Gresham's School in Wartime

We would like to invite people who have an interest in our WWI story to get in touch with us through the blog. Our sixth form researchers will be contributing their own experiences of the project to the blog and we hope to update the website as new material becomes available. If you have any relevant comments or contributions of stories or archive material we would be delighted to hear from you.

If you would like to submit a blog entry, please email Liz Larby.

James Humphrey Cole - OG surveyor of the Great Pyramid of Giza

James was born in 1891, the fourth of six children of Herbert and Amy Cole, who lived at Hill House in Brundall, Norfolk.  His father was a solicitor, and James attended King Edward VI School in Norwich before registering at Gresham’s in September of 1904. James’s older brother Arthur also attended the School (1902-5) and his adventures in the silver mining district of Canada are recorded in The Gresham magazine, followed in November 1917 by his death at Passchendaele while serving with the Canadian Mounted Rifles. James won an Open Scholarship to Gresham’s and boarded in Bengal Lodge.  He soon proved himself to be a sportsman, playing rugby for various teams, and doing well at athletics and gymnastics, as well as representing his House at swimming.  James won several prizes for science and maths, and was a regular and entertaining speaker at the debating society, addressing some ‘more or less coherent remarks’ on Turkey in 1908 and denouncing the war with Italy. After leaving at Christmas of 1909 he was to return to play in an OG rugby match the following year, and much later in 1920, attended an OG reunion at the School.

In 1909 James was awarded a scholarship of £80 per year to study maths at St. John’s College, Cambridge where he achieved First Class Honours, as well as playing cricket and stroking for the Lady Margaret Boat. In 1912 he was appointed to a post with the Egyptian Civil Service as a mathematician carrying out survey work. During the War James was asked to assist the British Army in compiling maps from aerial photographs, becoming so successful he went to Mesopotamia at the request of renowned T.E. Lawrence of Arabia to conduct the first ever aerial survey of the town of Baghdad. In 1917 he left to carry out further surveys in the Sudan and Egypt on which the entire irrigation system of the two countries was based. He was Mentioned in Despatches for his work in 1918, and later made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.  After the War James was in charge of survey work in the Nile Valley which occupied him for the next twenty years and led to the publication in 1925 of the first accurate survey of the Great Pyramid of Giza.  James Cole retired to Sheringham, and his obituary in the 1963 OG Magazine described him as “a man of quiet and modest disposition who was much liked and esteemed by all who knew him.”


Sun compass designed for use in tanks in the desert during WWII by James Cole.

Photograph copyright  IWM(FEQ 416)

Wartime debating at Gresham’s - researched by Henry, himself a debater of some note

The most remarkably obvious fact about the Gresham’s debating society is simply how popular it is.  Dozens of people vote in each debate, but what is even more striking is that many of them speak on either side.  Individual houses also had their own debating societies, showing the seriousness in which it was taken.  The motions of these were, as might be expected, rather more esoteric than the main debating society, for example, ‘In the distant future passengers will cross the Atlantic by air rather than by sea’. It is perhaps less surprising that debating was seemingly so essential to the life of the School, given the reforms introduced by Howson and later Eccles, making Gresham’s arguably the leading school in the country for those who desired a less traditional and more radical education, for those privileged enough to afford it, of course! 

The main debates were far more dominated by current events.  While some of the contributors clearly mirror the opinions of their fathers, often Liberal MPs, there were enough Conservative members to make for a lively debate. It was all recorded with the dry and quietly insulting wit of the anonymous reporter, eg. ‘J.H. Cole confidentially addressed some more or less coherent remarks’, and the ‘verbose invective’ of N. Drey when quoting figures ‘absolutely unintelligible to himself and others.’ Henry and his classmates were amused by the archaic attitudes shown by some OGs in their debates, particularly in bringing class into everything, although ‘politics is not the trade of a gentleman’, clinging onto to colonialism wherever possible, and, of course, when discussing the thorny subject of women’s suffrage.

Somme commemorations

Gresham's will be remembering those who fell at the Somme in a special service on 1 July. We are researching the 10 OGs and one member of staff and profiles will appear on the website shortly but please get in touch if you would like information on the any of the following in the meantime - 

George Fenchelle, Walter Gissing, Henry Scott-Holmes, Geoffrey Barratt, Henry Russell, Mark Hill, John Foster, Douglas Richardson, Archibald Gilmour, Dawson Atkin, and Geoffrey Day.

World War Archives

I am pleased to be able to go live with the website which is still very much a work in progress with much information still to be added over the centenary years.  I have been very impressed by the way my team of sixth formers have embraced the task of researching our fallen OGs and staff.  Carrying out detailed research using original archive source such as registers, magazines and photograph albums is very different from the classroom based history they are familiar with and they are showing great promise as historical researchers.  We have started researching our fallen in chronological order to tie in with the services of commemoration held on the anniversary of their death in the School Chapel.  However, if anyone has an interest in one of our fallen whose details do not yet appear on the website we would be happy to carry out some research.

Liz Larby

Blog entry by Evie, Emma and Joe

We have wholly enjoyed our first term researching the lives of the boys who fell in WW1. This project has taken us on not only an emotional journey but also a journey of discovery. Over the course of the term we have researched the lives and achievements of these incredible individuals, following not only their time in School but their contributions to the War.  The wealth of information stored in the archives is truly fascinating and brings history to life in a way we have never experienced before. Last term we entered information on Frank Halsey into the database and it was immediately clear just what an inspirational character he was; he was head of school, he had a scholarship to Oxford and he participated in nearly every aspect of school life imaginable. Learning about characters such as Halsey makes us truly appreciate the opportunities presented to us at Gresham’s. One task that proved to be particularly challenging was trying to identify boys in the school photo albums, although this was time-consuming it was very worthwhile as it’s nice to have a face to put to the facts. 

Blog from two of our sixth form researchers, Emma and Maddie -

Throughout the term we have researched the lives of numerous OGs who fell in the War. We have used old Gresham magazines, photo albums and various websites to carry out our research. First, we checked the dates of the boy’s attendance so we could look through the relevant magazines to find out about their lives at school. We have also scanned many photos of OGs, collating a commemorative database. Researching the lives of these men has been truly inspiring and we have loved to find out about the profound effect that the War has had on our school. They all led ambitious and busy school lives, going on to sacrifice their lives for our country.