Mr J H HICHENS

[KES Magazine December 1938]

Obituary

JAMES HARVEY HICHENS, 1859-1938.

JAMES Harvey Hichens was born at Redruth, in Cornwall, in 1859. He was educated at Epsom College and at The Queen's College, Oxford. The son of a doctor, he was intended for the medical profession, but Chemistry became his main interest, and it was in this subject that he took his degree (B.A., 1886; M.A., 1888) After coming down from Oxford, he was successively assistant master at Radley College, housemaster at Cheltenham College, and headmaster at Wolverhampton Grammar School. After the nine years spent at the last named, it was said: " he has entirely re-organised the school, and the number of its scholars has doubled, whilst its curriculum has been extended and it has won a high reputation as a first-grade school."


JAMES HARVEY HICHENS, M.A., was Headmaster for the first twenty-one
years of King Edward VII School. After his retirement in 1926 he was given
the Honorary Degree of LL.D. by the University of Sheffield. He died in 1938.
  

In 1903, it had been decided to amalgamate the two principal schools in Sheffield-The Royal Grammar School and the Wesley College; after being suitably adapted, the buildings of the latter were to house the new King Edward VII School, which was to be opened in September, 1905. Earlier in the same year Mr. Hichens was selected as the first Headmaster, commencing his work-as was announced in the press at the time-" at a salary of £800 per annum, with residence at the School."

He had greater opportunities here than at Wolverhampton, and the way he used them is too well known for it to be necessary to describe it in detail. When he came to Sheffield, he found a new school without traditions and without standing: when he retired twenty-one years later, he left it in a position amongst the great day schools of the land. In his last Speech Day report, he was justly proud to give examples of the progress made by the School: that in its early years it had achieved only a very lowly record in the Higher School Certificate Examination, but the standard had consistently improved until, in 1925, King Edward's stood easily first in the number of Distinctions gained; or again, that since 1905, nearly £60,000 worth of scholarships had been won by boys from the School.

On his retirement in 1926, Dr. Hichens went to live at Paignton. He was awarded the honorary degree of LL.D. by the University of Sheffield in 1927. He died on September 12th, 1938.

Dr. Hichen's work can be considered in two parts: the lesser one, that done as a teacher of Chemistry; the greater, that done as an educational organiser. (It is with the former part only that the present writer has any special competence to deal). During most of their time at the School most boys saw him from across the inevitable gulf which appeared to separate a small boy from " the Boss." He was always very neatly dressed in black clothes of a formal cut, and even so hardened a person as a newspaper reporter found his presence " stern and somewhat awe-inspiring "-an effect partly due perhaps to the very dark, dark glasses he often wore. But the comparatively few of us who had the good fortune to reach his sixth form Chemistry class came to know him better, and to learn that a kindly smile might lie behind those dark glasses. We also learnt some Chemistry; for he must surely have been without equals as a teacher of the subject in its more elementary, and therefore in its more fundamental, aspects. In addition to his lectures, which gave us a thorough grounding in General and Inorganic Chemistry, he would have us at his house for special coaching on one evening each week. In the laboratory he presided over our analytical work, which was based upon his own book of tables. He used to emphasise his teaching with some memorable aphorisms, such as the following, with its curiously imparted stress " Dry tests are your sheet anchor! "

Here is a story illustrating the thoroughness and persistency of his methods. At one time boys from the School used to take their Higher Certificate examination in practical Chemistry at the University, and the Headmaster sent a list of apparatus to be provided for each of his boys. The list was so long that the Professor of Chemistry had to protest that he could not provide them with more than was considered sufficient for his own honours students. Dr. Hichens was not to he put off so easily. He had the extra apparatus--a large load of it--sent from the School to the University.

For the quality of his work as Headmaster, the facts-they are generally known-are sufficient evidence. In subjects other than Chemistry, the great successes won by the School were obviously due in the direct sense to his staff of assistant masters; but he himself must be held largely responsible for the selection of these men. And he was the ultimate driving force behind the work of the whole School. He served on many committees dealing with educational matters, not only at Wolverhampton and at Sheffield, but also during his retirement at Paignton.

Dr. Hichens was a great Headmaster in his generation. To say this is to admit that, when judged by the standards prevailing today, he may have had short-comings. Possibly we may wonder whether he did not place too high a value upon examinational successes; the pendulum seems to be swinging in the opposite direction now. But, if he had such failings, he certainly had the corresponding qualities in a high degree. The word " thorough " has been used more than once, and no other word so adequately sums up his approach to all his duties. No detail was to be neglected. He spared himself no pains, and expected others to do the same.

The words spoken by public orators have usually to be taken with regard to their context; but those applied to Dr. Hichens when he was an honorary graduand can be accepted literally and without reservation: for him there was " no trouble too great, no obstacle too difficult, no detail too insignificant, if the mastery of it con-tributed to the growing efficiency and splendour of the institution he had the proud honour to serve." With such a man, working in such a way, the results could not have failed to be impressive.

J. C. S.

 Another Old Edwardian writes:-

The impression that has endured down the years is that this man of dignified efficiency might equally well have governed a colony, an office in Whitehall, or a diocese. Few were surprised when it became known that he had had the opportunity to be headmaster of more than one great school. Possibly more important still is the fact that few were surprised that he refused, for he loved this School above himself.

He surmounted obstacles with an imperturbable persistence which was so much a part of him that it was hard to realise that he had any obstacles in his path at all. No situation ever seemed too much for him: he had solved his own problems before he spoke of them so that he always made administration appear easy.

Obstacles had to be cleared, but no sense of strain must be shown in the clearing. Of comparatively slight stature, for example, he somehow conveyed the impression of a larger man. Having a severe affliction of the eyes necessitating the use of smoked glasses, he could yet ensure that a boy was more careful in his presence than under the eagle glance of another. Acutely sensitive and affectionate in disposition, a rigid sense of justice made him control emotion so well that many erred in thinking him cold. Character it was, purely and simply, that in twenty years enabled him to change a stunted, rather unwanted phoenix of a school into Cock o' the North. Judged by its scholars of Oxford and Cambridge, the description is not inapt.

Small things, we are told, reveal the greater, and certain clearly-remembered incidents provide a surer key to his character than careful analysis. One impression is of a rather young father bringing his eight-year-old son to see the Headmaster with a view to putting him at the School. The father, an old public school boy, was a little doubtful. At the interview, formalities completed, the Headmaster asked: " What is the boy going to do in life? " Eight-years-old was terrified. " My great ambition for him is Oxford and one of the professions," replied his father. Smoked lenses regarded a now completely petrified small boy for a long time. " He shall go to Oxford and join one of the professions," said the Headmaster. That is considerably more than twenty years ago now, and the eight-year-old is going rather bald; when occasion demands he writes " M.A. (Oxon)." after his name, but quite humbly, knowing it was all due really to one man's vision, for he was a very average boy.

There is an impression of the Head taking a Junior Form, just once, in mental arithmetic and chuckling when he got one of his own sums wrong; of the Head standing on the top of the main steps, very still, gazing into space one November afternoon in 1918, when nearly everyone had gone away to shout and go mad generally; of the Head who wanted you to bend your arms a little lower though no stroke ever deviated by one millimetre from its predecessor at the point of impact; of a Head who made you feel far worse when he only spoke to you. There is a recollection of a delightful host in his own home, insisting that you took precedence although you were only fifteen; a fleeting memory of a cold, clear voice that broke slightly for the first and last time when he read prayers at the end of his last Term. ' Last scene of all,' a time when we met by accident in an hotel well-known to all Oxford men and ' dicatur veritas, ruat coelum,' one smoked his cigars and drank a glass of his port. We talked for three hours and, though he had retired some years before, he remembered the writer's own generations at School (the years of them) better than the writer.

He had a very sure faith in both worlds and he interpreted that faith with more zeal and success than the common run of men. An epitaph comes easily to mind: he would he content with it, for he used it himself a myriad times. It is just a transposition of most of our terminal reports. ' J. H. H. Very satisfactory.'

G.

Crest of Robert Hichens:
Motto: "Fac recte nil time"
See www.hichens.com/history/history_hh.pdf

["Sheffield & District Who's Who" for 1905, courtesy of Philip Robinson]:

 

SHEFFIELD EDUCATION COMMITTEE.
Officials-Con.

Mr. J. H. Hichens, M.A.

Mr. James Harvey Hichens, headmaster of King Edward VII. School at Sheffield (the new school formed by the amalgamation of the Royal Grammar School and Wesley College), is 45 years of age, and before coming to Sheffield was for over nine years headmaster of Wolverhampton Grammar School. He was educated at Epsom College, and after matriculating with honours at the London University, he proceeded to Queen's College, Oxford, as the holder of a scholarship from Epsom College. Whilst at Oxford he won the Burdett-Coutts scholarship. On leaving the University, Mr. Hichens became assistant master at Radley College, Berkshire, and thence proceeded to Cheltenham College, where he was assistant master, and then house master, under Dr. James, now the headmaster of Rugby. In 1895 he was appointed to the Headmastership of Wolverhampton Grammar School. During his Headmastership he completely re-organised the school. The number of its scholars doubled, its curriculum was extended, and it has won a high reputation as a first-grade school. Mr. Hichens is a member of the Council of the Incorporated Association of Headmasters, and has taken a considerable part in the educational work at Wolverhampton.