The Memorial Organ: collective memory, institutions and taking the past on its own terms

At the very heart of our school, at the focal point of its main hall is a war memorial, an organ and panels upon which are inscribed the 158 old Novos who gave their lives in the Great War, and the 116 who fell in the second. For obvious reasons, the First World War is very much on what we might call the national mind and, of course, anniversaries offer their own pathways into thinking about institutions and their history.

A little of the history of the memorial itself might be of interest. Sir Arthur Sutherland was one of the most important philanthropists in the city’s history: notably, his role in the establishment of the medical school and the Sutherland Dental  School would earn him that accolade on their own. He was no less important in the story of this school, being by far the greatest benefactor in its modern history, as an old boy, then a governor, and then chairman of the governors. For example, it is thanks to him we had a swimming pool in 1930 (something by no means common in a provincial grammar school, however long established and even distinguished, in that era).

In August and September 1914, as was the case all over the country, the RGS went to war: well, to be accurate, its old boys, a number of its masters and, in one sense, its headmaster did. As a school, it embraced the necessity of war with something approaching zeal, or even enthusiasm. The headmaster was gazetted Major Talbot of the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers, the Newcastle Commercials, the pals’ battalion based around the Quayside offices in which so many of the old boys of the school worked; unsurprisingly, that was the battalion more Old Novos enlisted in than any other. Sir Arthur Sutherland endowed the school, and its Officer Training Corps, with a rifle range. When it was officially opened, the announcement that 107 old boys were known to be serving as officers, and a further 113 in the ranks drew prolonged applause; as did the head, incidentally, when he was the only dignitary on the day to hit a bull’s eye on the aforementioned rifle range. All in all, after the war, the school recorded, on its roll of honour that 1,114 Old Novos served, of whom just shy of 100 had been decorated and mentioned in despatches.

Some, of course, paid the inevitable price. It was to commemorate them that the school’s science master, William Laws, compiled the memorial book, giving brief accounts of their lives and deaths, a book published to accompany the dedication of the memorial organ by Major-general Montgomery-Massingberd on 1st June 1923. That organ was the gift of Sir Arthur Sutherland.

The memorial, the book, and the roll of honour, tell us much about the school and the city in the war. One purpose they now serve is to act as a link between the school now and its past. Every year, I take a group of Year 11 students to the battlefields of the First World War. In doing so, it’s hardly possible not to see the presence of Tyneside wherever you go. The same applies to the school: there are Old Novos buried there, and commemorated too.

So far, so simple, in a sense. The fate of our old boys tells a story of the war. But war memorials do more than engage us in a conversation between the war and the present, or between the men of 1914-18 and ourselves. A simple glance at the memorial might, to the modern eye, gives something that might jar: Horace’s words Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. And this is not Horace through the lens we now tend to see it through, the lens of Wilfred Owen as it were: the lens of ‘the old lie’. There is no biter irony here.

War memorials engage us in another conversation: between us and those who were left behind, those who lived on to commemorate. Not merely the people, but the city, communities and institutions they were part of.

Woven together, war memorials give us kind of fleeting glimpse of the men who fought, but also of the men and women, the city and the institutions the fallen left behind, and we can begin to understand them on their own terms too. Perhaps we can grasp something of the collective memory institutions possess in the same way. A conversation with the living and the dead, yes. But the dead are not just the fallen, but also those who lived on and commemorated after. They are, in that sense, public, or institutional, as well as private memorials, and are part of a continuity of history and collective memory.

At the very least, taking something like this memorial on its own terms might make us stop and think. The memorial book, like the memorial, opens with the words of a poet. Not Horace this time, and certainly no Sassoon or Owen, but Rupert Brooke.

That seems to me a real voice of all our pasts, whether of families, communities, our city or, indeed, our institutions. It is a voice we should give its due, and the respect due to it.

If this interests you, have you tried the North East War Memorials Project? Or the Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project?

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