Author: Harry Aspey

Schools at War by David Stranack

‘Schools at War’ by David Stranack is published by Phillimore & Co, Chichester, West Sussex, at £14.99.

There is no mention of the great defensive trench that stretched the length of a cricket field, the Home Guard, the nightly blackouts or the sadness when the lengthening list of casualties was read out after prep in the Old Third.

But a new book says Shebbear’s remoteness made it a popular choice for parents seeking a safe refuge for their sons during the Second World War.

While not actually hosting a complete school, Shebbear received a steady stream of individual evacuees from urban areas at risk from attack.

In fact, “In the late 1940s the school roll was 50 per cent higher than it was in 1939.”

When Jack Morris arrived from Bryanston in 1942 to take over the headship, pupils were faced with a variety of attitudes among the staff.

“Morris was a jingoistic patriot but some of the older members of the common room who had had personal experience of action in the First World War viewed the new conflict with apprehension, and a couple of masters who were confirmed pacifists completed an interesting spectrum of opinion.”

It adds: “Apart from the usual deprivations caused by a shortage of food and fuel, Shebbearians’ lives were largely unaffected by the war.

“But perhaps helping with the potato harvest alongside prisoners of war from Italy and Germany gave them some inkling of how other lives had been affected.

Other West Country school mentioned in the book include Blundell’s and Kelly College, while it is also records that Bideford Grammar School hosted pupils from Selhurst Grammar School, Croydon, for a while.

The extraordinary Russ family

There have always been brothers at Shebbear. A glance at the OSA Directory will show that.  Sons and grandsons have also followed fathers. Yet there has never quite been anything quite like the Russ family.

They get a brief mention in A School Apart on the founding of the OSA: “Among those who joined , the membership being one shilling, were three brothers – there were actually eight at Shebbear during Ruddle’s time.”

Two more from another generation were to follow. The story of the Russ family would probably have remained largely untold had it not been for interest in the troubled and secretive life of Patrick O’Brian, author of the best-selling and praised Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels.

Born Richard Patrick Russ, he changed his name to O’Brian in 1945, shortly after marrying Countess Mary Tolstoy, and reinvented himself as an Irishman. He died in 2000.

His father, Charles and seven uncles were boarders at Shebbear during Tommy Ruddle’s headship, and two of his older brothers were pupils in the early 1920s under John Rounsefell, one to die in action in 1943 and thought to be the role model for O’Brian’s fictitious hero Jack Aubrey.

At the same time, three of O’Brian’s sisters were boarders at Edgehill and an aunt was married to Frank Welch, Quaker businessman and eight-times President of the Old Shebbearians’ Association. The “kindly” Welches also looked after another younger Russ sister after the death of Charles’ first wife and wanted to adopt her.

O’Brian never made it to Shebbear because his father ran short of money. His stepson and definitive biographer Count Nikolai Tolstoy told me: ” I am sure he would have been a much happier child had he done so.”

Tolstoy’s meticulously researched biography Patrick O’Brian: The Making Of The Novelist, on which much of this article is based, is essentially about the author but reveals fascinating details about his closest relatives.

Why Karl Christian Russ, an immigrant from the Protestant heart of Germany, chose a small, remote non-conformist Bible Christian school in North Devon to educate his sons has never been explained.

After arriving from Saxony he had set up as a furrier in New Bond Street, London, and prospered. He won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1878 and soon became Queen Victoria’s favourite furrier. Home was a large house, lavishly furnished, in St John’s Wood where as a result of their Latin lessons, the Russ children, when not having to spend their holidays at Shebbear, had to address their parents as mater and pater.

Tolstoy says: “One of the major purposes of the English public school system as it evolved in Queen Victoria’s reign  was to produce a homogeneous class of gentlemanly administrators, qualified by classical education, probity of character and physical prowess to administer a burgeoning economy and ever-expanding Empire.”

Charles Russ, born in 1876, was the first to enter Shebbear at the age of 11, to be followed by Emil, Percy, Sidney, Ernest, Albert, Frederick and William.

The full version of this article will appear in the 2005 edition of the Shebbearian.