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News > OP updates > The enlightenment at PGS

The enlightenment at PGS

On the hundredth anniversary of the installation of electricity at PGS, we shed some light on school life, rapid change and "culture wars" at the school a century ago.
17 Jun 2024
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
Sixth formers studying, c 1928
Sixth formers studying, c 1928

The 1920s, with its fashions and decadence and jazz, was not welcome at Portsmouth Grammar School. The Masters – not, note, teachers - were Victorian gentlemen to a man, and their pupils were schooled and drilled in obedience and order and Empire. A photograph of 1919 shows a class of pupils with their Master, sitting behind a machine gun, keeping the 1920s at bay.

The editor of the Portmuthian, writing in 1924, also went on the offensive. In the leading article he expressed his hatred of "jazz music", a term which he found tautologous. The music itself "describes the action of a lunatic beating a drum, or the state of mind of an inebriate" with its "vigorous drum thumping and cacophonous horn-blowing". Compared with the compositions of Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, jazz music is "as the squalling of a babe to the singing of a trained artiste". He called for "British commonsense" to reject "American barbarism". The school Gramophone Society continued to play music of any genre as long as it was classical.

But it wasn’t just music that was going to pot. In December 1919 the school debating society considered the motion “that the present fashion in men’s clothes is unsuitable”. Disagreement followed on the issue of men wearing bright colours. In the same session, the motion “that this house considers brass buttons in the army to be a waste of time” was heavily defeated, reflecting the dominant influence of the Officer Training Corps traditions in school life. The machine gun - captured from the Germans in the First World War - had been presented to the school in recognition of the contribution of the OTC in preparing hundreds of pupils to do their bit. Brass buttons, it was asserted, helped to maintain standards and discipline.

America was blamed, not just for its jazz music and fashions, but for a general decline in civility and morality. Cruelty to slaves, persecution of the North American Indian, gangsters, kidnapping, slang, the aeroplane and “that seductive weed, tobacco” were all laid at America’s door in debates. The question of Prohibition (of alcohol) was discussed three times, in 1919, 1924 and 1930, and on every occasion pupils voted strongly against it. One pupil, A D Nock, argued that its introduction in England “would inevitably lead to revolution”. Alcohol kept the lid on. Nock went on to be a professor.

In 1924, electric light was installed in the school and debates became more self-questioning. The motion that “this generation is too conventional” was defeated, but only by one vote. In another debate, a brave pupil proposed that “prefects should wear red and yellow berets with blue tassels”. This was not a serious suggestion, but a light-hearted mocking dig at the authority bestowed on a few selected pupils. The proposal was not taken up by the Headmaster, Canon Barton, whose personal pacifism, and whose wife, Dorothea's, feminism, were far from conventional. Dorothea taught economics, unofficially, to sixth formers and can lay claim to being the first female teacher at PGS. 

Though described as autocratic and a snob, Barton was, in many ways, a breath of fresh air following the headship of the elderly and highly respected Classical scholar, James Nicol. The Canon was on a mission to modernise. He lacked neither confidence or vision and was unafraid of ruffling feathers. He expanded the school estate, increased the number of free places for poor pupils, limited the severity of corporal punishment, increased the school week to six days, raised academic standards and encouraged pupils to stay on into the sixth form. What we now call co-curricular activities were introduced, including a PGS League of Nations (precursor to the current Model United Nations). Visiting speakers were encouraged and school trips organised, broadening pupils' experience.

Drama at PGS in the 1920s seems to have largely consisted of Greek and French plays staged on Speech Day at the Theatre Royal, with occasional “entertainments” held in the school itself. Scenes from Shakespeare were also performed, including several from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream". But, by the late ‘20s, after the school had expanded into the former Cambridge Barracks, more modern and ambitious productions were able to be staged by the Dramatic Society. When the Prince of Wales visited the new school on the 27th June 1928, he heard from fifth formers about their rehearsals for Sheridan’s "The Rival". Another of Sheridan’s plays, the farce, "St Patrick's Day or The Scheming Lieutenant" was put on the following year as well as a large part of Part I of Henry IV. The Portmuthian critic did his job and was critical – R C Easton as Lauretta in the former was too masculine and the boy who played Falstaff in the latter was "not so corpulent as we expected". In 1928 a Scottish play (not the Scottish play), "Rory Aforesaid", received praise, “amusing… well acted, every word was distinct”, though the critic could not help but mention that the leading actor “allowed his own accent to intrude on his Scottish brogue”. Fulsome praise for pupils' performances was still some way off. 

Despite the growing rise of cinema, it was not displacing theatre in popularity, at least not with PGS pupils. In 1920, the school debating society discussed the motion “that theatres are better than cinemas”. The argument for the “greater scope for musical effect”, “the superiority of stage comedians” and the “uplifting influence of the theatre” won the vote by 40 for to 34 against. 

By 1927, the school could boast of having a choral society and, soon after, a small orchestra. At St Thomas's (with its newly acquired Cathedral status) new services were introduced at the beginning and end of term. 

Canon Barton's time as Headmaster was one of rapid change and the stress and tensions that brings. But, in 1930, an attack of typhoid incapacitated Barton for well over a year and upon his return he is reported to have lost his confidence and authority. A ten per cent cut in the pay of teaching staff and a falling out with the Governing body over what the Chair described as their "bolshevistic" attitude, ultimately led to Barton's resignation and he found sanctuary in a return to the Church. 


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