Midlands Life
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School that bred Black Country hero
By Peter Rhodes
Oct 12, 2005

These are their blue remembered hills. The Cumbrian slopes rise high above Sedbergh, peaks lost in the swirling mists of an autumn squall.

In the valley is Sedbergh School, a grim old grey-stone pile. Along the dripping road, thin figures in singlets and shorts are cross-country racing, hair rain-plastered on their foreheads.Young Leslie Shaw in uniform - brave
Young Leslie Shaw in uniform - brave

This is a place where, since 1525, boys have been turned into men on a diet of cold showers, exercise and muscular Christianity, and sent to do their nation's bidding. The school's Latin motto says it all: Dura Virum Nutrix - "A stern nurse of men."

One hundred years ago, three Black Country brothers were sent to stern Sedbergh and became stars of the school.

"We have no way of knowing why boys came here," says Sedbergh School archivist Elspeth Griffiths. "The reasons were many and varied. Perhaps their father knew someone from the school, or met someone through business who recommended it."

Their father was John Perks Shaw, a wealthy hardware merchant in Wolverhampton. The 1901 Census shows that by the age of 51 Shaw had made his money and retired, living in some style with his wife Eliza at West Bank, a huge house in Richmond Road.

They had three sons; Hamilton, born in 1879, Malcolm, born in 1888 and Leslie, born two years later. Hamilton was first to enter Sedbergh, excelling in school sports in the 1890s. After school he went on to play rugby for England in the 1906/07 season.

By that time, the two younger brothers were at Sedbergh for a couple of years of finishing after a spell at Wolverhampton Grammar School. The Black Country lads loved it.

The school record tells: "The fells for ten miles round know well the strenuous performances of this hardy trio."

In Sedbergh's archives room Elspeth Griffiths lovingly turns the pages of the record. It tells how Leslie entered his class 100 years ago in September 1905. By Christmas he was third in the class, by the next summer he was top.

Military training was intense. A scrapbook photo shows tall young Leslie as part of an award-winning drill squad.

It was the age of Empire. These public-school boys were disciplined and fiercely patriotic. But they were not robots. They rebelliously carved their names in any exposed woodwork, and accepted the inevitable caning with good grace.

One of Leslie Shaw's contemporaries, Leslie Duckworth, fed up with the peal of bells, famously took a rifle and shot both hands off the church clock.

"He'll have to be expelled," declared the headmaster.

"But it's Bisley next week," protested the house master, horrified at losing a crackshot before the famous rifle competition.

"Very well, " conceded the head. "A good beating will suffice."

When war came a few years later, nothing could keep men like this from the fray. They volunteered in their thousands, and perished in droves. The slaughter of England's elite was cruel. Of the 62 boys who left Sedbergh in the year 1911 alone, 20 were killed in the war.

The school's memorial cloisters, just restored at a cost of 240,000, bear the names of 453 who perished in the First and Second World Wars.

Leslie Shaw is among them. He was one of those fine young Edwardian gentlemen whose only fear in the summer of 1914 was that the Great War would be over before they got to the front.

Training as an officer would have wasted precious time. So he signed up as a humble squaddie, Private 9390 Shaw of the South Staffordshire Regiment.

He would have stood out. In 1914 the public-school classes were on average five inches taller than working-class lads from the inner cities.

"Too tall for my trench," one Old Sedberghian wrote to his school.

The war dragged on. On August 30, 1915 Leslie Gardner Shaw was commissioned as an officer in the South Staffords' Fifth Battalion. Six weeks later he was dead.

The 25-year-old officer fell with hundreds of North and South Staffords men in the infamous October 13 attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, a German strongpoint, during the Battle of Loos. It was the Black Country's bloodiest day of the Great War.

The British artillery hardly damaged the German trenches. As soon as the barrage stopped, German machine-guns swept the British parapets. The men knew they had to climb out of the trenches into this murderous hail. According to reports, not one flinched.

Sedbergh's book of military honours records that a former pupil met Lieutenant Shaw shortly before his death and noted "his utter disregard for either personal safety or comfort, so long as our cause was progressing satisfactorily."

The book adds: "On October 13th, in the afternoon, when leading his platoon against the Hohenzollern Redoubt he was shot through the head by machine-gun fire."

Leslie Shaw's body, like thousands of others at Loos, was never found. His two brothers also served in the war. Malcolm was wounded in 1917 but survived. Hamilton came home unscathed.

Their grief-stricken parents paid for a stained-glass window in memory of their youngest son which can be seen at Wombourne United Reformed Church.

On Remembrance Sunday next month the restored cloisters at Sedbergh School will be rededicated to the memory of the old boys who never came home.

Among the far-off fells he loved, a Black Country hero will be remembered again.

Nothing but useless slaughter

The Battle of Loos raged from September 25 until November 19, 1915, near the French mining town of Lens. The 137th Brigade, comprising four Territorial battalions from the Black Country and Staffordshire, was thrown into action on October 13. By then the battle was already a lost cause. The 4,000 Midland men had to cross flat land overlooked by German positions and were mown down by withering machine-gun and artillery fire. Their attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt was a failure. About 500 were killed and 1,000 wounded or missing. The Official History of the war concluded that the fighting 'brought nothing but useless slaughter of infantry.'


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