I studied History at school until A’ Level and am still interested in the way in which is taught. Upon recently rereading one of my favourite books in the Education in Literature Collection, To serve them all my days by R.F. Delderfield, I was struck by how apposite the main protagonist David Powlett-Jones’ views (and therefore R.F.Delderfield’s) about his subject and how it relates to others seem.
‘He had always seen history as the Clapham Junction of education. It opened doors on so many other subjects, not only geography, but English prose and poetry, economics, law, religious knowledge and any number of fringe subjects. A brief study of Edward I’s administrative reforms, for instance, whetted the appetite of some-just a few ,here and there-interested in the British jury system.’(Delderfield, 2006.p.119).
Ronald Frederick Delderfield (1912-1972) was an English novelist and dramatist. His family first lived in Surrey but later moved to Devon. After leaving West Buckland School Delderfield worked as reporter on his father’s paper The Exmouth Chronicle. His first play, Spark in Judea, was produced in 1936 but later, after service in the RAF during the Second World War, Delderfield began to write novels. His first was published in 1949. Several of his historic novels involve young men who return from war. The lives they lead enable the author to delve deeply into English social history from the Edwardian era through to the early 1960s.
The central character in Delderfield’s ‘To serve them all my days ’is David Powlett-Jones. He is a coal miner’s son from Wales who, during the First World War, has risen through the ranks to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After being injured he is released from a shell-shock ward in 1918 and, on the advice of his doctor, seeks a position at Bamfylde, a private school for boys, in North Devon.
David’s experiences in the trenches have taught him to think of the common German soldiers as people rather than just as ‘the enemy’. It is a viewpoint which colours his teaching of the causes of the war and of the consequences of the possible outcome. After this controversial start to his teaching career David gradually discovers his vocation as a history teacher. He is supported and encouraged by the friendship of the Headmaster, Algy Herries, and the English master Ian Howarth.
The scope of the book is such that it allows for a leisurely development of character. The effects of such events as the General Strike in 1926, the role of women in Labour Party politics and the rise of National- Socialism and anti-Semitism in Germany are explored through family ties and romantic relationships. The end of the book sees David, now Headmaster, contemplating the probable loss of ‘Old Boys’ in the increasingly inevitable future conflict.
R. F. Delderfield’s time at West Buckland School served as an inspiration for To serve them all my days. The school was founded as the Devon County School in 1858 to provide an education for sons of farmers and the middle classes. It was renamed in 1911/12 and today is a fully independent, co-educational school with a Nursery, Preparatory and Senior Schools and a Sixth Form. Its pupils include boarders and a percentage from abroad. Other famous alumni include Jonathan Edwards, Brian Aldiss and Tim Wonnacott.
The relationship between school and book is a reciprocal one. For instance Delderfield based his fictional Headmaster Algy Herries upon Ernest Harries who was the Headmaster when he attended West Buckland School. As the school has developed its campus it has named one of its boarding houses, Boyer, after one of the novel’s pupils.
There are several accounts of West Buckland School in the Library’s School Histories Collection including West Buckland School by Berwick Coates and Tales out of school: an anthology of West Buckland reminiscences, 1895-1963 compiled by R. F. Delderfield himself .
The DVD of the popular BBC 1980/81 television series of To serve them all my days (starring John Duttine as David) is also available from the Education in Literature Collection.
Delderfield, R.F. (2006).To serve them all my days. London, England: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.