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As easy as ABG, Arthur Bellyse Gourlay

Steve Chilcott celebrates his former maths mentor and celebrated Sherborne historian, Arthur Bellyse Gourlay

Pupils in the Beckett Room in 1958

Pupils in the Beckett Room in 1958

The compulsory ‘new boys’ test’ at Sherborne required us to memorise staff nicknames, scattered locations vital to future sporting and/or scholastic activities, plus the following enigmatic lines: ‘Hunts’ dairy lorries steam up Greenhill’ and ‘A B Gourlay wears gold-rimmed spectacles’.
Quite why Hunts’ dairy lorries should steam up Greenhill a century after the invention of the petrol-powered internal combustion engine remains a mystery, but the spectacles of A B (‘Abe’) Gourlay were soon to become an important feature of everyday life. Plunged into the 3a scholarship stream on the strength of flukishly good Common Entrance results, I struggled with maths from the outset. It soon became evident that I hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance of passing maths O-level, so I was sent forthwith to join the remedials in Classroom 18.

A picture of the elusive A B Gourlay from 1971's The Shirburnian

A picture of the elusive A B Gourlay from 1971’s The Shirburnian

Classroom 18 – now the school archive – was tucked away below the Upper Library and hidden from view by several massive stone buttresses, presumably there to prevent a potentially Plinian eruption of ancient tomes from burying us alive. You entered through a low, gothic-arched doorway, then turned left for the spiral stairway up into the library, right into Abe’s dingy ‘lair of learning’.
‘Three rooms under the library,’ reported His Majesty’s School Inspectorate in 1905, ‘which are at present used as classrooms are totally unfit for that purpose, and their use as such should be discontinued as soon as possible.’ Abe demurred, describing the classroom in his History of Sherborne School (1950, 2nd edition 1971) as ‘the snuggest and quietest of corners, warm in winter, cool in summer, secluded and free from unwanted extraneous noises.’ He elaborated: ‘Warm at least since 1950, when a faulty connection in the pipes was discovered and an hour’s work with a spanner, reversing the flow, put an end to conditions that even the most frantic stoking had not always alleviated. Secluded always – a threatening proposal in 1938 to pull down All Hallows wall and open up the view was mercifully defeated.’
The floor I remember as tiered (although surviving black and white photos contradict), the desks basic and tough on the bum, each one with a hole for an inkwell and a groove, presumably to rest sharpened quills. The tops, polished by generations of industrious elbows, were engraved with the names of Shirburnians who may quite possibly have witnessed Raleigh’s decapitation or fought at Edgehill.

Memories of former pupils in the School House dining room.

Memories of former pupils in the School House dining room.

The room was dimly lit and the walls were covered floor to ceiling with sundry Shirburniana – mostly prints and sepia or black and white photographs painstakingly squirrelled together by Abe – and a bizarre collection of ‘dog-eared scrolls stuck on the walls, each recording … those fatuities which boys sometimes offer by way of comment or excuse – each a memento mori.’ The fact that no record appears to exist of these unique eccentricities and that the ‘scrolls’ themselves have not been preserved (or donated to the V&A) is a lamentable cultural loss. They were in fact scruffy strips of cardboard, stuck, glued, gummed, nailed, pinned, hooked, hung or otherwise affixed to the walls ad hoc with tape, string, drawing pins, sticky substances or lengths of picture wire.
In Classroom 18 ‘ABG lurked and taught… to the remorseless pounding of the typewriter ….Those were the days, it must be remembered, when a glossy, distracting ambience was considered essential to instruction and concentration, and it was feared that HMI, when they entered ABG’s room, might be reminded of the bleaker passages of Dickens. But, in the event, they were so impressed by what they heard there, that their approval of the master as sui generis extended to the room.’
Abe came shrink-wrapped in a crumpled suit jacket so snugly fitting that he must surely have slept in it. ‘The appurtenances of his life were unpretentious to the point of discomfort: a stark bedroom; an iron bedstead standing, it was rumoured, on linoleum; a small and ancient car which brought him to Sherborne, remained in a garage until the end of the term, and then, when its battery had been re-charged in the Physics lab, took him home for the holidays; clothes durable at the expense of fashion (his dinner jacket, he claimed with sardonic pride, dated from his undergraduate days). All this was the mark of a man whose only concession to appearances was to be seen not giving a farthing for them.’
Abe’s maths lessons were rarely restricted to equations and formulae alone; he could digress on a whim and I kept a small tear-off notebook in my jacket pocket, ready to capture the next colourful, if mathematically irrelevant, red herring. I learnt the difference between mnemonics and acronyms; about Grangerizing books; about numismatics and mondegreens; about peculation and zeugmata about Zane Grey, Damon Runyan, Mark Twain and the scandal surrounding Alec Waugh’s mildly scurrilous Loom of Youth – still leaving sufficient time for matrices, the binary system and a scraped pass grade in the summer examinations.

School Courts from the Abbey Tower

School Courts from the Abbey Tower

Abe’s tour de force, however, was his History of Sherborne School. ‘It was especially fitting for him to preside over School House, the nucleus from which the school grew, since he had now embarked on the years of patient research which culminated in his History …. A master who left in 1938 had bequeathed to him some slides which roused his interest: another, on leaving for military service in 1941, handed over a cupboard in which were housed such archives as the school possessed, rescued from oblivion in the dusty drawers of the Library.’
Sixty-six years after its first publication, the book remains essential reading and is packed with wit and anecdotal colour gleaned from term-time hours trawling through the then haphazard school archives and holidays rootling around in crepuscular London reading rooms. The book is a shining example of precise and highly polished prose, illuminated, like Abe’s maths lessons, by random but memorably entertaining digressions.
The style is light and eminently readable although the text – peppered with quotes that illustrate the extent of underlying research, together with pithy Latin, Greek or French addenda which demonstrate the author’s depth of scholarship – perhaps reads at times awkwardly for modern tastes. Footnotes in small print on every page result in a rather desultory reading experience but as Abe pointedly expounds in the preface: ‘Some care not for digressions; for such the main text alone will be found to constitute a continuous whole; but these bypaths are often more attractive than the high road they leave and perhaps richer in those trifles it gives most pleasure to remember.’

A close-up of the statue of Edward VI in the Dining Room

A close-up of the statue of Edward VI in the Dining Room

Much is made of the school’s pedigree and of the Charter granted under Edward VI in 1550. However, despite what they would have us believe, the school itself, like so many of our institutions, is largely a Victorian creation and principally due to the vision of the Rev. Hugo Daniel Harper, who arrived in the school’s tercentenary year of 1850, bringing with him thirty boys ‘borrowed’ from Cowbridge School in South Wales to supplement the existing meagre total of 40 (2 boarders and 38 foundationers).
By the time the Big School Room was added on the north-western side of the Courts in 1879, the ranks had swollen to 278, 248 of whom were boarding, and in less than 40 years the north side of the Courts was infilled with further classrooms and an impressive entrance gateway. The school now accommodates 600. ‘There is room,’ Harper was heard to remark prophetically in 1850, ‘for a perfect host of boys.’
When A B Gourlay died in 1976, he left his violin and sundry sheet music to the school’s Director of Music, and his assorted typewriters to the head boys of both School House and nearby Abbey House.

A wide view of the dining room

A wide view of the dining room

  •  The author’s thanks go to Rachell Hassall, school archivist, for photos and quotations from contemporary editions of The Shirburnian and to John Harden, Secretary of the Old Shirburnian Society, for showing me round…anew.

 

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