But we have not space to go through the history of the various head-masters, or trace how the school’s fortunes rose with some and fell with others, till at the end of the eighteenth century it reached its lowest under James Atcherley , who in twenty-eight years reduced its numbers to twenty-two—a fact which is not surprising if we believe the traditional tale that the favourite amusement of this head-master and his colleagues was to practise kicking at a flitch of bacon hung in the kitchen for the purpose, to see who could kick the highest. – John Ernest Auden, 1906.
The arms of Charles I above the entrance to Shrewsbury School (now a library)
On 23 January 1797 Dr Thomas James – Head Master of Rugby School from 1778 to 1794 – wrote to one of his former pupils, Samuel Butler. Keen that Butler should obtain a position as a schoolmaster, Dr James had been to Shrewsbury. In his letter, Dr James suggested that Butler’s “fortune might very possibly be made in that city.” The school at Shrewsbury, Dr James explained, had an income of “£1,300 to £1,500 a year, of which the head-master has not above £100 a year”. In addition to his salary, the head master – James Atcherley – had “allowances for assistants, and an excellent house and school built in a superior style.”
All was not well at Shrewsbury School however. According to Dr James, although many people remembered a time when the school had “not less than 60 boarders”, this was no longer the case. Dr James continued:
This school was once the Eton or the Westminster of Wales, and of all Shropshire, etc. Now the present master does nothing, and there are not above three or four boys belonging to this noble foundation … The gentlemen of Shrewsbury, therefore, have an idea of pensioning off the old masters now there and in possession, and of appointing new ones. I further learned also that they have an idea that an Act of Parliament can be procured to appoint new governors to the school …
An Act of Parliament was eventually procured, and became law in 1798. It revoked “the ordinances by which the school had been governed since 1577” and the new board of governors lost no time in pensioning off James Atcherley, along with the second and third masters. All three resigned with effect from 30 June 1798, and James was given an annual pension of £100. Samuel Butler was duly installed as the new head master, and transformed the school’s fortunes.
It appears that unfavourable stories about James Atcherley’s headmastership did not start to circulate publicly until long after he had passed away, leaving him unable to answer the many charges that were made against him. What were those charges, and were they accurate and fair?
That the fortunes of Shrewsbury School had declined is unquestionable, and James was of course in charge at the point when others decided to step in and ‘stop the rot.’ Yet it has been written that:
The School History during the whole of the eighteenth century presents a painful contrast to the palmy days of its early existence. We have seen how little of real prosperity attended the Head Masterships of Lloyd, Owen and Phillips, and although some improvement took place at times during those of Hotchkiss and Newling, yet the School gradually fell away …
Another commentator has noted that “Between 1734 and 1745 there were never more than 33 pupils, and in one year the number dropped to twelve.” To me it is clear that when James Atcherley took over the headmastership of Shrewsbury School he inherited an institution which was already failing. Yet it is equally clear that he did nothing to reverse the decline. Was this because he did not recognise the seriousness of the situation, or because he could not or would not institute effective changes to the school’s regime? To put the question in another way, was James Atcherley negligent, ineffective, or guilty of wilful mismanagement of the school’s affairs?
The differing numbers given for the number of pupils at Shrewsbury School in James’s last days are illustrative of another of the charges made against him. The actual number of pupils in attendance during his headmastership – and for some years before it – remains unknown because the school register for that period was lost. Other school records also disappeared. The editors of A History of Shrewsbury School lamented:
The compilation of this work has taken much longer than was originally intended, but the difficulties in obtaining information have been great. The School Bailiff and Treasurer, E. Calvert, Esq., LL.D., could find no School Records of any kind prior to 1798 in the School Chest.
Conspiracy theorists might suggest that the ‘loss’ of the school register and other records was a deliberate act by James – and/or the other masters – to cover up their failings. Whatever the circumstances in which these volumes vanished, they went AWOL during James Atcherley’s watch.
The situation with regard to the school library was apparently little better. According to the authors of Annals of Shrewsbury School:
Blakeway tells us that about 1784 a son of Mr. Newling, the late Head Master … was told that the upper boys were allowed the free run of the school library, and were thus enabled not only to tear out the fly-leaves of books to make use of for their exercises, but to pilfer other things that they found there. Mr. Atcherley is also said to have been in the habit of making boys presents of the library books. The room itself appears to have been used by Mr. Atcherley’s servants for dressing the boys’ hair. … Doubtless it was in Mr. Atcherley’s time that Owen’s Arms of the Bailiffs and other books were mutilated and some valuable books were lost.
Note that much of the above is second-hand information and couched in terms such as “is said to have” and “appears to have been”. It is difficult to reconcile these stories with the words of the Rev Alfred Tover Paget who included “the Rev. Mr. Atcherley” in his Notes on benefactors to the library of Shrewsbury school (as the contributor, in 1765, of Spence’s Polymetis). Significantly, he wrote of James:
In regard to his care of the Library, after the labour of correcting these impressions which it is still easy to derive from others, I take the more satisfaction in suppressing them. From the book in which the volumes lent out are registered he seems to have been careful as well as good natured.
Shrewsbury School, by Alfred Rimmer (1889)
But what of the infamous “kicking at a flitch of bacon” (or ‘Bacongate’ as I like to think of this allegation)? The earliest reference to this story that I have discovered lies within the pages of The life and letters of Dr. Samuel Butler (written by that headmaster’s grandson, of the same name). Describing what little he knew of James Atcherley, Butler wrote: “I have heard from my aunt, Mrs. Bather, that he and the second master used to amuse themselves by trying which could kick highest at a flitch of bacon that was hung for them in the kitchen to practise at.”
‘Bacongate’ – despite being based on a report which was second-hand at best – was too juicy a tale for later writers to pass up. For some, the actions attributed to James and his second master in this “traditional story” were “quite consistent with the absence on their part of any proper notions of discipline.” Another author, writing in The Spectator in 1952, was a little more forgiving in saying: “Poor man ! he probably only did it once or twice, but posterity sees him immortalised as a high-kicking Will Hay.”
Who knows the truth of the matter? Perhaps one day James and his second master came across a flitch of bacon hanging in the kitchen, and in a moment of high spirits (the like of which we would normally associate with Atcherley twins Richard and David of the RAF) decided to see who could kick it the highest. If so, it was the foundation of a legend which has haunted the memory of James Atcherley into modern times.
Another possibility of course is that spirits of the alcoholic variety might have been involved. Samuel Butler (the aforementioned author of The life and letters of Dr. Samuel Butler) wrote that “The late Rev. W. A. Leighton told me that Atcherley … was more or less intemperate in his habits.” The veracity of this allegation is uncertain. Certainly, I have seen no other sources which directly accuse James of drunkenness.
Butler’s assessment of James Atcherley was not wholly negative. He opined that James was “a man of good natural abilities, [who] in 1773 published a pamphlet entitled A Drapier’s Address to the Good People of England, which is not ill-written, and shows the writer to have been an advocate of free trade, when free-traders were still scarce.” It should also be mentioned that James Atcherley was well-remembered by at least one of his former pupils, who presented a book to the Shrewsbury School library “In testimony of respect and gratitude for the education which he received under the worthy and Rev. James Atcherley, Head Master.”
Returning to the questions which I posed earlier, I do not think that James wilfully mismanaged the affairs of Shrewsbury School. There is certainly evidence of negligence, and it is difficult to challenge the assertion that “Atcherley and his colleagues, whether addicted to liquor or not, prolonged from year to year the scene of endowed and established inefficiency.” I find myself wondering why this was the case though.
In the early days of my Atcherley family history research, Barbara Lang sent me a copy of her own file, which she had compiled over a period of 20 years. With regard to James Atcherley, Barbara noted that the Shrewsbury School archivist had said “much of what has been reported about him is hearsay and in some cases incorrect”. The archivist had also made an intriguing suggestion. In Barbara’s words: “he believed [James] to have been incapacitated, possibly by a stroke”.
Picture credits. The arms of Charles I above the entrance to Shrewsbury School: Photo by the author. Shrewsbury School court yard, and Shrewsbury School: both drawings by Alfred Rimmer, from A History of Shrewsbury School (at Internet Archive), published 1889 and therefore out of copyright.
 John Ernest Auden (1906), Shropshire and its Schools. In: Memorials of old Shropshire. Pages 223-4. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
 Samuel Butler (1896), The life and letters of Dr. Samuel Butler. Volume I. Pages 19-21. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
 George William Fisher, John Spencer Hill (1899), Annals of Shrewsbury School. Page 252 et seq. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
 W A Leighton et al (eds.) (1889), A History of Shrewsbury School. Pages 5 and 130-1. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
 W E Heitland (1896), Dr Butler of Shrewsbury School. In: The Eagle. Volume XIX. Pages 417-8. Originally viewed in full at Google Books, but now snippet view only.
 Derek Hudson (1952), Floreat Salopia! In: The Spectator, No. 6450, 8 February 1952, page 170.
 Alfred Tolver Paget (1851), Notes on benefactors to the library of Shrewsbury school. Copy viewed at Google Books. (Note that due to imperfect scanning of this book’s pages, part of the text relating to James Atcherley is missing from the electronic version. The gap is filled by the next source.)
 Alfred Tolver Paget (1875), Notes on benefactors to the library of Shrewsbury school. In: Salopian Shreds and Patches, volume I, page 51. Snippets viewed at Google Books.
 Barbara Lang. Atcherley family history file, in email dated 21 Nov 2007.