William Wood’s Diary

This diary was started by William Wood when he was a Fellow at Radley during William Sewell’s wardenship. Wood was among the most erudite of the Fellows and deeply concerned about Sewell’s activities and the plummeting school finances. He came to Radley in 1853 and served as Sub-Warden from 1855-63. He was invited by the trustees to return as Warden in 1866. His time as Warden was deeply unhappy, marred particularly by more than usually unpleasant dissension between Warden and Fellows. The Fellows were ‘quarrelsome, dissatisfied, touchy and generally morose, bickering about the manner in which chapel services were conducted, complaining about their salaries, their status and their food.’ They were particularly angered when the trustees decided to strengthen the Warden’s authority by abolishing the bogus collegiate system, whereby as Fellows they had equal authority over all decisions with the Warden, and transforming them into schoolmasters.

‘Of all the Wardens who retired blighted and diminished from their efforts to guide Radley to the uplands of prosperity, there is no doubt that Wood was the unluckiest and least responsible for his own failure. He was a man who merited success. … His policy as Warden was to retain the best of the Sewellian system … to keep clear of ‘fancy work,’ and to make a strenuous drive for higher scholastic standards … Seldom can a headmaster have been so badly served in the matter of assistants … Though the size of his full-time staff was only ten when he came and seven when he left, he had altogether twenty-seven assistant masters [in four years]. The extreme fluidity of his staff, their mediocrity, the lack of ballast which only senior masters can provide, and the well-established tradition of irresponsible criticism, presented the Warden with a set of conditions which would have defeated many headmasters.’ (A. K. Boyd)

Wood’s diary is a detailed record of the everyday life of a mid-Victorian schoolmaster. He notes exams, games, Common Room meetings and the approaching financial disaster in a sober, straightforward way, interspersed with the progress of the Crimean War. His diary also serves to re-establish his reputation as Warden, shredded by vicious comments and letters from the Fellows.

Here Wood recounts a potentially fatal accident when a boy fell from the top of the Mansion stairs onto the stone floor:

1857. 12th April. Sunday. Easter Day
In evening the boys had just swarmed into the house and were filling the rooms when I heard a heavy fall and in a few seconds another. Rushed out and found poor O’Brien lying at the bottom of the flight of stairs below my room having (as it proved) fallen from the very top and crossed the open part twice. Such a narrow escape from instant death I never knew.

The diary was transcribed for Radley Archives in 1949-50 by permission of his daughter, Miss Dorothea Wood. The original still belongs to the family.

Papers of William Wood at the National Register of Archives