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Father’s Day – 21st June 2020

King Edward’s School Head Master, Robert Cary Gilson, with prefects, 1912. Credit: The Gilson family papers

It may seem curious to focus on a Head Master for an archive post about Father’s Day, but it was widely reported that Robert Cary Gilson was seen as a father-figure to many former pupils of King Edward’s School.

In post from 1901-1929, Cary Gilson commanded respect from pupils and staff alike, many of whom grew to like and even love ‘The Beak’ as he was known.

Tributes in the Foundation archive tell of a gentle man, never too busy for little acts of kindness or to find time to “talk over problems that a man less big might have dismissed as trivial.”

Former pupils recall his formidable work ethic. The school magazine recounts how he “crammed so much work into twenty-four hours and yet left himself time to think coolly and calmly.”

His cool and calm disposition must have been tested in the most unimaginable way during the Great War, when, at a school assembly, he read out a list of Old Edwardians killed in the Battle of the Somme. The list included the name of his own son, Robert, who was killed leading his men into battle on 1st July 1916.

Robert Quilter Gilson. Credit: The Gilson family papers

In a letter to JRR Tolkien (a close friend of the Gilson family) just a month after his son’s death, Cary Gilson wrote of a father’s pain: “It is useless to pretend that it is easy to bear…the heart aches.”

Letter from RCG to JRR Tolkien (Oxford, Bodleian Libraries, Tolkien family papers). Copyright The Tolkien Trust

Writing in the King Edward’s School magazine in March 1939, a former pupil of the school, later editor of the Birmingham Post, Thomas Winter Hutton, considered what it was about Cary Gilson that endeared him to so many:

King Edward’s School Chronicle, Vol. LIV, No. 290, March 1939

There are many tributes to Cary Gilson, but perhaps one of the most touching was written by a former pupil identified only by his initials:

“For me, his own sun has never set…I sometimes think that if I were allowed to live over again just one hour of my youth, I should choose to be back at New Street as a sixth former, and to have one more lesson sitting at the feet of Robert Cary Gilson.”

Happy Father’s Day from the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham!