Frederick Noel Hamilton Wills

Frederick Noel Hamilton Wills (Noel) of Miserden House, Gloucestershire, was born in 1887, the youngest son of Sir Frederick Wills Bt. of Northmoor, Dulverton and Anne (née Hamilton). Sir Frederick Wills was a director of W D & H O Wills , founded by his forebears, a member of parliament and a staunch Liberal. His wife, Anne, who gave the Founder her maiden surname at baptism, was the daughter of Rev. James Hamilton, a noted Scottish cleric. The influence of both his parents and a close-knit family of two brothers and three sisters was strong as was the family home in Northmoor which inspired a passion for the English countryside.

Educated briefly at Winchester and then at Clifton College, it was Magdalen College, Oxford, where Noel Wills studied English, that provided the inspiration to realise an educational vision as the Founder of Rendcomb College. His brother, Gilbert Wills (who became the first Lord Dulverton) and Canon Sewell (the first Chair of Governors) entertained the thought that 'if there had been no Magdalen, there would have been no Rendcomb'. Noel Wills' time at Oxford was marked by wide-ranging reading, a generous appreciation of the talents of those around him and in the words of Professor G S Gordon (who became President of the College) an 'unostentatious goodness'.

Noel Wills also developed strong creative interests: painting, music (he was a noteworthy cellist and fine tenor), and design. In the English countryside he loved, Noel Wills rode, hunted, played polo and was a fisherman envied for his skill by peers. He also loved to write: creative and philosophical prose, criticism, verse, even an operetta performed at home in Miserden, as well as some practical advice on fishing and countless letters to friends, all crafted in a beautiful hand. He was always keen to nurture others. In 1909, he started a monthly magazine of poetry with Walter Jerrold. Short-lived though this publication was, as many such ventures of its type and time, contributions were received by Walter de la Mare, Quiller-Couch, Lady Margaret Sackville and Edward Thomas. Further inspiration came in 1912 when Noel Wills married Margery Hamilton Fraser, the eldest daughter of Sir Hugh Fraser of Stromeferry House, Ross-shire. Mrs Wills provided support, abiding encouragement and remained actively involved in his vision for the rest of her life.

Noel Wills described himself as 'a dreamer' though his dreams were inspired by philosophical insight, sensitivity to others and a profound concern for the inequalities evident in the society in which he lived. With the advantage of privilege, he felt the need to empower those less fortunate and in doing so showed a foresight borne out by huge changes to the education system in the first half of the century and the genesis of grammar school education. In his words, 'When opportunity comes to the favoured few alone, how small an advance can be anticipated'.

Of course, the Wills family was no stranger when it came to educational altruism; the Founder's Uncle and three of his cousins had founded and endowed buildings at Bristol University. It was perhaps destined that Noel Wills would also make his mark on the world of education. In 1918, the Founder bought Rendcomb Park with a view to forming a 'Transition School' to provide a free boarding education to about forty boys from the elementary schools of Gloucestershire and prepare them for entry to Public School. He envisaged that by giving them 'the best possible education, some would gain entry by scholarship to Public Schools and perhaps, a few ultimately to University. This initial vision was broad and generous, involving supplements from the endowment to subsidise scholarships and leaving scholarships for those who could not secure entry to Public Schools for 'assistance in beginning professions and trades'. This vision evolved in the next two years in part by the Christmas gift that Mrs Wills had given her husband in 1917: An Adventure in Education by J H Simpson.

Simpson had been educated at Rugby School and Pembroke College, Cambridge where he studied Classics and History before teaching at Clifton College, Charterhouse School, Gresham's and Rugby. The Founder invited Simpson ('one of the men I most earnestly desire to consult') to Miserden in February 1919 and the conversation they had shaped the future of the vision. Instead of providing what was essentially a Preparatory School education, Rendcomb College would educate boys for five years to sixteen, or seven were the boys of University material. That Noel Wills was prepared to compromise his original intentions says much for his receptiveness to new ideas and the respect that he had for the educationalist; that Simpson was prepared to leave Rugby to take the founding Headship of Rendcomb rather than posts at Oundle or Leeds University says much for the respect that the educationalist had for the Founder. Simpson's attraction to Rendcomb would have been increased as he learnt more of the Founder's intentions in a series of letters between the two in the months after their meeting (the Founder being the excellent fisherman that he was!) outlining his intention to provide 'a social, moral and intellectual education rather than mere scholarship'. Simpson clearly saw the potential that such a brief provided. On 2 June 1920, Rendcomb College opened with twelve boys, Simpson at the helm and Noel Wills as Chair of Governors. The two men shaped the path of the School for a little over seven years and their relationship was founded on mutual respect and affection. In 1924, the Founder wrote an illuminating piece for The English Review which gives a fascinating insight into those early years and his progressive educational vision.[1]

‘Remembering what he wanted us to be – his pride in what has been done well, his indulgence for what has been done less well – we must go forward, humbly, but confidently, in the work of making his vision a reality.’ James Herbert Simpson, founding Headmaster of Rendcomb College

Noel Wills died in the autumn of 1927

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ C H C Osbourne; J C James; K L James (1975). A History of Rendcomb College. Alden Press. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  • The Collected Prose and Verse of Noel Wills (1931), collected by his wife, Margery Hamilton Wills and printed for private circulation.
  • A History of Rendcomb College (1976), compiled by C H C Osborne, J C James and K L James

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