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News > Of Interest > The schoolboy diary of Nelson Russell (1200)

The schoolboy diary of Nelson Russell (1200)

The schoolboy diary of Nelson Russell...
6 Sep 2021
Written by Walter Murphy
Of Interest

Throughout 1912, Nelson Russell (OC 1200, born on 7 July 1897), kept a diary which recorded his first full calendar year at Belmont, his home life in Lisburn, and his holidays in Portrush. The small volume, now in the Lisburn Linen Museum, reveals much about the life and character of Campbell and particularly about the school’s contemporary staff and pupils.

Girls. Yum, yum

One of the more intriguing aspects of his daily entries centres around his interest in girls. Even up to and including the era of ‘Duffy’ Gibbon (1922-1943) the occupants of the Headmaster’s office proved determined to distance their charges from the female sex. So emphatic was this that even the first Art Master, Englishman Godfrey Evans (1894-1915), was known to enquire of pupils whether they had ‘any grown-up sisters at home’. H P Hughes (1915-1924), about whom virtually nothing is known apart from the fact that he earned the nickname ‘Bubbles’, was sufficiently intrigued by the female posture to invite pupils to his room for punishment in the form of asking them to walk around his study wearing ladies’ lace-up high-heel shoes.

When Gibbon proved dilatory in purchasing Netherleigh as a junior House in the late 1920s, Samuel Hall-Thompson encouraged his decision by threatening to sell it as an adjacent girls’ school. Gibbon’s predecessor, RAH (‘Billy’) MacFarland, was enveloped in even greater paranoia about the female sex. Any discovered association within term time could result in the threat of expulsion. When Frank Hitchcock (OC 1185), later (like Nelson) to serve with distinction in the Army, kicked a ball over the hedge in order to recover it whilst women were playing hockey in an adjacent field he received six strokes of the cane.

Despite the rather dour demeanour shown in his photographs Nelson Russell proved to be what, in modern parlance, would be called ‘a babe magnet’. When, as a boarder, he attended Sunday services at St Mark’s he was inclined to give the girls ‘the glad eye’. During a fortnight’s holiday at Portrush he became familiar with half a dozen girls, some of whom contacted him after the start of term and came to watch him play rugby. On 1 September, at home in Lisburn, he boasted that he had been out that day with four different girls. He was once caught at the gate of her home, by her mother, kissing one of the girls, but he gained his revenge the following evening. He noted that he had gone round to the girl’s house the following evening when her parents were out. His comment in his diary was ‘Yum, yum’!

Authority and rebellion

His diary also reveals the importance placed upon sporting prowess, particularly with regard to rugby, in the College. It also lays bare the problems associated with discipline in a boarding institution. Often despatched to Belmont from a catatonic Irish rural environment, the pupils were apt to take full advantage of the opportunities for more unrestrained behaviour. Young Nelson shows how some of the staff, such as John Yates – who only two years previously had composed the much-derided school song, Ne Obliviscaris – found it problematic to assert control and discipline.

The diary reveals the outrage felt by many of the senior pupils when 15-year-old Stewart Studdert Clarke (OC 1126) was given an unjustifiably severe punishment, which resulted in the Prefect body, except the Head Prefect, Arthur Leslie Gregg (OC 957), resigning en masse. E R Dodds (OC 1023, later Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford), who utterly despised the Headmaster, penned a letter of abuse to the latter from the sanatorium, which resulted in his expulsion.

Ulsterman MacFarland had arrived in 1908 from Repton and alienated many by introducing an English Public Schools ideology which included the House system and the endowment of disciplinary authority upon the Prefects. Rather ironically, in light of the fact that Nelson’s entire career was spent in the Army, and in later years at Stormont, in which subordination to a hierarchy of authority was de rigueur, Nelson’s diary indicates that he was caustic of the abuse of power, or the inability to use to employ it wisely, by many of the Prefects, who included his close friends.

The contemporary world

Nelson’s diary also highlights an interest in major contemporary events in Ulster. Reference is made to the sinking of the Titanic and the mass signing of the Ulster Covenant. Of more parochial Belmont interest is the list of various punishments handed out by the staff and some of the textbooks he was required to use.

A wide range of fellow pupils are mentioned in the diary and of particular interest is the list of autographs he sought from his friends, which encompassed over half a dozen who were to perish in the forthcoming War. The first on the list was Reginald Cuthbert Whiteside (OC 1064) who, four years later, became the fourteenth victim of the Red Baron. More surprisingly, he persuaded eighteen members of staff, including the Headmaster, to append their autograph.

Keith Haines Hon OC

[Nelson Russell’s 1912 diary is reproduced in full in the biography, Brigadier Nelson Russell. This is available from the OC Shop at £8; it is a non-profit-making publication, with £3 of the price donated to OC Society]

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