Stalky & Co.

The general background

(by Roger Lancelyn Green, 1961)

Anyone interested in the United Services College at Westward Ho! which formed the background for Stalky & Co. will turn to the excellent (but all too brief) account by Colonel H. A. Tapp, United Services College, 1874-1911, printed for private circulation in 1933, and its sequel, published in 1960.

In none of the stories is the School precisely named: it is “The College”, or, more usually, “Coll.” – and Westward Ho! is not named either, though Bideford, Northam and Appledore, the Pebble Ridge, the Burrows and Braunton Sands give away the situation pretty clearly. And the dedication “To Cormell Price, Headmaster, United Services College, Westward Ho! Bideford, North Devon, 1974-1894” must have left little doubt in the mind even of a reader who had never heard of the School.

The U.S.C. was founded by a Company, consisting mainly of Army officers, “and the purchase of fifty £1 shares enabled the holder to nominate one boy for education on reduced terms”. Its main object was to pass boys straight into Sandhurst or Woolwich without the intermediate year or so with the “Crammer” which was then the rule – the older Public Schools concentrating on passing boys into the Universities.
“A terrace of twelve adjoining houses was leased for the College buildings”, wrote Colonel Tapp. “These houses were situated on the slope of a hill facing north-west, and not far from the already famous Pebble Ridge at Westward Ho! Here the wild, healthy Devon coast was ideal for hardening boys into men, but the buildings were not so ideal for school premises, and considerable internal reconstruction was a necessity.”
In the words of Kipling’s introductory verses “Western wind and open surge Took us from our mothers; Flung us on a naked shore (Twelve bleak houses by the shore, Seven summers by the shore!) ‘Mid two hundred brothers.” Kipling further amplified in “An Unsavoury Interlude” where, for the sake of clarity, comes the nearest approach to a description of the School: “each House, in its internal arrangements – the College had originally been a terrace of twelve large houses – was a replica of the next; one straight roof covering all.”

There would be no point in a more detailed description of the U.S.C. here, or of the life there during its early years. Kipling’s essay “An English School” tells all that one needs to know, while the particular recollections in the second chapter of Something of Myselfand in the earlier pages of Dunsterville’s Stalky’s Reminiscences fill in the picture.

G. C. Beresford in his Schooldays with Kipling (1936) spun out into a whole volume a tangled skein of trivialities that might have served for one interesting, if rather self-opinionated, article. But nowhere in his many, many pages is there a spark of the life or the reality conveyed in any one of the Stalky & Co. stories. Kipling’s “school saga” has such life and vitality of its own that even the most factual account seems pale and colourless beside it. Dunsterville’s thirty-six pages and Kipling’s one essay form, as it were, two admirable Appendices – and nothing more is needed, save perhaps a few factual footnotes in a discreetly smaller type, to be referred to only if desired.