For The Silhillian, 2020:


The Tolkiens of Solihull School


It is well known that J.R.R. Tolkien of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit attended King Edward’s in Birmingham, but there is also a strong connection between the Tolkien family and Solihull School.  When I interviewed John Jammes for the Silhillian last year he praised his former colleague Michael Tolkien, a delightful man with beautiful handwriting (‘It was a joy to follow him in the classroom’) who was, like John, modest about his war service and a much-admired and talented teacher.  And Michael’s son (also called Michael) was a pupil at Solihull.  I then learnt that Arthur Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s father, was a pupil at Solihull School too.

Just a few months before he died in 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien had written some lovely letters to an Old Silhillian (copies are in the Old Silhillians Association archive online), in which he mentioned the Tolkien family’s connections with the school, noting that his father was at Solihull a hundred years ago or more, before moving to King Edward’s.  Born in 1857, Arthur Tolkien was eleven when, on 26 June 1868, The Coventry Standard reported that in the annual public examinations at Solihull Grammar School (as it then was), a Tolkien won second prize for Divinity, and third prize for Arithmetic and Mathematics, and was commended for his performance in Latin.  The Rev. James Hatchard Bennett was headmaster at that time, when it was a small school in its old building near the parish church (Solihull was not entirely unlike Tolkien’s fictional Hobbiton in those days).  Arthur Tolkien died in Bloemfontein in 1896, when John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was only four, and the family moved to Sarehole, Hall Green, until 1900.

Sarehole, which would have a significant influence on Tolkien’s work, is less than five miles from Solihull School, but it was 1956 when the school returned to the Tolkien story, as Michael Tolkien (born in Oxford in 1920) became a Latin master at Solihull for two years.  This was a move to the world of his father’s (and grandfather’s) childhood, but his wife Joan also had family in the area.  The Shenstonian noted that M.H.R. Tolkien ‘quickly made his mark by his quiet and clear teaching’.  It noted his involvement with rugby too, and he was actively involved in the debating society.  He took a strong interest in history and politics – for instance, on one occasion he gave a talk at the school on ‘Communism and Christianity’.

The Shenstonian also mentioned that ‘he has devoted himself to the interests of the Roman Catholics’.  He came to Solihull from the Catholic school, the Oratory, near Reading, where he had been a pupil, and his brother was a Catholic priest in Sparkhill, Birmingham, at the time.  He took an interest in a number of Catholic writers, and one of his favourites seems to have been Hilaire Belloc, a fellow Old Oratorian.  Michael would later teach at the Catholic schools Ampleforth and Stonyhurst before he died (when only 63) in 1984.

Clearly, his war years were also a significant part of his life and they had a lasting effect on him.  He was still young when the war began, but joined up after a year studying History at Oxford and served in a number of different roles, winning the George Medal.  During the war he also got married, against his parents’ wishes, and became a father.  In 1957, he told the school’s ‘Le Cercle Français’ about his war experiences, especially a ‘raid en Normandie’.  He was involved in the 1942 Dieppe Raid but was invalided out of the army in 1943.  His father recorded that his son was involved in dangerous ‘commando’ work and that he suffered from shell-shock.

Michael did recommend his father’s work to his pupils at Solihull, but it’s surprising though to see from a library report in 1957 that J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were not enjoyed by everyone:

Among the Books of the Week this term have been The Outsider, by Colin Wilson, The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich.  I should like to thank their reviewers for the time which they have spent in reading them.  Unfortunately the books do not seem to have been so popular this term.

Nonetheless, The Lord of the Rings, which had recently been published in three volumes (1954-5), became, like The Hobbit, one of the most popular books ever written.  Another great writer, and one from Solihull (but not Solihull School), W.H. Auden, noted in 1956 that Tolkien had a ‘growing army of fans’, one that kept on growing through the rest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life.  Roverandum, a book that was written for Michael, was published posthumously in 1998.

The younger Michael Tolkien, M.G.R. Tolkien, who was born in Birmingham in 1943, enjoyed his two years at Solihull, where he excelled at athletics, and won a prize for Classics.  He told me that he liked the broad social spectrum of students, and the degree of tolerance for the individual and even the eccentric.  He recalls several excellent teachers, including J.F. Way, R.H. Thomas, H.A. Fisher and A.L. Mackenzie.  Now retired, he taught English at Uppingham, and he is a poet who has written several books (see his website, which also includes lectures about his grandfather).

In 1963, a letter to the Shenstonian from St Andrews University reported that M.G.R. Tolkien had arrived at the university to read English: ‘Though Michael spent only two years at Solihull he is usually to be seen wearing the School scarf.’  He explained to me that he was fond of the Solihull School scarf that was knitted for him by his maternal grandmother, who lived in Acocks Green, and he found it rather useful at university on the chilly Scottish coast.  I don’t know whether he still has the scarf but he certainly still has fond and vivid memories of his happy years at Solihull School: ‘many lasting thoughts come back from some really amusing and warm friendships, nourished by the advantages of our being day pupils with a lot of “outside” life to share’.