Popular head who proved to be the right man for the job
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1966, one of the giants of Blackpool education retired.
Frank Holdgate, headmaster of Arnold School stepped down after being in charge for a remarkable 28 years. In that time he had turned a small one-form school into a thriving environment with both a national and international reputation.
A man of extraordinary vision, energy and determination, his devotion, be it to the school or the resort, remained absolute.
The son of a distinguished clergyman, Francis Wyatt Holdgate was born at Brackley, Northamptonshire on February 13, 1901. His father Rev William Wyatt Holdgate, was for 20 years Headmaster of Sutton Valence School in Kent, where he was to educate his son who became head boy. On leaving Sutton Valence, Frank Holdgate went to Trinity College, Cambridge where he obtained a degree in natural science.
While at Cambridge, he represented his college at rugby and was a member of the University Training Corps.
With a view to entering the Colonial Service, he spent many hours learning to ride bareback and to jump fences riding a saddleless horse with his arms folded. Sadly, his third class honours degree meant he could never really achieve success in the Colonial Service and his father suggested a teaching career.
Having lost out through not working very hard at university, it would be a lesson he was determined to pass on to his future pupils.
His professional career began in earnest in 1922, when he joined the staff of Brighton College as an assistant master. Eight years later, he became senior chemistry master. He also taught sixth-form biology, school certificate physics, as well as occasional mathematics.
Outside college, he played rugby for Sussex and became vice chairman of the Brighton and Hove Higher Educational Council. In 1938, he was a lecturer at the London Film Summer School, pioneering the use of film in biology lessons and nature study.
In 1927, Frank Holdgate married Lois Bebbington, daughter of the Rev Canon JH Bebbington and three years later, was appointed housemaster of the day boys’ house, later taking charge of one of the school boarding houses. Here as always, supported by his wife – who took charge of all the housekeeping arrangements as well as supervising the catering.
The couple had one son, Martin, born in 1931, later to be educated at Arnold School before moving to Queens’ College, Cambridge and a later glittering academic career.
In 1938, Arnold School, then a boys only school and based in Lytham Road, South Shore, was at the crossroads.
Recently admitted to the Direct Grant List, the death of its founder, Frank Truswell Pennington, in May of that year, had cast a dark shadow over its future. Of its 286 pupils, 125 were in the senior school and 111 in the junior school. Some 71 of those pupils were boarders, drawn mainly from East Lancashire and Yorkshire.
What particularly impressed the Governing Council about Frank Holdgate was not just his perceptive questioning about educational matters, but also his highly acute grasp of business affairs.
Mrs Holdgate also impressed. Frank Holdgate’s later jests about his wife getting him the job, had perhaps more than a ring of truth. Initially appointed on a 12-month trial, aged 37, by then thoroughly at home in the resort, the couple never ever seriously thought of moving anywhere else.
The outbreak of the Second World War found Holdgate in his element, both as an organiser and leader. Within a short space of time, 21,000 children, many of whom had never been away from home, would be billeted throughout the resort.
Arnold School itself would double-up and share its premises with the boys of Manchester Central High School, one set of pupils working in the morning, the other in the afternoon. In general though, the area had a quiet war, save for occasional incendiary devices.
Having arrived as a fledgling headmaster at the onset of the conflict, by its end, elected to both the Headmasters’ Conference and Blackpool Education Committee, Holdgate was now operating on a much more expansive canvas. Having managed to keep academic standards high despite the many difficulties, he was now able to concentrate fully on providing sound tuition and strict discipline, all without frills or fancy ideas. He was never unduly concerned about the buildings, nor having a narrow curriculum. Academically he knew what he liked and he liked what he knew.
By 1946, there were 316 day boys plus eighty two boarders, making a grand total of 448 in the school. Three years later, Holdgate was able to boast not only had the school gained 40 school certificates and 15 higher school certificates, but there were 53 Arnoldians in attendance at university.
Ten years earlier, the sixth form had consisted of only 20 boys. Never able to tolerate mediocre effort, his judicious mix of sound tuition and strict discipline had moved the school forward beyond all expectations.
With the gradual easing of wartime restrictions, he was now also able to turn his attention to the pressing need of improving and expanding the school’s often rather outdated accommodation. Plans were drawn up for new science laboratories for physics, biology and chemistry, together with a new staff common room. Laying the foundation stone in March, 1952, would be Lord Derby, together with the chairman of the governors and managing director of the Evening Gazette, Herbert Grime. A magnificent new Memorial Hall and gymnasium followed six years later.
Since 1929, Arnold School had also run Arnold High School for Girls, which was then based further down Lytham Road, opposite to the site of the former Lido Swimming Pool. However, with its cramped sight and poor facilities, it urgently needed a huge injection of cash which Arnold School itself did not have.
With this in mind, on April 1, 1948, Arnold High School for Girls, was taken over by the local authority. Unable to find a suitable site to remain in South Shore, the school then moved to new purpose-built facilities in Bispham, opened by the Princess Royal in 1954.
Throughout its illustrious history, Arnold School had produced sportsmen of national and international calibre. The Holdgate era would be no different.
A rugby enthusiast himself, Holdgate had coached the 1st XV during the 1945-6 season. Two outstanding players produced were John Fisher who played for Cambridge University, Fylde and Lancashire and England international, Malcolm Phillips. Playing alongside Phillips in the 1st XV of the early 1950s, were two future England soccer internationals, stars of the 1966 World Cup triumph, Jimmy Arm field and George Eastham.
Old Arnoldians educated in the post war era included a Nobel Prize winner, two other Fellows of the Royal Society, one Fellow of the British Academy, one Bishop, one Knight, three senior Government scientists, the head of an Oxford College, the director general of a major international organization, the presidents of three major learned societies, some seven Professors, at least three county court judges, an internationally acclaimed lion tamer, and the film and TV director responsible for both the Academy Awards and the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympic Games.
Among the many changes taking place during the early 60s, the old Fives Courts were demolished, replaced by a larger, more welcoming senior common room, extra administrative offices, a bursary and an impressive headmaster’s study. A new main entrance was also constructed in Arnold Avenue.
Much more tumultuous was the announcement of the retirement of Frank Holdgate himself. Having taken his leave of the school in the summer of 1966, the following November, he returned to have his portrait unveiled in the Memorial Hall.
In contented retirement, Frank Holdgate and his wife remained familiar figures in the South Shore area, moving to live nearby in St Martin’s Road. Both continued to participate in the life of the community, particularly as regular worshippers at Holy Trinity Church.
Holdgate himself remained a long-serving magistrate, a keen member of Rotary, a school governor, and a key member of Blackpool Education Committee. Tall, and still for many, a somewhat intimidating figure, he retained a phenomenal memory and concern for all his old boys and his beloved Arnold School.
In February 1981, Frank Holdgate visited the school on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Present that day were governors and staff, all of whom had been associated with the school during his time as headmaster.
Sadly, he was now very ill and was to die a month later. A service of commemoration was held at Holy Trinity Church, South Shore, when a large gathering of friends, staff and members of the school paid tribute to a most remarkable man.
When all those years ago, Frank Holdgate applied for the vacant headmastership of Arnold School, following their first meeting, the chairman of the Evening Gazette, Herbert Grime perceptively wrote: “Mr Holdgate is the right kind of man and may well prove to be just the person both the area and Arnold School require.”
How right he was.
• Kenneth Shenton is the archivist for AKS