Nowell Oxland and William Noel Hodgson; School pals at Durham and rivals on the Rubgy Pitch.
Nowell acquitted himself well as a King’s Scholar at Durham School, ‘becoming Monitor and Head of School between 1908 and 1910, rowing in the third crew in 1908 and the second crew in 1909, and playing in the Rugby XV in 1907-1909’,(1) although his love for hill climbing and walking would get him into serious trouble in his final year.
Charlotte Zeepvat takes up the story in Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, but details of the event are corroborated in Durham’s own account related by School historian John Malden.
‘Ascension Day 1910 fell on the 5 May and as usual Breakfast was timed for 9am to allow the school time to attend Matins (morning prayers) in the Cathedral, but friends Nowell Oxland and William Noel Hodgson had other plans. Well before Sunrise they climbed from the window of the lower study, which Oxland occupied as Head of School, and made their way across country on a bird-nesting expedition. Fording the River Browney, they found several nests when they were spotted by gamekeepers who gave chase. They made a run for it and managed to get away taking refuge in a cottage where they cadged breakfast – only to hear a clock strike eight – warning them to make a mad dash back to school to smarten up in time for the morning roll-call’.(2)
They made it, but the story did not remain a secret and breaking bounds was considered a serious offence which required punishment (not least as Oxland had held the prized position of Head of School for 2 years running). The Headmaster, Rev Budworth, decided to send Oxland down. Whilst short of expulsion this still meant that Nowell was unable to take his final exams required for University and he would lose a year in his academic career. Hodgson was two years younger and a golden pupil in every sense, an athlete and a scholar, so it appears he only received the cane for misbehaving.(3)
Nowell made his own arrangements to complete his studies matriculating in 1911 and following Hodgson up to Oxford to study ‘Classics’ (later transferring to History) at Worcester College. Meanwhile Hodgson was already at Christ Church studying the ‘Greats’. In 1914 the war intervened and when duty called they both joined the Army. Hodgson called up through the Oxford OTC accepted a commission with the 9th Battalion Devons and Oxland joined the 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment.
Later in 1915 Hodgson would recall the years at Durham School in his poem Reverie with a reference to Oxland in the final verse.
At home they see on Skiddaw
His royal purple lie,
And autumn up in Newlands
Arrayed in russet die,
Or under burning woodland
The still lake’s gramarye.
And far off and grim and sable
The menace of the Gable
Lifts up his stark aloofness
Against the western sky.
At vesper-time in Durham
The level evening falls
Upon the shadowy river
That slides by ancient walls,
Where out of crannied turrets
The mellow belfry calls.
And there sleep brings forgetting
And morning no regretting,
And love is laughter-wedded
To health in happy halls……
….Above the graves of heroes
the wooden crosses grow,
That shall no more see Durham
Nor any place they know,
Where fell tops face the morning
And great winds blow;
Who loving as none other
The land that is their mother,
Unfalteringly renounced her
Because they loved her so.(4)
It wasn’t just a love of the hills the two lads had in common they were both sons’ of clergymen. Noel’s father the Rev. Henry Hodgson had been offered the care of England’s most northerly parish, Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the spring of 1897 and without hesitation moved his family north from rural Thornbury. The Hodgson’s were returning home to their Cumbrian family roots. Henry’s grandfather had been a Lawyer, Clerk of the Peace for the County of Cumberland and five times elected Mayor of Carlisle. Alongside the legends of Cumbria, the imaginations of the Hodgson children were fed on stories of the Sea, the Caribbean and the Far East.
Noel’s mother was Penelope Warren the daughter of first cousins and grandchildren of the Society Doctor, Richard Warren, Physician to King George III. Her father, Richard Laird Warren, joined the Navy in his teens and rose to the Rank of Admiral in 1870. Two of the Warren uncles also served in the Navy, but the eldest Pelham was in the Consular Service in China taking an important role in the Boxer Rebellion which resulted in his appointment as Consul General to Shanghai in 1901 followed by a knighthood a year later.(5)
However, Noel’s branch of the family was not wealthy, life was ‘gas-lit, homespun, played out in a close-knit community where the same families shared church, good works and recreation, in events they organised for themselves’.(6) Their eldest child, Arthur, was born in Staverton in the Summer of 1884, whilst his three siblings were Winter babies born at Thornbury; Noel the youngest in 1893, his sister Stella two years earlier and Hal, four years her senior. The age gap divided the children naturally into two pairs, Stella and Noel remaining particularly close.
Durham School shaped her pupils to respond to England’s call and she would not have been disappointed. Many left their later studies to sign up as soon as War was declared. After the conflict figures revealed that 500 old boys had fought in the war; there were 96 deaths, with a further 8 later as a result of wounds. The Head at the time, Richard Budworth, supervised the building of a memorial chapel high on top of the hill above the School with spectacular views over the City and Cathedral, providing at least half of the building costs from his own pocket. By pure coincidence on climbing the steps to the chapel one day he noticed that there were 96 steps, one for each former pupil killed in the war.(7)
Another of Durham’s finest on the pitch, Jimmy Dingle – known as ‘Mud’ – succeeded Nowell Oxland as Head of School and went onto study at Keble College, Oxford. From Stephen Cooper’s book The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players (2012) we know through Nowell’s urging Jimmy joined the team at Rosslyn Park in London with the ever present Oxland. (Oxland spread his rugby favours wide, also donning the jerseys of Richmond, Middlesex and his beloved Cumberland.) ‘In February 1912, the two friends faced each other on the pitch as Nowell turned out for Park against Jimmy’s Blues in Oxford…. They would both make final appearances on another field: Nowell was killed two weeks before Jimmy, a few hundred arid bitterly fought yards away from each other at Gallipoli’.(8)
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(2) Zeepvat, Charlotte, Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014), p44
(3) Men well versed in the horrors of war, The Northern Echo, 24 Feb 2014
(4) William Noel Hodgson, ‘Reverie’ in Verse and Prose in Peace and War, Smith, Elder & Co (London) 1916
(5) Zeepvat, Charlotte, Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, Pen & Sword (2014), p9
(6) Ibid ‘Before Action’, p20
(8) Cooper, Stephen, The Final Whistle: The Great War in Fifteen Players, The History Press, Stroud (2012), p85