Guest contribution by Jon Sparke
The loss of HMS Hythe as it sailed into Gallipoli on 28th October 1915 was a tragedy with local significance. The ship was sunk in a collision with another British vessel, HMS Sarnia, another steam cruiser requisitioned as a troop ship. It took just ten minutes for the Hythe to sink to the bottom of Cape Helles, taking with her the lives of 154 people, the majority of whom were soldiers with the 1/3rd Kent Fortress Company, Royal Engineers.
There is a connection here, both with the local area and indeed tenuously with Bennett, or at least the building in which the school was founded. The 1/3rd Kent Fortress Company, Royal Engineers had been founded by Sir David Salomans, former Mayor of Tunbridge Wells and owner of “Broomhill”, Southborough, which those of us who teach and learn in the Bennett Mansion building can see from our windows across the valley. The proximity of these two grand homes is explained by Sir David Salomans’ decision to purchase the Bennett building as a home for his daughter Maud Julia Blunt, within sight of his own. More pertinent perhaps, is the fact that the majority of those who died in the Hythe disaster were locals, volunteers from the Southborough and Tunbridge Wells area. Their commanding officer, who also perished, was Sir David’s son, Captain David Hermon Salomans.
Remembering the past is a vital part of the formation of young people and their identity, both individual and collective. 2015 is rich with opportunities for such remembrance. We are of course amidst the centenary of the First World War, but this year is also the anniversary of Agincourt, Magna Carta and Victory in Europe, to note just a few. At Bennett we have been taking pains to make use of these opportunities, precisely because we believe that the formation of character is a critical part of young people’s education.
Remembrance and the memorialisation of the past help to form character in a wide range of ways. Like many schools, Bennett takes students to the battlefields near Ypres, where students are confronted by the stark rows of white war graves at Tyne Cot. Here then is self-sacrifice and duty. This year, once again, students in year 8 laid a wreath at the Menin Gate as the Last Post was played.
At school we tell students the rich and moving story of the Chavasse twins’ service in the First World War. They were sons of the Bishop of Liverpool. Christopher would go on to collaborate with Lady Bennett in the early 1950s to found Bennett. Both boys served on the Western Front. Christopher was awarded a Military Cross for his acts of bravery, his brother Noel, who was a doctor, perished in 1917 and was posthumously awarded a second Victoria Cross for his bravery in treating the injured whilst under fire. Students have reflected on Christopher’s conviction and faith when writing in 1961 “I still mourn my Noel every day of my life, and have done so for 44 years, and shall do till I see him again – quite soon now.”
It is worth perhaps considering why these stories of the past are so powerful in forming us. It is, I believe, because we are so intuitively hardwired to stories and narratives. They help us make sense of the world. From our earliest days we have learned through the telling of stories, which in our childhood help to form our moral compass. Without the framework of thinking passed down to us in stories and the remembrance of the past, we are left to discover the world in a way where all actions are potentially morally neutral. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein imagines the catastrophic consequences of a life unformed by a parent or teacher’s telling of stories. Frankenstein’s monster represents a human life and soul left to develop without nurture.
There is a connection here with what we believe at Bennett about the importance of teaching. It is undoubtedly the role of the teacher to tell stories, to explain and to direct. Teachers are definitely not mere facilitators or enablers of learning. Of course this is a huge responsibility. At Bennett we have a clear framework of values, drawn from our identity as a Christian school, which helps to determine our approach.
Remembrance and in particular the formal Act of Remembrance that we undertake every year at Bennett on November 11th, helps to develop character at another level too. Sometimes visitors to the school are amazed at the way in which we insist upon students queueing in silence on their way to assembly in the Main Hall. The routine of entering the hall in silence, singing a hymn, and listening to someone deliver an address, is perhaps for some of our students an unfamiliar approach to worship. It does however help foster self-control and a very high standard of discipline. Learning how to act in a formal setting remains an important part of the equipment needed for successful social interaction. When we stand in silence contemplating the fallen on the 11th November, we do so shoulder to shoulder with others, each giving the other the space and respect needed to undertake that living memorialisation of the past.
The survivors’ accounts of the sinking of the Hythe in the Dardanelles in 1915 tell of the last actions of Captain David Salomans thus: “I think I can sacredly say that he died trying for others. One of the Sappers … said the last he saw of him was trying to lower a boat. If he was not thinking of others one would imagine he would have gone straight for his own life belt of which he had a beauty and would be impossible for him to sink in that time. It is my own opinion if he had of thought of himself first he would have been saved, and if I am right he died a hero’s death and we honour him.” Children at school today have much to learn, when they are told stories like this.