For the townsfolk of Bridport January 4th, 1911 was an occasion of dreary solemnity and from something more than just the depressing effect of wintry weather. People at home drew the blinds of their windows down; businesses put up their shutters. A cortege bearing a plain oak coffin passed through the town en route to the cemetery. Clearly someone special, someone almost everyone in Bridport had taken to their hearts, was no more.
This special citizen who had prompted such an outpouring of reverence and mourning on his last journey was John Beard. Beard was born in Bristol on March 20th 1833 and died in Bridport on December 30th 1910, his allotted 77 years being ones of making outstanding strides in the education and rectitude of generations of Victorian boys growing up in a Dorset market town. Indeed, many prosperous men had John Beard to thank for the special training they received.
As a child growing up in Bristol, Beard became a pupil-teacher at that city’s Red Cross School, where the more advanced boys taught those in the lower forms. On leaving this school he attended Borough Road Training College from 1852 to 1853, from there going on to teach at Chatham for a few months.
But in 1854 Benjamin Templar, then Headmaster of Bridport General Boys School left to take up another head position in Manchester. The position of headmaster at the Bridport school, which had only opened in 1849, was then filled by Beard, an appointment that was to last for the next forty years. Under its new Head, the school would soon make its presence felt in the community – and in the fortunes of a rising generation of its acolytes.
Beard’s own dedication and attendance record were legendary. In his two score years at the school he was known to have been absent no more than about four days from incapacity. He was also possessed of a stoical sense of duty, being so devoted to his job that he often kept working when he should have rested. A colleague once told him: “I’m afraid you are too young (he was only 22 at the time) in fact some of the pupil-teachers are nearly as old as yourself.”
But from the first it was evident that the new Headmaster was an exceptionally gifted man. On the founding of the General School just five years before, it was intended that technical instruction should be in the curriculum. To this end the school even bought up adjoining allotment land for use as an open-air gymnasium. However, at the time no rigid code or syllabus had been drawn up. Beard was therefore not limited by curriculum; he taught mensuration, land surveying and any other subject fitting boys for science and technology-orientated careers.
When he had been in post at Bridport for only four years, Beard met and married Ellen Swain, the youngest daughter of a local captain, at the Congregational Chapel in Bridport’s Barrack Street on June 20th 1858. It was for both parties a marriage as successful as the groom’s academic career. The Beards raised three sons and two daughters, two of the sons themselves becoming teachers, while the third, Ernest, having apparently inherited his maternal grandfather’s love of the sea, became a sailor and emigrant. The grandfather – Captain Swain – was a harbour master at West Bay, a job which Ernest was to take up in a new life in Calcutta. Sadly, Ellen pre-deceased John by twelve years in 1898.
After some time the state began to interfere more in the running of schools. School Commissions had to march in a rigid step according to new rules. Beard was given – and heeded – the advice that he should obtain certificates in sciences, so qualifying him to teach these as a supplement to the ordinary school course. In fact, John Beard was the first teacher in Bridport to qualify as a science master, and was one of only three in the whole county. Besides giving special class instruction, he extended his expertise to private schools and seminaries. Evening schools were begun, though these were dropped after a time. In about 1874 however, John Beard revived evening schools in Bridport, these being attended by 150 to 200 pupils.
Beard also took an active interest in the Working Men’s Institute in South Street, appreciating its worth as another means of combining education with recreational activities. Here his lectures were highly instructive, appreciated and well attended. He always gave of his best when coaching dozens of young men privately for examinations towards lucrative positions or occupations. By the 1800’s Beard’s name was a household word in Bridport.
At the time, the Headmaster was getting through a prodigious amount of work, despite having no assistant master to share the burden, and only two or three pupil-teachers. His institution was almost a secondary school without rates to support it, though many of his former pupils who had become wealthy men regularly sent subscriptions to support the General School. Alas, the grants ultimately dried up, and the sciences had to be discontinued.
Needless to say John Beard was no less industrious during school holiday time. Much of this time was spent touring the continent with his family, collecting any material he thought would be of interest to his pupils. He also visited many places of historic interest and was in Paris at the time the Franco-Prussian War ended. His lessons based on this foreign material were always of exceptional interest during the new term.
In his latter years Beard also found time to write two books, on English History, and another entitled ‘Outlines of the English Language.’ The key to John Beard’s great success lay in the practical and attractive way he imparted knowledge while leaving his students to think for themselves. He further managed to temper a firm, disciplinary approach with an amiable, smiley demeanour and kindly greetings.
In politics Beard was a life-long Liberal, and indeed served for some years as Vice President of the Bridport Liberal Association. Though he resigned when Gladstone presented his Irish Home Rule Bill.
Sadly though, John Beard’s retirement in the company of his wife of forty years proved to be all too brief. Ellen died only four years later, leaving John a widower for the remaining twelve years of his life. At his own funeral in 1911, the Revd. J. Menzies, for so long a friend and colleague of the former Headmaster delivered a last moving address at the graveside in Bridport Cemetery that bleak winter afternoon.