How The Cotes-James at Chilton Cantelo Pioneered Public School Education for the age of Populism

Chilton Cantelo School Oldies Obituaries

Toward the end of the 1950s a middle-aged couple, Hugh and Eileen Cotes-James, with their three children, sold their haulage business in Norfolk and set up in the manor house of the village of Chilton Cantelo near Yeovil a full service private i.e. public school that accepted pupils from the junior strata preparatory schools. Among the founding pupils were John Luff and his younger brother Jeremy who had merely tagged along for the initial prospecting interview. In the event Jeremy enlisted at the new school too and thus economies of scale were achieved early in its working life.

Looking through the tunnel of time we can now see that this new venture represented the third wave of public school reformation that had begun with Arnold at Rugby and had continued prior to World War 2 with Roxburgh at Stowe, Hahn at Gordonstoun, and Meyer at Millfield. Chilton Cantelo’s founding family anticipated the 1960s and the era that followed by introducing new applied philosophies in the boundaries of public school discipline and also in gender and religious integration.

In fact, Chilton Cantelo from the outset was associated with Millfield as a boarding establishment-cum-feeder. At first relations between the two establishments was close. But as the individualistic proprietorship of Chilton Cantelo became evident in the very early years, there began to appear a widening distance between the two schools, a personality-driven schism.

Though the school continues now as part of the Cognita franchise, it is the 30 years from 1959 under the founding Cotes-James, Hugh and Eileen, that bestowed upon Chilton Cantelo its role as a centre piece of the educational transformation that started in Britain in the 1960s.The family under Hugh Cotes-James had established itself in Norfolk in the contracting business. Hugh Cotes-James, a veteran of the Battle of Dunkirk, had acquired along the way the imprimatur of FRGS, and it was on this that he levered his new career as what would now be described as that of an entrepreneurial academic.

The premises of Chilton Cantelo House were acquired. With a start-up assist from Meyer of Millfield in the form of an overflow boarding arrangement for Millfield pupils, the school set forth. This association from the outset was at one and the same time a blessing and a burden to the Cotes-James. Alongside the boarding arrangement, pupils were also referred to Chilton Cantelo in order that they incubate there prior to finding a place at Millfield. Yet the much larger school with vastly greater resources placed a strain on the availability in the district of teachers, then in short supply nationwide due to the baby boomers passing through the system.

Old Retainers

The family though had foreseen the labour shortage of this time and had brought with them from Norfolk a number of old retainers, notably former RN Bosun John Venus an all round and inspired factotum effortlessly shifting his talents from handy-manning to practical teaching roles, especially in how to tie knots. It was John Venus who drove the usually successful sports teams to-and-for in the school’s trademark 15 seater maroon Bedford van. The school was labour-intensive. With its tiny classes averaging no more than eight per form, the school in its early days had characteristics of the uniquely British education institution the crammer, and thus the problem of acquiring suitable staff was to manifest itself throughout the Cotes-James era.

Even so, some outstanding figures were attracted there. Among them were Major John Hill who specialised in teaching biology and was later to take up a post as deputy head at Le Rosey; also classicist Granville Conway, who crossed over from Millfield. Another such teacher was Jan Helczmann the history teacher. He had participated in recent history as a Polish diplomat prior to World War 2. He had met Hitler.

Ironically, given its casual and even ultra liberal aura in other respects, the school had a strong militaristic underpinning. From the start a close association was sought with the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton, just a few miles away. A benefit of this association was Chief Petty Office Charles Shortland a spirited PE instructor who also served as the backbone of the school’s sea cadet force.

Still another Naval figure was Commander Caunce. He was celebrated for a brief stand-up commentary after the last reel of a film commemorating the Battle of the Atlantic; stentorian and in a strong regional brogue patriotically declaring the validity of the film “It’s true. I know. ‘Cos I was there.” Another mainstay derived from Yeovilton was Wren officer Valerie Daniels a handsome woman, crisply efficient, and responsible on a part time basis for the school’s back office. Administration was never a strong suite of the founding family, and it was shortcomings in this sphere that were to become the root of a number of operational problems when the family reposed its trust in the wrong people.

There was also Lieutenant Commander Bordes, said to have had two ships sunk beneath him. His main curiosity to the boys, though, was his adherence to Christian Science. A considerate man he distributed to his classes his old copies of the Christian Science Monitor.

On the military side there was Mr Smailes who had served on the Western Front and half of whose forehead was composed of a metal plate. Also Major Henning of the Indian Army who taught golf and endeared himself to the boys by generously dispensing at his house behind the school scrumpy to his pupils after their return from the Yeovil Golf Club. A florid and convivial soul Henning was always known as Steamy. Another Indian Army type was Mr Hart, an able English teacher who was always rumoured to have spent time in jail though where, for how long, and for what misdemeanor was never explained.

The St Helena Island-born cook Dolly Thomas joined the school about two years after it’s beginning. Later it was discovered by Hugh and Eileen that she had a son and daughter still in St. Helena. They paid for Ruth to be sent over and be educated through the school and then, after Dolly died, to be adopted into the family. After several years she was joined by the introduction of James Winfield Crewe and his two sisters Mary Texas and Cornelia who swelled the distaff side. Another was Valerie Margeson; the Margeson family came down from Norfolk with the family and were essential in the initial set up of the school.

While adding girls to the school role had been introduced rather earlier by Millfield mainly on the grounds of athletic prowess, the Cotes-James saw in this both an obvious technique of boosting pupil numbers, and also a deeper and market-slanted operationally philosophical significance that we would now describe as a point of difference. This was one that they happily voiced to the parents of prospective pupils. It was to the effect that the girls allowed the boys to adjust to female proximity rather earlier than if they had been at a single sex boys school, still the norm at the time.

In this same context the school recruited a number of female French teachers directly from France for what would now be described as their Gap year. One was the demure Miss Argence from Toulouse who captured the heart of many older pupils. Another had the aspect of someone who had stepped out of the pages of Paris Match, one of the more studied of the journals available at the school. They were all addressed as “Mademoiselle” and this had to be rendered idiomatically Mam’zell.. On one occasion a studious Millfield boarder known as Bobby Hobbins famed for his ever-present pipe loaded with Dutch aromatic tobacco and for his acquisition of many GCE O-levels, came suddenly into the main common room and announced that the Paris Match version Mam’zell was in a bikini and in the school swimming pool. Hobbins, a stooped and scholarly figure, was immediately swept aside by the adolescent surge of hearties heading in the general direction of the pool. A sardonic observer of this picaresque episode was the French teacher Major Aston, a perfectly attired and mannered stage-Englishman type said to have endured great privations during the war fighting with the Maquis.

Chilton Cantelo School History

Virtue of a Necessity

Otherwise the school was remarkable for an absence of the kind of sharply defined gender orientated disciplinary structure that was such a hallmark of the British private school era. Still, the preponderance of staff with military backgrounds acted as a counter to the liberal theme. On one occasion Major Hill observing what he considered a sloppy Sea Cadet Corps parade falling out pulled inter service rank and intervened roaring out a terse series of commands returning everyone to their stations and then insisted that the process be performed to his standard, the correct standard. The alacrity of the response to Hill’s bellowed instructions might have had something to do with the granite-hewed teacher on one occasion during a biology class and as if talking to himself contemplating his meat-hook hands and idly recalling that it was strange to think now that he had once used them to “kill men.”

Still, the school’s liberal theme was part of a wider ability by the Cotes-James to make a virtue of a necessity. It was easier to run the school that way. They would strongly, but unobtrusively, use this approach as a marketing benefit. For example, with no history, there was no existing livery for a uniform. So the problem of the school having to foot the expense of the initial design and tailoring of uniforms was simply dispensed with simply by not having uniforms in the first place and in doing so emphasizing the individuality that was placed on pupils In the event, opening the school role to girls was to prove economically felicitous to the family, allowing it to present a most favourable face to the county authorities. The counties at the time were becoming forces for change across the whole secondary education scene because of a perceived need to open up social mobility which was then as now widely viewed as being strait-jacketed by the private school system. In contrast, the Cotes-James had eschewed the rigorously formalized approach that still continued into the era and replaced it with one of one of liberal individuality and near self-governance.

Heaving a gut

Forty percent of the pupils were from overseas, notably the Middle East and West Africa. Among the West Africa contingent was Prince Abu Bakh Mahe Balewa of Nigeria. There was a very large group from Liberia including Ahmadu Varfe Sirleaf, Arthur Cassell and George Williams. They much gratified the Cotes-James by generating table loads of medals at various district sporting contests. There was a strong contingent from Greece, among them, Georges Poulides later to achieve prominence in shipping and Nollis Papadopoulos the noted London-based botanical artist. It was in this area of what we now know as multiculturalism that the Cotes-James hand was at its most sure. Though the 1960s had just begun and with it the challenging of authority and institutions that characterized the decade, the private schooling of that era still at the time seemed immune from it and there was still, for example, a strong religious backbone centred on the Church of England.

Islamic Acceptance

With a school role of around 25 percent Islamic, the Cotes-James for example parked the whole faith issue. Daily devotions were confined to a brief morning radio broadcast from the BBC known as Lift Up Your Hearts, or “Heave a Gut,” as the homily was irreverently described by its listeners. Attendance on Sunday at the adjacent Chilton Cantelo village church, almost part of the school grounds, was advised. But not compulsory. The only occasion in which celestial affairs intervened in any enforced way was during the Naval prayer routine during the weekly sea cadet corps muster. At this Sub Lieutenant (Retd) Paul Haslock, whose bottle- thickness spectacles he claimed were the result of endless wartime cipher and decipherment, would with barely repressed jubilance cry “fall out the Roman Catholics.” At this a single boy called Winston would leave the ranks, reappearing after the completion of the brief Navy-issue orisons. One who stayed in the ranks was Swiss resident Tim Darcy whose uncle was Father Martin Darcy of Farm Street fame.

High Tory

In their High Tory way the Cotes-James expected everyone to muck in together into the best way, as they saw it, which was the English way of doing things. Denied any alternative denizens of East and West happily blended at the school. Rules of conduct beyond the classroom were relaxed. On weekends, high days and holidays, boys could cycle anywhere and back. There was free access to the temptations of Yeovil, and taking a taxi there was just as acceptable as cycling there.

Beer was served at the school tuck shop. Boys were allowed to smoke pipes.

With such a determined and visible record of progressive governance in what would now be described as multiculturalism, not to mention diversity, the Cotes-James, were now well qualified to grow beyond a fee-paying base as the new millennium loomed on the far horizon. The advent of the new millennium was widely believed to coincide with the sought-after end of the elitism of Britain which was then as now in the Westminster sphere pretty much sheeted back fairly or unfairly to both progressive and old-school private/public schools alike. If the Cotes -James were conscious of this prevailing attitude, they gave no sign of it. An aspect of Hugh and Eileen was that they were not subject to extreme reactions when inevitably someone did get drunk, or got over involved with a girl in Yeovil. Lesser proprietors might have been tempted to over-react and angrily shut down the virtually free access to the town and the booze. They took it in their stride as an inevitable by product of the regime that they had formulated and were determined to operate. Hugh Cotes-James contented himself to addressing the school in the dining room in a circumlocutory way about the problems arising from “hormones” and to be wary in Yeovil about the dangers associated with what he termed “hommes” and ”poules.” For such an imposing figure he was an hesitant public speaker. Neither did they allow the school to become strait-jacketed by sport. For boys with little aptitude for moving ball sports of conventional athletics there was a slate of hiking opportunities of the Duke of Edinburgh variety. A leading figure in this sphere was Richard Bates, son of Sir Percy Bates of Cunard fame.

No Art, Please

A singular shared characteristic of Hugh and Eileen was their joint and manifest dislike of any pretence from anyone at all. They always addressed everyone for example in much the same way be they a recalcitrant pupil or a solicitous parent. They made no concession for the individual’s station in life. This did not mean that they had no finer sense of their own importance. There was the large family tree trophy board prominent in Hugh’s office and which bore the not entirely unpretentious legend Pedigree of the Cotes-James Family. They found it hard to summon up much enthusiasm either theoretical or applied about the arts in general. Most of this capacity in the event came from the Millfield boarding contingent. The band led by Peter Thorn-Davis was an able interpreter of The Shadows and Cliff Richard and was much assisted by Peter Johnson on the second guitar and Paul Fisher on the drums. Fisher, last seen at Wallace Heaton, also took the annual school photo.

The late Gareth Forwood, son of film aristocrats Glynis Johns and Tony Forwood was part of the Millfield contingent and his chum was Marcello Olgiati, also a devotee of cinematography. Olgiati was once heard to have observed that his passion in life as a celluloid buff was “painting in light.” Eileen who happened to have been in the vicinity became impatient with such a fanciful declaration and exclaimed that she had more art in her “little finger,” than Olgiati had in his entire lanky frame. Even so the ample supply of films that were screened in the old nissen hut relied upon the freely donated projectionist skills of another Millfield boarder Nigel Rofé.

The Millfield Schism

A troubling aspect for the younger teachers who as the Cotes-James era wore on gradually began to take over from the original former ex service staff was this. Why was there so little emphasis beyond acquiring O-levels, on acquiring tertiary qualifications in the form of university degrees? The obvious explanation is that most of the boys had a family firm waiting for them. If they didn’t have a family firm to fall back on the employment market of the time was so strong that given their private school education mixed in with the special Chilton élan they would quickly find a foothold in middle management which is where most of the boys were destined. The boys were equipped to go straight into the workforce. They didn’t need the finishing school effect of Millfield either. The Cotes-James knew that they could go it alone. They would not be a mere waiting room for Millfield. A good sporting record, an all round grip on things, and some initiative were divined as the main ingredients of success in the outside world. Some boys did though go on to get degrees. One was Egyptian Osman Choukri who went on to become a surgeon at the King Faisal Hospital at Riyadh.

End Game

As the 1990s drew to a close Hugh developed diabetes and after two operations, which involved the amputation of his left leg below the knee, it was decided to put the school on the market. During this time Richard Cotes-James with deputy head Jack Manaton and the assistance of all staff continued the day to day running for it’s last year. Eventually a buyer was found in Maureen and David Von Zeffman who continued for the next fifteen years. During this time the school was expanded and a great deal was invested in capital works.

Hugh and Eileen with Richard and his family moved into Dairy Cottage at the end of the drive for a number of years. Hugh and Eileen then moved to West Camel where they lived until their death.

Their monument is the continuing, living functioning one on their old doorstep, Chilton Cantelo House School. Few enterprises conceived and begun in the 1950s still survive. But their school is one of them. They correctly gauged their moment. They were not overly contemplative folk so their instinct was to act, and do so quickly and get the thing started. It is true that their instinct for the bigger picture rather than day-to-day administrative minutiae allowed in the earlier days one or two bad eggs into the basket. True also that the school was hardly academic. Yet at the end of 1950s they identified a sweep of societal drift that was to become evident only much later in the form of globalism, multiculturalism, secularism as well as co educationalism. To this can be added a certain antennae for political correctness. They anticipated the age of pc in a number of ways. They dispensed with the I-am-talking-therefore-you-will listen teaching format of the time and replaced it with a more inclusive, participatory method in which orders were replaced by suggestion and penalties by a generalized admonition about an individual or group failing to be part of the team. In spite of their reliance for staff on retired service people, they nonetheless saw that the command structure of the traditional private/public school was drawing to an end. They would become significant agents of educational change.

Chilton Cantelo House School is an example of a small family enterprise, and one with the highest of founding ideals, that from its outset had the intrinsic energy of novelty and timing and thus a quite disproportionate impact on the lives of the people who became drawn into it. Their numbers grow exponentially with each year that passes….

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