There are many things that are unique about Wellington College, but the one that has been on our minds this week, and the one that I always point out to visitors as they step into Front Quad, is that ‘Wellington is both a school and a national monument’. The buildings and the people within combine to form a living memorial to Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. As David Newsome writes in his ‘A History of Wellington College’, this gives the College an ‘unique distinction among public schools’; Wellington is ‘not a personal, civic or local memorial’, it is a living, breathing place of ‘national’ importance.
It is 160 years since Wellington first opened its doors to pupils and, on Monday, we marked the occasion with a series of readings in assembly, which brought to life the very first days of the College. Jasper, reading from Augustus Hornsby’s ‘Recollections’ captured the feeling of excitement of being part of that first ‘roll call on the evening of 20th January 1859’; Ceaser took the voice of the Vice-President who, speaking on behalf of the Governors at the inauguration nine days later, expressed his wish that future Wellingtonians would ‘follow the great example’ of that ‘Great Warrior and Statesman’ in whose honour the College had been erected; and Matthea read Queen Victoria’s reply, whose challenge to students was to ‘earn a character for the College worthy of the name it bears’.
The fact that we are both a school and a monument, the fact that we are educating for the future and paying daily homage to the past is what gives Wellington its unique character. Wellington is, and always has been, a glorious fusion of opposites.
When Bishop Wilberforce came to Wellington for the dedication of the Chapel on 16th July 1863, he commented on this same duality. The College is itself a ‘noble mausoleum’, it is a ‘remembrance of the dead’ yet, from this, stems life through a sense of duty and purpose; what rises is the ‘intense vitality of the young’. There is a palpable ‘living hum’ that was present from the day the first students arrived and which continues to energise us to this day. From the energy and exuberance of events like House Singing to the quiet industrious buzz of students working in the library or the V&A, Wellingtonians breathe life into this national monument and, in doing so, take up Queen Victoria’s challenge to ‘earn a character for the College’ worthy of its name. The Good Schools Guide describes us as a ‘school with heart, mind, guts, and a constant fizz’, words that echo Wilberforce’s ‘living hum’, and draw together all the colour and vibrancy of the present with the values of courage and respect bequeathed to us by the past.
At Wellington, we are inspired by our rich history; the lessons from the past continue to inform our future. So, as Bishop Wilberforce pointed out, while the walls of the College may occasionally whisper their solemn utterance, “Memento mori”, our daily voice is “Learn how to Live”.
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