An interview with Clive Lewis-Hopkins, founder and original publisher of Chilton Cantelo School Oldies
Acceptance, individuality, adaptability, internationalism.
Your alumni association is unusual in that you restrict it to pupils from the inception of the school in 1959 to the departure of the founding family in 1989?
C.L-H. The reason is that this was the era of the Cotes-James and it was during this epoch that there was this shared experience of this remarkable duo and being under their tutelage.
It is rather, as if let us say, the Old Boys association of Rugby had once restricted their membership to those who attended the school during the headmastership of Dr Arnold?
C.L-H. Captain Cotes-James, in addition to being the headmaster, was the founding proprietor. When the family quit the school in 1989 the ownership and headmastership changed. Then later it became part of the Cognita group of schools where it happily remains to this day. So in 1989 a definable era came to a close.
Some might say now that the school that the Cotes-James family created in 1959 encapsulated the elitism that is so widely condemned today. I am referring especially to the immense fees to send pupils there, and thus what would be described now as social discrimination in that those of lesser means were necessarily excluded?
C.L-H. It is not generally understood, even by the pupils of the era, that the Cotes-James practised their own version of what they would not have described as socialism. They bestowed their own scholarships, as it were, on deserving pupils especially those from armed services families.
You claim that the school in this era actively implemented and encouraged a “diversity” and “multiculturalism” to use your own words.
C.L-H. You have touched upon the essence of this era. There was a large proportion of pupils from Africa and the Middle and Far East and, yes, they were from families that were immensely rich. Paradoxically though in the contemporary context they were treated exactly the same as everyone else. A lot of them in retrospect must have been Islamic. But they were expected to attend the same Chilton Cantelo village Anglican church as the rest of us.
I sense that within your 1959–1989 catchment there must be a divide between those of the baby boom generation and the generation that followed them through to the conclusion of the Cotes-James era?
C.L-H. A curious thing is that this second generation was the first to become conscious of the significance of the school and it was they who got this Oldie movement going. For reasons that are unclear the movement does now I agree seem to be among the baby boomers old enough one might say to be the parents of the second generation attendees.
You must find yourself from time to time saying to yourself; what on earth is a gang of old buffers doing preserving and enhancing the memory of a school era that many might describe as having been eccentric to say the very least?
C.L-H. You should also add here bufferesses bearing in mind that the Cotes-James introduced female pupils on a routine basis. Some might say treated them as if they were chaps, in fact. I want to return though to this matter of this focus now on the baby boomer part of the era which saw, as if preserved in aspic, the last days of imperial Britain. Soon afterward there were the coups in Nigeria and Liberia from which many pupils were drawn and similar upheavals in the Middle East, notably Persia. Greece which supplied many pupils began its economic slide, and so on. In this era the flag was coming down everywhere. Countries which had seemed stable from the Western point of view ceased to be that way. The eccentricity you talk about was simply the Cotes-James way of coping with the end of the imperial era in which the husband and wife team established their school. From our perspective now, it may seem, well, quaint, I have to agree.
There is a feeling that as a public school it was not terribly focussed on getting its pupils into universities?
C.L-H. The Cotes-James were not believers in academia for its own sake. They were more interested in turning out team players who could make their way in the wider world. In the early days there was a terrific labour shortage in the post war boom era. It was considered sensible to get an early foot in the door and then move upward with the economic escalator. Significantly the Cotes-James era ended during the first real bust of the post war era. The one in the late 1980s which wiped out middle management the traditional hunting ground for the non-academic public school type. Again we have to avoid judging them by today’s standards.
I have heard it said that quite a few of the boys never had to go out to work in the first place?
C.L-H. Ha!Ha! I wish it had been true in my case.
You have drawn attention to the school’s practice starting in its early days of letting pupils smoke pipes, and buy beer at the school tuck shop. How did this mesh with those of the Islamic faith among the pupils?
C.L-H. The thought had crossed my mind too. I can only reiterate that everyone got treated the same. For example no allowance was ever made for pupils for whom English was a second language. You could say that the Cotes-James invented language learning by immersion.
You were pretty much allowed to do what you wanted to do in your spare time. Cycle into Yeovil, call into countryside pubs?
C.L-H. They understood the folly of laying out orders that could not be enforced. As noted, quite a few pupils came from immensely privileged backgrounds and would not have taken kindly to officious restrictions on their movements.
What do you expect to achieve through Oldies?
C.L-H. We are a fulcrum for the pupils of that era. We have held several reunions at the school itself. We have held a number of spontaneous re-unions for ex pat Oldies who hove into view. You dwelled upon the wealth aspect of the school and its pupils and thus their families. So there is a community of interest in networking potential here. This is because, as we have noted, the first baby boomer intake inevitably contains Oldies who might be of mercantilist assistance to the later intake, many of whom are still under full power from a career point of view.
How do you relate to the current iteration of Chilton Cantelo School? The present Chilton Cantelo School, version 3:0?
C.L-H. They have been most helpful, always delivering 100 percent more than we have requested. At the risk of putting myself in their shoes; I would be tempted to say that the school now sees in us the advantage of their own continuum as represented by Oldies. For example we are always being informed, in hushed and reverential tones, about Old Wykehamists, Harrovians, and ad infinitum about Old Etonians. So why not an appreciation of the value of their own old boys and old girls? Indeed, the pioneering enrolment of girls being a signal historical advantage now I would say given the obloquy and general scorn being heaped currently on male-only institutions of every stripe from schools to Gentlemens’ clubs.
Still, and you introduced the topic, you have to concede that old boys from these ancient schools carry a very definite cachet; even if it is only that of being posh chaps rather pleased with themselves. What is your brand, as it were.
We have to remember that the Cotes-James introduced and operated a slew of educational practices that are now commonplace and some might even say overdone in terms of diversity and social equity and individual self determination. Thus their charges were exposed, during their formative years, to educational policies that are familiar today but were quite unknown then. So I would postulate as our trademark one of acceptance, individuality, adaptability, and also internationalism.