(Sir) Donald Wolfit as a school boy

Image ID: 07917

(Sir) Donald Wolfit as a school boy

Courtesy of Nottinghamshire Archives

The Magnus Grammar School, Earp Avenue
Newark on Trent

Donald Wolfit pictured as a member of the Magnus 1st XV Rugby team in 1919. Sir Donald Wolfit, the famous Shakespearean actor and last of the great actor-managers, was born at No 8 London Road, New Balderton, on April 20, 1902. In a retrospective of his distinguished career his biographer, Ronald Harwood, states: 'No actor of his generation was surrounded by more controversy.. Some dismissed him contemptuously; others thought of him as a joke; yet others claimed that no one who held the stage in the last fifty years possessed, in such abundance, the qualities befitting a great actor..' If the assessment of his schoolmasters is anything to go by, however, these singular attributes were by no means apparent during his early years in Newark. From September 1913 Wolfit attended the Thomas Magnus Grammar School on Earp Avenue, and, after an uneasy start, found himself continually at odds with the strict regime then in force. The pages of the school punishment book are littered with references to detentions and canings for his supposed bad behaviour. Indeed, so numerous and so frequent were Wolfit's appearances in the punishment book that for many years he held the school record for the greatest number of detentions in one week - no fewer than 13. Nor did his first term's report (for Christmas 1913) contain cause for celebration; he came bottom of his class in maths and almost bottom in other core subjects such as - English, science and Latin. This was certainly not a healthy position for the young Wolfit to be in. In 1913 the Magnus was a small but select school. There were about 100 pupils, 17 of whom were boarders. Wolfit had secured his place through a scholarship and was now expected to justify the school governors' faith in his abilities through academic performance. This he was clearly failing to do, and his place at the school looked to be in jeopardy. The headmaster, the Rev. H. Gorse, wrote to Wolfit's father threatening expulsion if improvement were not rapidly forthcoming. The following term, Wolfit duly redoubled his efforts, but found his attempts frustrated by a vindictive maths master. Wolfit's name continued to appear in the detention book and expulsion loomed once more. It was not until one morning before school, when Wolfit was found crying over his maths homework, that the true story of the master's persecution came out, and to Wolfit's father paid a visit to the headmaster. From that time things appear to have eased although not before, the headmaster had given the young Wolfit a stern lecture telling him to forget his, 'dressing up', recitations, and all thoughts of the theatre. For a time Wolfit concurred, but events soon lead to his making his first theatrical triumph. The following year the troublesome maths master announced his departure from the school, and no one was more surprised than he when Wolfit announced that he wished to organise a concert in his honour. The concert went ahead and was a great success, and it was only years later when the master visited his former pupil (now a successful actor) in his dressing room at Stratford-upon-Avon that the truth behind the concert came out. The master remembered Wolfit's 'gesture at his departure with affection. 'Oh no,' replied Wolfit,'not when you left, but because you left.' The master's eyes are said to have flashed as of old, and Wolfit knew that his revenge was complete. It would be true to say that for all his shortcomings as a scholar, the Magnus left a lasting impression on Wolfit. Although in later life he tended to play down the importance of his formative years in Newark (he even went so far as to say that the Magnus actually 'uneducated him'), he could not deny the debt he owed to the many individuals in the town who encouraged him to take on his first amateur roles. It was from early appearances at the Robin Hood Theatre in Averham that Wolfit obtained the grounding upon which forge, his subsequent glittering career.

Date: 1919

Organisation Reference: NCCE001723


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