Memories of Elmfield 3

Of its First Head Master

Transcription of article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by An Old Boy

ELMFIELD’S first Head Master was James K. Dall, Esq., B.A. He had also qualified for LL.D.,. but did not care to spend the fee required to secure the use of the magic letters. So I have heard. Mr. Dall, as I recall him, was above the middle height, perhaps tall, and slenderly built. But he was a very wiry man, and enjoyed I imagine almost perfect health. His hair was black, and straight, and worn a little long. He had a good strong face, and I believe was a Yorkshireman. His features were, as I recall them after the lapse of nearly forty years, somewhat sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. He was a first rate scholar, and a man of great force of character. A Wesleyan, and I believe a local preacher, he habitually referred, as is common in his denomination, to the founder as “Mr. Wesley.” An outsider prefers to speak of “John Wesley.” Upon my mind he has left the impression of an absolutely righteous man, but with the severity of the Puritan in marked emphasis in his character. Now and then he sent into the minds of his pupils a kind of moral search-light which made them see a standard of religion and purity loftier than anything they had hitherto dreamed of. I admit he was a strict, perhaps a severe disciplinarian, and once I felt a single lash of his rod, and more than once I dare say I tasted the bitterness of a “task.” But the prevailing impression he left on me personally was one of justice and kindness. The kindness I may say filled me with astonishment and delight. It helped me to a new self-respect, and encouraged me where I most needed it. He seldom praised a pupil, and I had been accustomed to a good deal. Hence when he did commend his words were golden. I was fresh from the country and terribly raw. The new standards suggested by the other pupils, whose advantages in many ways had been greater than mine, were wholesome no doubt, but a trifle humiliating. But Mr. Dall’s treatment suggests to me now the idea that beneath my rawness he discerned certain possibilities, and as a matter of fact the vast majority of my clever schoolmates have long ago been left far behind in the race of life. I owe him. more than I can ever tell. 

He emigrated to South Africa and I lost sight of him many years ago. I still treasure some of his letters, now yellow with age. They are written in that careful, neat, characteristic hand of his, and are full of kindly consideration. He was a perfect gentleman and a great Christian. Some of the boys found him terrifically severe, but they generally deserved it, and needed it. He was a terror to evil doers, and not much of a praise to them that did well. But they received justice and often a great deal more.

On my first morning in school the Head Master put me through an examination and decided in what classes I should be placed. On the whole the result was creditable to my village schoolmasters. I found the arrangements for study most valuable, and my whole mental horizon was widened. Placed in the first class in English, and after a while also in Latin, I was under the direct tuition of the Head Master, and that of itself was a liberal education. There was a wonderful breadth about his teaching. One was constantly given glimpses of realms far beyond the lesson immediately under consideration, and it seemed as if the learning possessed by the teacher was boundless. Something no doubt is ere to be set down to the ignorance of the pupil, but recalling the whole in the light of wider knowledge I still feel that Mr. Dall was a fine scholar, and a remarkably able teacher.

At the end of my first quarter came the end of the half year, and the prize-giving. When I saw the prize-winners going forward for the handsome volumes they had won a sense of failure came to me. True I had only been in the school three months and therefore could not be expected to compete with boys who had been there much longer. But I determined to do better, and with the commencement of the next half-year I girded up the loins of my mind. I never went home afterwards without having won the prize on which I had set my heart. It meant in every case a stiff fight, a day after day contest, the decision often wavering in the balance, my rival sometimes first and sometimes second, but in the end I came out ahead and won the goal. To the intellectual and moral influences of Elmfield I owe much, and I can scarcely imagine anything healthier for a boy than to be placed under the training of a man like Mr. Dall. There have been several very able Head Masters since his day, but he laid the foundations of the school’s greatness, and set the pace. He remained long enough to give the school character, and all over the land are old boys who still recall with wonder and gratitude the man who first opened to them the gates of knowledge, and gave them glimpses of a realm higher still.


Primitive Methodist Magazine 1908/290

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