Tribute to JJ Davies

A Headmaster who was revered by all

by Rex Needle

One of the great schoolteachers in the history of Bourne who commanded the respect of both pupils and parents was Joseph James Davies, the man who steered the former Bourne Abbey C of E Primary Academy through its formative period. He was headmaster for 33 years during a period of changing social conditions, a pupil roll often in excess of 500 boys and girls and many of them coming from deprived backgrounds.

The school was opened in 1877 and austere conditions existed in those early years with large classes, few staff and materials and inadequate facilities for such a large number of children gathered under one roof. Illness and epidemics were an inevitable cause of absenteeism with influenza closing the school for three weeks in 1891 and in 1897 it was shut again for a fortnight because of an outbreak of measles. Mumps and whooping cough were also prevalent illnesses of the time together with other diseases that have become quite rare such as diphtheria, scarlet fever and smallpox.

Mr Davies standing on a cart.

Mr Davies (standing on the cart) helping at a

Congregational Church carnival parade in 1914

Some pupils came from the workhouse where living conditions were so bad that the health of the inmates suffered and children were undernourished, a situation which on one occasion had fatal consequences at the school. In July 1904, during the morning break in the playground, Arthur Young, aged 13, who was known to have a delicate constitution, complained about feeling poorly and Davies suggested that he go home but a few minutes later, he collapsed with blood pouring from his mouth and nose. The headmaster carried him into the porch and a doctor was called but the lad died before he arrived from what was later diagnosed as a burst blood vessel in the lung.

Davies wrote later: “I was deeply touched by the sympathetic spirit shown by teachers and boys alike and we all subscribed to a beautiful wreath which was placed on his grave after the funeral a few days later.”

The incident demonstrates the compassionate attitude he had towards his boys, making friends with all and even keeping in touch after they had left school to seek work. During the First World War of 1914-18, many of his former pupils enlisted and saw military service in the trenches of the Western Front but he maintained a regular correspondence, spending hours writing cheery letters to them and sympathetic notes to the parents of those who were wounded or lost in action. Although none of his writings from this period have survived many of the replies from serving soldiers have and all reflect that loyal bond that had been established between school and pupil that was continued and cherished in adulthood.

Joseph James Davies was born in London in 1856 but his family moved to Lincolnshire where he started his career as a pupil teacher and after a spell at schools in London and Great Ponton, he was appointed headmaster of the Boys' Council or Board School (now Bourne Abbey C of E Primary Academy) in 1887 and during the next three decades, 2,000 boys came under his influence and tuition.

He was a devoutly religious man and a frequent speaker at all of the churches in the town as well as being an active campaigner for further education, beginning evening classes during the winter months of 1888 on subjects as varied as geology, acoustics, mathematics and shorthand. Local history was a hobby which led to his book Historic Bourne being published in 1909, a natural adjunct to his freelance journalism, being the correspondent for most of the newspapers that circulated in Bourne and a frequent contributor to many London publications.

Davies regarded education as a necessary advancement for young people, advocating the establishment of a secondary school in Bourne when public opinion was largely against it. Ten years before his death, at a public meeting called to discuss its merits, he prophesied: "It will come" and during his lifetime he was able to witness the establishment of a secondary school which opened in September 1920, two months before he died, at temporary premises in North Street moving to a permanent site in South Road the following summer where it is now known as Bourne Grammar School.

He also became one of the first members of Bourne Parish Council on its formation as a result of the Local Government Act of 1894 but meetings clashed with his evening classes and he retired after a year and did not seek another seat on any public authority again in case such work came into conflict with his teaching.

Davies, who lived at 77 North Road, retired in the summer of 1920 but died the following November 19th at the age of 64. His wife Elizabeth survived him until 18th March 1930, when she died aged 72. They are buried in the same grave in the town cemetery. When his funeral was held at the Abbey Church, staff and boys from the school formed a cordon on either side of the funeral cortege as it moved slowly down South Street on its way to the cemetery where the vicar, Canon John Grinter, conducted a short graveside service pausing for a few moments to allow freemasons from the Hereward Lodge, where he had twice been grand master, to drop a sprig of acacia on the coffin.

"He was unrivalled as an educationalist", reported a local newspaper. "There are many traits by which his name will live in the memory of those who were privileged to work either under him or with him but the outstanding feature which overshadowed everything else was the man of high intellectual attainments, who taught not merely as a schoolmaster in elementary education, but also by the high standard of his everyday life.

"His profession was to him not merely a vocation, but behind the stereotyped teaching of the schoolboy was not only that the boy should become a good scholar, but that in his schooldays should be laid the foundation upon which man's life and character should be built. With such aims and ideals, there is little wonder that between teacher and scholar should exist so profound a regard the one for the other which has found its expression in numerous ways. No adequate calculation can be made of the value of such a teacher."

Reproduced from A Portrait of Bourne © REX NEEDLE 2010