ALDEN, Lewis (1869-1941)
Lewis Alden spent most of his career in East Belfast with dignity and without fanfare. At least four notable university professors were to acknowledge their academic debt to this benevolent schoolmaster. The overwhelming proportion of the population of the area, if asked, would deny ever having heard of him, yet his name became entrenched in the landscape of East Belfast.
Lewis Alden was born in Oxford on 11 June 1869, the fifth son of Isaac Alden, described as ‘a gentleman’. The Aldens were a fertile clan, and Lewis himself had five brothers and at least one sister. The Alden family has long been established in the English university city, both as master butchers (whose trade still includes the stand of R R Alden in the famous covered market) and printers (in 1909 the Alden Group, established in 1832, published the first ever Oxford Guide). One of the family was Mayor of Oxford in 1936-1937.
Despite its comfortable prosperity, a vein of socialism and altruism ran through the family. One of Lewis's older brothers, Percy (born 1864), intended to become a Baptist minister, but his strong Christian commitment eventually encouraged him to adopt a political career. He was profoundly affected by social issues and reform, becoming a member of the Fabian Society. He was to influence Beveridge on the foundation of Labour Exchanges and to urge the provision of social housing, and wrote on such matters as unemployment. Supported by the philanthropist and reformer Seebohm Rowntree, Percy Alden became the Liberal MP for Tottenham between 1906 and 1918. His views on ethical socialism later encouraged him to convert to the Labour Party for whom he was briefly an MP between 1923 and 1924. His various charitable posts included that of Chairman of the Save the Children Fund. He was knighted in 1933 and died on 30 June 1944 on Tottenham Court Road in London as the result of a German bomb.
Lewis Alden typified the family's spirit of magnanimity. He was educated at Oxford High School before becoming an Exhibitioner at Wadham College, Oxford. There is no indication of his career prior to his arrival in 1898 at Campbell College, where he became Senior English Master.
One of the best schoolmasters
His character and contribution were encapsulated in a tribute composed shortly after his death:
He had a peculiar knack in drawing out the best that was in us. Very probably the chief claim to regard lay in the extraordinary kindness he always showed to the very small boys. To the problems of those of more mature generation he gave sympathetic and invariably wise advice. His ideals were the highest and nobody hated more than he any wilful departure from the pursuit of Honour ... Those who knew him at all intimately will bear witness to an extraordinary sense of humour which, itself an attribute of an inner calm and confidence, enabled him to bear without flinching a number of trials - especially in the last decade of his life - which would easily have daunted a less resolute though physically more robust man.
One of his early pupils, J Ernest Davey, who became Professor of Church History at Presbyterian College in Belfast at the age of twenty-six, regarded Alden as “one of the best schoolmasters I have known” and recalled that “he was a man for whom literature lived and who was able to make it live for others. He made his subject interesting simply by being himself interested, by his own native love of great literature. His views were always his own, refreshing and honest, vivid, colourful and challenging”.
Other pupils echoed this provocative style; one recalled that he would argue that, if thrown with sufficient force, a candle could pass through sheet steel. Some believed that he was easily distracted in class by ‘red herrings’, but the likelihood is that he actively elicited them. He ran a vigorous Debating Society, at which he encouraged pupils to adopt a dialectical stance. Two Campbell College pupils who became President of the Oxford Union in 1904 (Arthur Moore, later Editor of The Statesman in Calcutta) and 1907 (William Armour, later Editor of The Northern Whig) owed some of their debating skills to the practice they had enjoyed at the school. E R Dodds, later Regius Professor of Greek in Alden's home town, also acknowledged his personal debt to Lewis Alden: “He was a man of real cultivation and widely-ranging interests. He taught me how to use words with discrimination, how to arrange a paragraph, how to argue in public without losing my head of my temper”.
Alden was well-versed in the more traditional and classical authors who have tended to dominate the curriculum. One memory placed him at his desk on a stormy October day: “When a gust of wind blew clouds of leaves past his window, he stood as though spellbound and recited [from Book I of Milton's Paradise Lost]: ‘Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the banks in Vallombrosa’”. His range of literary interest, however, was eclectic and bordered on the encyclopaedic. Harry Cronne, later a distinguished Professor Medieval History at Birmingham University, conceded that:
Alden was not a scholar ... but his love of English literature, especially poetry, was profound and he communicated it with gusto to his pupils. He delighted in reading to them at all ages, as they loved him to do. Even sophisticates of the Sixth [Form] enjoyed his organ recitals, as one might call them, of Milton and Matthew Arnold ... It was from Octie [Alden's nickname] that I first heard of A E Housman and listened to the sad, repetitive flute music of A Shropshire Lad. Alden made us aware of contemporary poetry, although he was very critical of a good deal of it, drumming impatiently upon his bald spot with spatulate fingers, as he tasted and rejected lines that fell short of his standards of prosody and intelligibility. He was very kind to little boys, encouraging them at first to read adventure stories, then enticing them on to classical examples and leading them, like the Pied Piper, to richer fields ... He early introduced me to the great Russian writers ... leavening the lump with the American humorists in whom he delighted.
One other pupil - although only present at the school for ten weeks in late 1910 - who recalled the interpretation and magic of Matthew Arnold under Alden's tutelage was an 11-year-old C S Lewis: “Much the most important thing that happened to me at Campbell was that I there read Sohrab and Rustum in form under an excellent master whom we called Octie. I loved the poem at first sight and have loved it ever since”. At QUB in 1915, Robert Wallace McConnell - who, within a year, lay dead on the battlefields of distant Mesopotamia - earned, in the words of his family, “a rare honour for a first-year man” by being awarded the Dufferin Medal for oratory. His knowledge of English literature was also viewed as unusually extensive, and this, his family added, was due primarily to Lewis Alden.
Alden also taught History and Religious Instruction - both of them viewed very much as subsidiary subjects. Alden sought to resolve the obligation and tedium of the latter by treating the Bible as literature. Cronne - who hailed from the manse at Katesbridge and then Portaferry and who, on his first appearance in church, had interrupted his father's sermon with the request: “Stop talking, Daddy, and come down from there” - praised Alden's endeavours:
Most of the masters were probably unqualified for the chore of Scriptural teaching ... I do not recall that anyone other than 'Octie' Alden strove to make us appreciate the splendour of the Authorised Version as English prose, or made any real attempt to expound the historical, anthropological, sociological, military or other aspects of the Scriptures that might have been made interesting.
The teaching of History was usually done by rote in the early twentieth century, and Alden's teaching of this subject lacked inspiration, but he recommended the reading of passages, character sketches and famous passages from Gibbon and Macaulay which he regarded as good literature. Another pupil, sixty years later, recalled that the Senior English Master was accustomed to employ the volume Deeds that Won the Empire (probably in the 1909 version, adapted for use in schools).
When, occasionally, he was roused to anger, Lewis Alden harboured a legendary temper, described variously as ‘choleric’ and ‘volcanic’. It was this that prompted the sobriquet ‘Octie’, as Harry Cronne explained,”"because his eyes swelled like those of an octopus when he was angry” - although he did add the caveat: “if this is indeed zoological fact”.
The prevailing mould in which he was cast, however, was - as Ernest Davey categorised it – “warm-hearted, understanding, sensitive, affectionate and wise ... he was at once honest, humble, lovable and spontaneous ... indeed, to know him was in itself a liberal education”. Harry Cronne perhaps couched it in more romantic terms: “Normally he looked, and was, a benevolent old gentleman, with his white hair and kindly smile beneath downward sweeping moustaches ... to the boys he appeared a venerable personage - Father Christmas without the beard”. Even beyond the classroom the Oxford man impressed. Clarke MacDermott, later Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, was a pupil at Campbell College between 1907 and 1914; he recalled that: “Skating [on Netherleigh lake] revealed him to many small boys like myself as an even more accomplished person than we had thought him to be. He skated with speed and confidence, with body erect and a great cigar in his mouth”.
The Senior English Master demonstrated his generosity in many ways. Both Ernest Davey and Eric Dodds recorded their gratitude at the privilege he accorded them - and others - of the unlimited use of his extensive personal library. As one might expect in an institution that marketed itself on its hygiene and sanitation, there was plenty of water available to the boys for purposes of washing. Unfortunately much of it was cold, so illicit access to the hot water available to the resident Staff was pursued. One bathroom in the boarding area belonged jointly to two masters - John William Yates (a Birmingham man) and Robert Knox McElderry (an Ulsterman). One morning Yates found himself locked out of his own bathroom and, hearing splashing, he asked who was in the bath. A reluctant voice, featuring the pronounced southern accent of the occupant, eventually answered: “Me, sur”. Yates asked who “Me” was and, after a further delay, the reluctant voice responded: “Mr McElderry, sir”! Harry Cronne recalled that he and a friend also regularly acquired hot water from Alden's bathroom, and marvelled: “I cannot imagine why neither of us was ever caught as we passed to and fro with a steaming bedroom jug in each hand, for concealment was quite impossible”. One suspects that the schoolmaster simply turned a blind eye.
This was not entirely inapposite for, despite the voluminous amount reading which Alden consumed, he had to wear thick pince-nez to compensate for extreme myopia. He admitted that this had once caused him serious difficulty when, being a strong swimmer, he had once “swum far out to sea, when a wave removed his pince-nez and left him quite unable to tell where the land lay”.
The respect in which he was held at Campbell was demonstrated by his being appointed one of the original eponymous Housemasters in 1908. He was also asked to deputise as Acting Headmaster during the inter-regnum following the death of the incumbent Headmaster in April 1922, and was to be praised publicly during Speech Day three months later “for all he had done in taking up the reins and carrying on the work of the school”. He would have been expected, in accordance with the regulations of the Board of Governors, to retire at the age of sixty in the summer of 1929, but was given an extension of a year. Upon his retirement in 1930, after 32 years at Campbell College, he was provided by the Board with a supplementary annual pension of £38.
At the start of the 1941-1942 academic year (when the school was in residence at Portrush) Alden had written to say that “but for twinges of neuritis caused by a fall down the steps of his front door, he was in the best of health”. He passed away suddenly, however, on 22 October 1941. No less an author than C S Lewis wrote, fourteen years later, “on Octie be peace”. It is likely that, as former pupils reminisced when, in the 1920s and 1930s, they met by chance in distant places such as the hill stations of Gulmarg in the Kashmir, or at St Patrick's Day gatherings in Mumbai, Lewis Alden's name featured prominently.
In 1998 Lewis Alden's name became immortalised in East Belfast. Erstwhile Campbell College pupil, Jonathan Davis, a member of Alden's House, went into business at Ballyhackamore, and opened what rapidly became an award-winning restaurant - which he named ‘Alden's’. It has since been renamed the ‘Neill’s Hill’ bistro.
From his book - A brief history of Knock, Belmont and Strandtown, published by Ballyhay Books of Donaghadee.
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