A few thoughts on Tradition
When I was first appointed to the Headship of Blundell’s four years ago, I was given a large and rather imposing black book – 398 pages of the history of Blundell’s to read over the summer. I knew that taking over a 400-year-old School, as only the 29th Head, would involve learning a lot about the traditions and I was not disappointed. Traditions are widespread amongst many English public schools, especially the really old ones like us, and they are the things that connect us to our past, but also that prove you can also connect yourselves to the future too.
As this is the first Latin Prayer of the year, as we call our Monday assemblies, I thought I would remind you of a few of our traditions and show those of you who are new what you might experience in the year ahead. There are some traditions that have been around for hundreds of years; our school hymn, written by A L Francis, Headmaster here from 1874-1917 is still very much a part of our big chapel services and we sing it always at the start of term, on Old Blundellian day and during the Speech Day leavers service. There is a significant line in the second verse, when the Old Blundellians will expect you to show you respect the traditions of the past when we see them in June. Also part of tradition is the fact that we shall soon, I hope, be awarding the first stripy full colours blazers of the year, in recognition of a whole school career of excellence and commitment to both doing your best and leading others in one element of the School life, be it for sport, academic work, music or drama. Last year Alice Smith was awarded three full colours and therefore earned her right to wear the white blazer, as the first worthy winner of that in about 10 years.
When Peter Blundell, a wealthy unmarried and uneducated local cloth merchant and land owner left money in his will to establish this School, back in 1604, it was built in the middle of Tiverton. The old Blundell’s building is still there, next to the Lowman River at the bottom of the high street and is owned by the National Trust. The cobbles that the boys would have walked upon are still in place as are the large main gates which you can see if you walk through the town on Wednesday afternoon. In fact, there were cobbles just beside those gates that spelled out PB 1604, the PB stones as they were known, and the tradition goes that when the Lowman River flooded those stones, the boys were entitled to an afternoon off lessons, a half holiday as they called it.
In those days that happened a lot, and when R D Blackmore attended Blundell’s as a boy, and chose to write about it as the School where John Ridd, the hero of his book, Lorna Doone, first heard of his father’s death, then he would have remembered that happening I am sure.
In 1883 the School moved to this site, to avoid being flooded, and the stones were brought too. They are now by the Porter’s lodge opposite Petergate Housemaster’s house and you can see them there. I think they are safely away from the river so the chances of you having an afternoon off lessons when they flood is pretty unlikely I’m afraid.
There are lots of traditions too that have lasted through the years. There is a Keats medal for public speaking, awarded on Speech Day every year since the Headmaster Richard Keats awarded it in 1797. Apparently the deeds for old Blundell’s and all the details of the will were brought to school in what was known as Peter Blundell’s ‘tuck box’; a metal trunk which is in the main entrance and you can see one of the old carved desks from Old Blundell’s also there too. We have an archivist, Mr Sampson, who keeps all our records and historical treasures carefully in his store and office in the Modern Languages Department.
In 1877 the first annual steeplechase race was run by the boys, named the Russell after Parson Jack Russell who often hunted his hounds as a boy through the local farmland while still at school. He went on, of course, to breed the first Jack Russell dogs and his portrait hangs in my office, and next term, in 2017 we will be running that for the 140th time.
There are so many traditions here, old ones and those also less old, those that we enjoy and that tie us to our history and to all that has lasted the test of time. Even in the last few years we have made traditions of our own, like the Crazy Tie day we have in memory of Mr Pilbeam. The School Monitors have, in the last few years, begun to try to add to these traditions as well as to reinstate some of the old ones and I am sure this year’s team will be keen to do that. We now have a Kindness and Tolerance week and a Monitor’s day as some of the newest traditions in place.
I just hope that they don’t necessarily want to do as our Heads of School from four years ago did and ask me to reinstate their right to keep a pig (or a pair of pigs in their case) on the School grounds. I really didn’t think I could say no. We enjoyed having Randall and Russell here in their pen down by Westlake, and it was pretty sad to see them heading off to a less idyllic lifestyle at the end of the academic year.
So to finish today with one of our longest traditions, Imogen and Hugh are going to read Latin Prayer as they and the other monitors will do each Monday. As you will hear it in English and Latin today, you will see it is essentially the Lord’s Prayer in Latin, with a few extra lines added on. It is also carved into the slate sculpture next to the Chapel. It is not easy to say, but if you are starting out in Year 7 now, the chances are by the time you leave school in July 2024, you will know most of this off by heart.
We stand to hear it read and bow our heads as we pray. I hope you will remember when you do this each week that you have a responsibility to play your part in making the Blundellians of the past proud and to think of making some new traditions of your own.