100 years ago simply said "I walked about." By all accounts he was a hard driver of boys and did not believe they could be overworked and he would be ruthless too with his staff and sacked nine of them one morning in 1871 for disloyalty - his successors would not be human, if there hadn't been occasions when they wistfully looked back on those authoritarian days and wished for their return. Anyway, the papers took up the case but neither Walker nor his Governors uttered a word of explanation. When Walker was leaving St. Paul's in 1877, he met the editor of the Manchester Examiner who referred to the dismissal case, but now said that he the highest regard for Mr. Walker. Walker however replied:- "My dear Sir, you forget. The first purpose for which newspapers exist is for advertisement. I never had so many boys at the MGS as in the term you commenced your attack on me." On one occasion he was at a very grand dinner and the conversation was exceedingly boring; so Walker started to talk about hanging. His host thought that that was not a proper subject for an instructor of the young and said so. Walker then leant across the table and said "Sir, I would travel 10 miles to see you hanged". He once visited some friends and a little trained dog ran into the hall and began to go through its tricks unasked. "An excellent example", said Walker gravely, "of the evil effects of over-education on a naturally weak intellect".

That's all very well, but of course Walker's greatest service to the School was when he saved it from extinction by instituting fees - the revenues from the mills were drying up. In the 1860s the first fee-paying pupils were admitted - in a way it was a form of independence; there was immense and bitter opposition at the time, but the results were startling; the numbers went up from 200 to 900 in 20 years and the buildings that some some of you and I knew as School were erected. Altogether he raised £150,000 for the School in the 18 years he was here; undoubtedly he was an eminent Victorian and is rightly called our second founder.

There is no need for me to go into detail about the effects of J.L. Paton's influence. I think it could be summed up by saying that he stressed that ALL the boys were important. As he said on his first Speech Day in 1903, “It is the nobility of the common people that is the salvation of the state, and it is the high tone of the rank and file of the School that is the salvation that School, and it is for that high tone of the rank and file of the School that I make my first appeal to the Manchester boys. We cannot do without your help; with you there is nothing we cannot do.”

Many of you were Miller men and will always be grateful to him for smoothly making the move from Long Millgate to Rusholme. The foundation stone has on it: Fit mutatio loci, non ingenii. Hubert Field's translation was:- though the home be new, yet the spirit remains the same. And I think it has. Some of you were James's men and were at School in the 1950s when the School experienced a resurgence of effort after the dark days of the War.

And now we are saying goodbye to our present Chief. What impact has he made on the School and how is he leaving it for his successor, the 39th Chief? I look back over the years, since 1962 and am immediately struck by the number of changes, for the good, in various ways, he has made, and as we now can see, designed to safeguard our future. I can see a dual theme to his guardianship; in the tangible sense, he looked at the state of the buildings and the need for more. This resulted in a face-lift for 45 classrooms, A Sixth Form Block, The Music-School, The Common Room, The Language Lab, The DPA, The Squash Courts and the extension to the Library - in fact a general improvement in the atmosphere in which boys were to learn. All this was, of course, the fruit of the Appeal, now topping the Million mark, which also finances the Bursary Fund - and note that all this was conceived long before we imagined that help from the State would end. 

At the same time, he considered the almost mystical thing, the intangible side, the sum total of 1450 boys and 95 masters working towards a common end; he was concerned that boys should have a sense of belonging to the School - always a problem here - but we're all Jock Tamson's bairns, whether we're Balliol Scholars or not. Some years ago, he instructed me to include in Ulula the names of ALL the boys leaving and their destinations - not just the Oxbridge Scholars; the splendid work of a pastoral nature done by those superb school masters, Mac Ricketts and David Copley the Surmasters, and Peter Laycock, the Lower Master, offices created by the Chief, has contributed greatly to the general happiness of the boys in the School. You could say that the reorganisation of the curriculum, whereby the 90 year old anomaly of the Classical Side and the Modern Side was done away with, so that boys could follow a common curriculum up to 'O' level has had a unifying effect on the School, as well as being beneficial educationally. 

Then there was the History of the School and that Old Mancunian bedside book, the Biographical Register - the Blue Book - The Bible, published in 1965, but started shortly after the Chief came. This is a social document of the first importance, showing the part played by Old Mancunians the world at large over the past 80 years; but in a way more important, it is in an instrument for binding together that immensely diverse products of the School - and the next edition will be published shortly. This leads me to the OMA. I go with Tim Hall, a loyal OM who is not only the Hon General Secretary of the Association but also a Governor of the School, positions which he holds with equal distinction - to the various Section meetings and over the years the Chief has been assiduous in his attendance since he has felt the need to reforge the links with OM's. In his time, new sections have been formed in Sussex, Yorkshire and Manchester and a month ago, as a result of his visit to Jerusalem - there is to be an Israeli Section. And only last Sunday, some of us were privileged to be witnesses at a unique occasion. We listened to the 38th HM of the MGS preaching the sermon in Exeter Cathedral, within sight of the tomb of our pious Founder. The Chief restated Hugh Oldham's purpose to found this School for the promotion of Godliness & Good Learning, twin standards that are as vitally important today as they were in Henry VIII's day; and we must ever be vigilant to guard and protect and maintain those standards. It was indeed a statement of faith; no one there could fail to be moved. Some years ago he started an Annual Letter which goes out to 8000 OMs all over the world; the letters he receives show how much this contact is appreciated.

And throughout his time here, we have seen a School that is busy; new members of Staff are always struck by this; the academic work is being done; the School results testify to this, but there are innumerable ways in which the manifold interests of bright boys are being encouraged:- the plays, the Concerts, the camps, Treks and games - and societies that span the alphabet from Aquarist to Zoological Society. I think of the splendid Open Days and that great day in 1965 when HM the Queen paid us a gracious visit.

How has he done it? In his speech at the Old Boys Dinner last December, he told us what he considered the role of a High Master; ranging from pedagogue to Managing Director; but one thing he said seemed to me to be the key to all the events and advances that we have seen over the last 16 years. He said that one of this roles was that of an animateur; that was why so much had been done; why men and boys had tackled successfully so many difficult enterprises. To quote a personal example, my interest in the history of the School was started by the High Master and it is a continuing interest for which I shall always be grateful to him. Walker "simply walked about"; Paton said that all you needed to do with boys was "life the lid"; Peter Mason was an animateur.

So when the cloud, at one time no bigger than a man's hand, of comprehensivation, became a real threat, the School, under the wise and far-seeing guidance of the Chief was ready - we had already noted his gallant battling with the wallahs at Whitehall - and I am sure the vast majority of Old Boys and friends of the School breathed a sigh of relief when the Governors announced their plans for Independence. For myself, I had no fears. I knew in my bones that the High Master would keep faith with the Founders' intent and purpose, the pursuit of Godliness & Good Learning. So, he is leaving the School strong and alive, still producing Mancunians who are eager to strive - to Dare to be Wise - and who are the better for being aware of their human limitations. Peter Mason has wrought well for the Manchester Grammar School and future historians will rank him among our great High Masters.

And so, Chief, I ask you to accept this gift from the Old Mancunians; in fact it is a joint gift from the OMA and the members of the Common Room - so please may I have it back so that John Bell can give it to you in a few days' time; and with it go our affection, regard and sincere thanks for all you have done for us in a testing time in our history; may you have a long and happy retirement - and haste ye back from time to time."


John Murdoch (1961)

0 Likes Posted 9 months ago

A wonderful, entertaining and thoughtful review of the leadership of High Masters, presented in typical Ian Bailey style. Thank you for making this available through Hoots from the Archive.

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