Inspired by Nature

It is perhaps not surprising that a School such as Gresham’s set amidst the beautiful Norfolk countryside inspired many of its pupils to take an interest in their surroundings which was to stay with them for the rest of their lives. Emphasis on science in the curriculum, coupled with the freedom to roam were important features of the School in the early nineteenth century.

From the early days Gresham’s pupils were encouraged to take an interest in the wider world outside their classrooms. Headmaster George Howson’s vision for his new School in 1900 included music, theatre, debates, lectures, expeditions, and clubs & societies. Howson’s own interests included travel, walking, fishing and photography, and he ensured that his pupils had every opportunity to explore and enjoy the natural world on their doorstep.

In his letter of application to the governors Howson outlined his vision for Gresham’s:

“There seems like a great need in England of first-class secondary schools giving a purely modern education of the highest quality, based chiefly on linguistic discipline in English, French and German, going to a high point in Mathematics, teaching History, Geography and Literature searchingly, and disciplining every boy in natural sciences – such a type of liberal education being a natural avenue to intellectual interest in modern commerce and industry.”

Such a broad ranging education with extra curricula activities was very rare in public schools in England at the time, the general pattern being the 3 ‘R’s, the classics and plenty of competitive sport. Music became very important in the life of the School, with regular concerts and recitals by staff and boys. It was also central to the annual Shakespeare plays performed in a theatre in the woods from 1902. Lectures with slides were popular. E.M. Brooke-Booth gave a moving speech to the debating society advocating greater protection for wild birds. On Sundays boys were allowed the freedom to roam the Norfolk countryside and discover its beauties for themselves dressed in their Sunday best.

J.R. Eccles became headmaster after Howson’s death in 1919. Like his predecessor, he too had a lifelong interest in the scientific world and made sure it had pride of place in the curriculum. Geography became a major subject, biology was also more important, and the emphasis on societies and the refusal to worship games remained. One OG recalled that at 16 almost half of his lessons were study periods, leaving plenty of time to enjoy sailing, bird-watching and other outdoor activities.

Pupils were encouraged to read widely and to study on their own in the well stocked library, a factor which has been suggested might account for the large number of pupils who became involved in scientific research in later life. Lectures on travel, natural history, adventure, as well as an arts society, a camera club, and a sociological society introduced pupils to a wide range of subjects.

The Natural History Society, formed in 1918, was given pride of place by Eccles in his Speech Day reports and he was its first president. In 1921 it boasted 109 members which was almost half of the School and involved many staff. It had sections on chemistry, entomology, ornithology, geography, geology and meteorology. Each year a report was published including group studies, individual reports by members, and finalists of the Holland Martin Natural History prize. A highlight of the school year was the society’s exhibition which included collections of butterflies & moths, as well as live specimens such as lizards, snakes, bats and fish. Members enjoyed outings to Blakeney Point, Kelling Heath, Scolt Head and the Broads, and carried out detailed surveys of birds, plants & insects, and other wildlife.

In the 1920’s and 30’s there emerged a ‘distinguished stream’ of naturalists and biologists such as Alan Hodgkin, David Lack, Bernard Gooch and G.E. Hutchinson, as well as a number of OGs like David Keith Lucas, Christopher Cockerell and Ian Proctor who became engineers and inventors. Artists and writers such as Gerald Holtom, Richard Chopping, W.H. Auden and John Bradburne were first drawn towards the natural world at School and compelled to put pen to paper as a result.