The rise and fall of a literary headmaster


12 December 2019
Charles JJ Mansford, Mary's great-great uncle
The rise and fall of a literary headmaster: in search of my great-great uncle Charles JJ Mansford by Mary Mansford Prior

“Take earnestly hold of life”

In April 1919 the Headmaster of Dartford Grammar School made the following inscription in an autograph book:

From the same materials one man builds palaces, another hovels; one warehouses, another villas; bricks and mortar are mortar and bricks until the architect makes them something else....take earnestly hold of life.

Charles John Jodrell Mansford, the headmaster in question, certainly did “take earnestly hold of life” as advised in the above quotation from an early “success manual” entitled Getting on in the World by William Mathews (1872). The son of a tailor with four older brothers who were respectively a hatter who became destitute and spent time in the workhouse, a labourer, a carpenter and a postman, Charles somehow managed to graduate from the University of London and become a headmaster and successful author whose work was at the time compared favourably by critics to that of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. Quite how he managed it is still something of a mystery.

The labourer and carpenter brothers were my maternal great grandfathers, the son of the former having married his first cousin the daughter of the latter. My first quest was to confirm that their younger brother whose birth was registered as plain Charles Mansford in September 1863 was indeed one and same as Charles John Jodrell Mansford, author and headmaster.

My 2x great grandfather was William James Mansford who plied his trade as a tailor at 32 Cutler Street in the City of London. He died in 1878 when his youngest surviving child Charles was 15 years old. However on his marriage certificate in 1896 Charles JJ Mansford’s father is given as William Jodrell Mansford, a deceased gentleman. His wife was Louisa Annie Woolstenholmes who accompanied her new husband to Derbyshire where he had been appointed Headmaster of the newly re-opened Grace, Lady Manners Grammar School in Bakewell. Louisa was the honorary Headmistress, taking personal charge of the welfare of the girls at this co-educational school.                                                                                            

After six years in Bakewell Charles was appointed Headmaster at Dartford Grammar School where he remained until 1919. From the early 1890s he published adventure stories in the Strand magazine and books for and about schoolboys.

Establishing the family link

Could this literary headmaster who declared himself to be the son of a gentleman, who was a graduate from the University of London at a time when only a very small minority of the population obtained undergraduate degrees really be my 2x great uncle plain Charles Mansford? Marriage and death records of Charles JJ Mansford indicated that they were born at about the same time and an aunt used to claim that she and my mother were related to a Mansford who had been a headmaster and wrote books, but these are tenuous links. On the other hand, I could find no record of the birth of a “Charles John Jodrell Mansford” nor any evidence of the existence of a “William Jodrell Mansford” so I could not conclusively declare my aunt’s story to be false, either.

Eventually I turned up the evidence that ties these two Charles Mansfords together. In 1904 Charles Mansford, Headmaster of Dartford Grammar School, applied for the Freedom of the City of London. On the application form he states that his father is William James Mansford, clothier, of 32 Cutler Street Middlesex. This is the name and address of my 2x great grandfather as provided in various documents including the birth certificate of Charles Mansford. Furthermore in his will the headmaster declares himself to be “Charles Mansford, commonly known as Charles John Jodrell Mansford…”.

Charles appears in the 1881 census living with his widowed mother and postman brother, working as a “publisher’s assistant”. This is the first clue that he is heading in a different direction from his siblings. Working for a publisher in London would have opened up a new world of possibilities for him and may have provided the contacts that allowed him to publish his stories in the decades to come. By 1890 he had acquired his B.A. and embarked on a teaching career. The 1891 census lists him as “Charles J Mansford” and from this date he used “John”, “Jodrell” or both as middle names.

Where the adopted names came from is not clear, but it seems likely that Charles added them and described his father as a “gentleman” to enhance his social standing and to distance himself from his humble origins. Perhaps he preferred his wife and her family not to know that his father had been a tailor nor that he had brothers who were struggling to make a living. Moreover, a grammar school teacher, let alone a headmaster, would at the time be expected to be of a class similar to that of their mostly middle class pupils.

The successful headmaster

Histories of the schools where he worked indicate that Charles was successful in his career as headmaster. In “The Story of the School of Grace, Lady Manners, Bakewell” (J.W. Northend Ltd, 1982) R.A. Harvey states that:

C.J. Mansford…had laid sound foundations, and built up a community which was fully justifying the faith of those who had worked so hard to establish it. Further, he had done this in the period of greatest financial stringency.

The “Dartford Grammar School History” by Ronald Loftus Hudson and David Patterson (2nd ed. 1997) summarises his achievements as headmaster in the following terms:

He had, in the years since 1902, completely changed the style of education in the School, bringing it into line with the new concept of secondary education and developing it into the style of school we know today. The school roll when he retired was 288...two major extensions had been built and the staffing had been greatly improved. He had, in fact, completely reorganised Dartford Grammar School.

The school in Bakewell had been founded by Grace, Lady Manners in 1636 to provide education for local boys but was closed for a period of time during the 19th century. When it re-opened in 1896 it was with the aid of a grant from the County Council which also funded twelve scholarships and stipulated that the school should be open to both boys and girls. Thus it became the first endowed school to become co-educational. 

Charles Mansford championed the concept of co-education where there were insufficient pupils in the locality to justify separate boys’ and girls’ grammar schools, as was the case in Bakewell at the time. He is quoted in the “Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald” of 22nd January 1898 as saying,

Advocates for the higher education of women may be pleased to learn that the girls show a distinct preference for science, and hold their own throughout the school with the best boy scholars of the subject.

He contributed an essay to a collection entitled “Co-education”, edited by Alice Charles and published in 1903, in which he presents a polemic in favour of co-education, defending it against those who fear it may have a detrimental effect on boys:

It is found that the presence of girls during school hours has no effect upon the boys’ powers of playing cricket and football – this may appear an unnecessary remark to the experienced co-educational teacher, but one does occasionally meet those who fear that the co-educational system makes boys effeminate...

Extraordinarily, in the same essay, he argues strongly in favour of both equal opportunities and equal pay for women teachers:

No difference [i.e. at Bakewell Grammar School] is made in assigning subjects or forms to teachers on the mere ground of sex. If a mistress have the necessary qualification she teaches up to (and including) the Sixth Form…There is really no reason why all the drudgery of a co-educational school should be assigned to mistresses, and all the higher and more pleasant work to masters. Surely, as in these schools boys and girls pay the same fees, so should masters and mistresses be paid equally, and equally share the work.

Moreover he argues that if a woman is suitably qualified there is no reason for her not to be appointed as the head of a co-educational school.

Charles was well ahead of his time; equal pay for women teachers was not achieved until 1961. It is interesting to speculate about the role that his wife Louisa may have played in forming his views about women’s education and their role and status as teachers. Between the ages of 11 and 16 Louisa attended the North London Collegiate School for Girls, run by the redoubtable Frances Mary Buss, a pioneer of women’s education.  Buss was concerned that her female teaching staff should receive appropriate pay and conditions including a pension scheme. She was responsible for coining the term “Head Mistress” in 1865 to indicate the equal status of women and men as heads of schools. Perhaps it is the views of Buss, channelled through Louisa, that we hear in Charles Mansford’s pleas for equal opportunities for female teachers.

Charles J Mansford the author

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Reviewing an edition of the Strand Magazine in the Yorkshire Gazette of Saturday February 11th 1893 a critic wrote,

            …it should be stated that the publication improves with each issue, the exciting

            stories by Conan Doyle and Charles J Mansford, B.A., being wonderful specimens of

            imaginative literature.

Charles contributed 12 stories to the Strand between 1892-93 which were later published as a single volume entitled Shafts From an Eastern Quiver. They relate the adventures of two Englishmen as they travel from the Middle East through Afghanistan to India, China and the steppes of Russia accompanied by Hasssan, their indispensable Arabian guide. Unfortunately these stories, unlike those of Conan Doyle, have not stood the test of time. The values embodied in the text are those of the nineteenth-century British imperialist. The superiority of the Englishmen over all the non-European peoples they encounter is assumed and any artefacts that might be valuable are appropriated by them without any consideration of the significance they hold to their rightful owners.

The other main genre in which Charles wrote is the boys’ school tale. There are four novels and a number of stories published in magazines such as The Boys’ Realm and the Boys’ Friend Library. They are very much a product of Victorian/Edwardian sensibilities and like the adventure stories make uneasy reading now, featuring bullying and antisemitism within English public schools. They glory in titles such as Bully, Fag and Hero (1897), Fags and the King (1909), and Prefect and Fag (1910).

Charles and the war effort

Charles’s period of tenure as Headmaster at Dartford Grammar School spanned the First World War years. He had established an Officer Training Corps (OTC) in 1909 in which he was a Captain and urged every boy who was old enough to join it. He tried to keep in touch by letter with every former pupil on active service and arranged for “Tuck Boxes” along with such items as books, periodicals and blankets to be dispatched to them. However he was even more personally involved than this, as is recorded in an article in the Spring 1919 commemorative edition of the school magazine, the Dartfordian written by P. Montague Cross, the teacher in charge of the OTC. At the outbreak of war Charles was 50 years old, too old to fight, but he contributed to the war effort via the OTC, the City of London National Guard and by assisting Belgian refugees. In 1915 he responded to an appeal from the French Red Cross for ambulances and drivers by having his car converted into an ambulance. During April and May of that year he was attached to the French General Hospital at Le Touquet, where he helped to transport the wounded from the trains and dressing stations to the hospital. The school could spare him no longer but he left his ambulance behind; it was last heard of lying wrecked on the roadside after being struck by a shell.

One further area of war work was in the sphere of propaganda. The government called for “literary men” to provide assistance; according to Montague Cross Charles Mansford contributed nearly 100 articles to M17b, the Propaganda Department of the War Office. Cross concludes:

This article is but a poor attempt to convey some idea of the headmaster’s war work, and when one remembers that all his work was done under great difficulties, caused by the constant changing of the school staff, and the rapid growth of the school, one can at least say that a noble example was set to us all.


Charles Mansford the status seeker

Charles seems to have been keen to align himself with groups that would promote his social status, joining the Freemasons in Bakewell in 1899, applying for the Freedom of the City of London and having himself elected as a Fellow of the Chemical Society. He was thus able to add the letters FCS as well as BA after his name, strengthening his credentials as a headmaster of a school in which the sciences played a major part in the curriculum.

Intriguingly, at some point Charles’s mother became a Roman Catholic, spending the final years of her life in a Nazareth home being looked after by nuns. Some of her younger children including Charles received a Catholic baptism. However he identified himself as a member of the Church of England throughout his adult life. This would have been an essential prerequisite for his career as a headmaster of grammar schools whose trustees included members of the Anglican clergy. Indeed, Dartford Grammar School stipulated in 1902 when Charles was appointed that applicants for the post of headmaster must be members of the Church of England. During his time in the town Charles was a churchwarden of Dartford Parish Church.

Having acquired the title of “Captain” after establishing the Officer Training Corps at Dartford, Charles continued to use that title, for example in his phone book entries in the early 1940s.  Perhaps he felt it gave him a certain gravitas during wartime.

It was through his application for the Freedom of the City that I was able to establish that Charles John Jodrell Mansford was indeed my 2x great uncle Charles Mansford.

An untimely end

Charles and Louisa had one child, a daughter Isobel Grace born in Bakewell in 1898. During the war Isobel helped her father with the tuck boxes and she was to marry a former Dartford pupil, Geoffrey Bertram Noakes. Noakes emigrated to the United States in 1920; Charles, Louisa and Isobel followed in 1921 and by the time Noakes applied for naturalisation as a United States citizen in 1925 he and Isobel were married with a daughter. The family settled in Fresco, California, where Louisa died at the age of 96 while Isobel Grace survived till she was 101.

Charles, however, did not remain in the US. He and Louisa appear to have separated as by 1934 Charles was back in the UK living in Ealing where in March of that year he made a will that contains no mention of his wife and daughter. Instead he left his entire estate to Dorothy Kate Rider, “in grateful recognition of her solicitous care for me for many years past”. The 1939 Register indicates that the two of them occupied the same address in Bournemouth and it was there that Charles met an untimely death.

On the morning of Monday 18th January 1943 Charles left his home in Hambledon Road Boscombe at about 9.30am to visit a shop and stepped in front of a taxicab. He died in hospital later that day as a result of the head injuries sustained. An account of the coroner’s inquest resulting in a verdict of accidental death is to be found in the Bournemouth Daily Echo for Thursday 21st January under the headline, “Retired Headmaster’s Tragic End”. He was 79 years of age.

Dorothy Kate Rider provided evidence at the inquest of Charles’s death, referring to him as her uncle. But Dorothy was not Charles’s niece. Some 30 years his junior, she is described in the 1939 Register as a “Dispenser (medical)” and on her death certificate ten years later as a “cashier”. She remained single all her life. When Charles drew up his will in 1934 she was living in her parent’s home in Southampton, an address to which she returned after his death.

She shared this family home with another single sister to whom she left her estate when she died. It is not clear how or when she met Charles Mansford, nor what was the nature of their relationship. It was presumably Dorothy who ensured Charles had a memorial gravestone, selecting the style and the wording; it is to be found in Bournemouth East Cemetery.

Apart from an account of the accident and of the inquest into it in the local newspaper there seems to be no other reference to the passing of Charles Mansford, no obituary nor tribute of any kind to his contributions as a headmaster and author. The world was at war again, there were no doubt too many other important issues to address. Moreover, the people who knew most about the period of his life spent in Bakewell and Dartford were his estranged wife and daughter living a great distance away in the United States. It was a sad and lonely end for a man who had, as he urged other young men to do, “earnestly taken hold of life” and carved for himself a very different destiny to that of his siblings, my great grandfathers.



My grateful thanks to Mrs Alison Holland, Dartfordians Officer, who supplied invaluable information from the Dartford School archive concerning Charles Mansford’s tenure as Headmaster.