Robert Keable - History Teacher

Robert Keable - History Teacher

November 09, 2023

Robert Keable was a full-time writer for the last few years of his life having previously been a priest and rising star on the Anglo-Catholic section of the Church of England. However, he was also a historian and for four terms in the early 1920s a history teacher.

His father was a successful businessman who retrained as a priest, moving to Croydon at the turn of the century. Keable embraced his parents’ evangelical faith and threw himself into the life of the church, preaching in the slums of Croydon and running the Sunday school while still a teenager. He was always planning to become a priest, but he did not feel it was necessary to study divinity at Cambridge, a very popular course at the time, and instead chose history. In 1905 he won a scholarship from Whitgift Grammar to Magdalene College where he studied the History Tripos and became that college’s first ever recipient of a First. Four years after leaving Magdalene, after being ordained as a priest he was appointed to the staff of St Andrews college in Zanzibar.

Teaching history in Zanzibar

Although Keable came to the island as a newly ordained priest the main part of his job was as a teacher. The college was badly understaffed, and Keable was free to teach how and what he wanted. He taught all subjects but particularly enjoyed teaching history and wrote about it in his book City of Dawn. He decided not to teach in the traditional way – looking at a particular period or giving an account of a leading person and the events they were involved in. Nor did he want to teach English history as he wanted the lessons to be relevant to the students – by concentrating on the history of Zanzibar – and fun. He quickly realised the students had no idea of chronology, so decided instead of working forwards he would start in the present and work backwards. He began his first lesson by showing the boys a rupee and discussing why the King of England was on it. From there he re-enacted the shortest war in history, the 45-minute Anglo-Zanzibar war, which followed the Heligoland-Zanzibar deal of 1890.  One boy played the role of captain of a German man-o-war while he played that of the Consul-General, to help explain how Zanzibar had become a protectorate. He then set the boys the task of finding the oldest building in the town (which was the Portuguese fort) and went searching for old postage stamps, swords and pictures to serve as props for his lessons. All very different from the chalk and talk lessons of the day.

Working as a priest

Keable left Zanzibar in 1914 and it was another seven years before he took up another teaching job. After Zanzibar he was appointed as a parish priest in Basutoland (Lesotho), travelled to France as a chaplain to the South African Native Labour Corps, returned to Basutoland for a year, wrote Simon Called Peter, resigned as a priest and travelled home to England.

Dulwich College

Once back in England, from Basutoland, Keable spent almost a year trying to forge a career as a writer and to get Simon Called Peter published. Constables finally took the risk of publishing the novel in April 1921 by which time Keable had run out of money and had to take his first teaching job working at Dulwich College for a term as a substitute teacher. I have found no information about his time there and for the past seventy years archivists had suggested he couldn’t have worked at the college. For more on this see my blog:

Dunstable Grammar

In September 1921 Keable confessed to his friend Arthur Grimble that he had blown the £100 salary from Dulwich very quickly and needed to get another teaching job. He accepted a one-year contract to teach at Dunstable Grammar, writing to Grimble:

So now I am teaching here – Senior Hist and Eng Master under a new head. It isn’t as bad as things go, but I hate England, I don’t care a cuss about teaching, I’ve no real use for little English boys and I WON’T grow into the school-master.

Keable and his wife ‘secured rooms’ in Dunstable for a year living at 1 St Peter’s Road – a 20-minute walk from the school. The first school magazine of the term greeted his arrival:

We extend a hearty welcome to Mr Keable MA, as English and History master. Mr Keable has a vast experience both in teaching and travelling, and his little anecdotes of Africa and elsewhere, sprinkled liberally over his classwork makes his subjects some of the most fascinating on the school timetable.

A friend, C. P. Le Huray, who taught at the school, later wrote:

… he spent twelve months as English and History master at Dunstable. … Keable was most popular both in school and outside. His history and English lessons held his pupils spell bound. He had the capacity to interest, because of his precise knowledge of detail although he entertained rather than taught. He did not like his scholastic work, and he abandoned it as soon as his literary labours began to bear fruit.

A letter from the Dunstable teacher, R.F. Broadfoot, written in 1959, suggested that Keable was not so popular with other teachers.

There are two members of staff who still remember Keable. They recall him as an irreligious person, somewhat cynical in outlook and inclined to be lax in morals. (The view seems to have been widely held that SIMON CALLED PETER was largely autobiographical) He was of violent temper – one informant remembers him as hurling a tennis-racket at a colleague in public during some heated argument.

During his year at Dunstable, he was accompanied by his wife, who seems to have been a delightful woman of considerable charm and talent.

Although Keable was unpopular with some of the teachers, he seems to have been very popular with students. After he died one of his students, Wolsey Russell, wrote an obituary in the Sun newspaper describing Keable as ‘a man of charming personality and a splendid companion’ and going on to say ‘it should be said that he never attempted to preach, or even to mention, his ideas to us at school. He was the inspiring teacher and the charming companion.’

Russell added:  

he was extremely popular out of school. At the cricket match even on big match days he would have a small shoal of boys squatting around him forgetting cricket in the magic of his travel stories of Madagascar, Spain, France, Italy, Africa, and he would discuss literature without end and always illuminatingly.

But it was his history lessons which left the strongest impression.

He was the most inspiring teacher I have ever known. In history it was he who for the first time gave us the idea that the whole world had a story behind it, apart from the ten-sixty-six, the Elizabethan Rovers and the Reform Bill of 1830. He had a broad and comprehensive mind and he taught us in terms of the flux of civilisations, the rise and fall of empires, the sweep of migrations, rather than of dates and royal poisoning.  He opened us to a new vista of peoples and of cultures, by means of his enthralling lectures and his fascinating maps and charts and even when he was obliged to teach the small details of rebellions and civil wars he could make them interesting to a degree that we had never believed possible. As an English teacher too he was beyond praise, acting as an astonishing stimulus to the schools reading and encouraging original creative work, which had been practically non-existent till then.

Keable also seems to have thrown himself into the life of the school. The school magazine mentions him a number of times. He gave two lectures – the first on a journey from the capital of Zanzibar to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro; and a second on travels in Moorish Spain – each illustrated with his own photographs. And he took part in two debates, speaking against ‘In the opinion of this House Spiritualism has not yet proved its case’ and proposing ‘In the opinion of the House, some form of Communism is necessary for the future happiness of the world’. And he also helped run the school magazine.

When Keable left after one year the editor of the school magazine paid him a glowing tribute:

But the most painful task of the Editor this term is that of saying goodbye to his adviser Mr Keable. Everyone will be sorry he is leaving, none more so than the editor of the school Magazine.

To pay a just tribute to the advice, help and consideration that he has given during the three terms he has been here is impossible. Behind practically all the improvements in the magazine is the mind of a man whose equal we shall probably not see for a long time to come, and certainly the keenness, enthusiasm and skill seen in Verse and Prose section is entirely due to him.

Madness of Monty

Keable could afford to leave Dunstable after a year knowing he would never have to teach again. He had joined the school broke, but over the year Simon Called Peter became a huge bestseller in America and Keable left the school with almost ten times his teacher’s salary from book sales and advances for future books.

Some believed teaching history was his true calling. Bede Jarrett, the Dominican Friar and noted historian, wrote in his obituary of Keable.

What a treatment history must have had at his hands, invigorating, original, virile, frank, alive with ideas and lessons and hopes. Those who listened to him must indeed be grateful for that short spell of his influence on them, that awakening to the past and its value as a guide to to-morrow.

Intriguingly we get a real insight of Keable’s views on teaching history in his last novel The Madness Monty. He started writing the novel in 1923 but only completed it just before he died in 1927. As he explained in an early letter to his publisher the story is about ‘little Montague-Smith, aged 47, a schoolmaster who goes clean off his little chump and starts to take an intelligent view of things.

The conceit of the story is that Montague Smith – Monty – is a history teacher at a school not unlike Dunstable Grammar. He had studied history at Cambridge, obtained a third, and from 1902 taught in second grade prep schools. In 1915 he joined up, spent a week on the front line, was injured and sent to hospital back in England. Unfit to fight he returned to France working for a Labour Corps in Rouen and was finally demobilised in 1919. It was then that he got a job as a second history master at Wearstone school.  

In the novel Monty finally rebels against the tedious history curriculum he is expected to follow. The final straw comes when he is expected to teach a lesson on Henry VIII and his six wives. As he says:

What the blazes did Henry VIII matter? And his wives? Oh well, granted that one of them was responsible for the Church of England and in a roundabout, vague way for the very far-fetched commencement of the British Empire, what did it matter? … And the British Empire. Great God, the British Empire! As if it were an empire, as if there were no other empires!

When he comes to mark the student’s homework on Henry VIII he reflects:

Nobody was interested of course. … he was trying to teach that rot to boys whose minds were alert and keen to aeroplanes and motor-cars and cricket scores, to boys who would one day exercise their vote and back the plunging of their country into war, because, though they had ‘done’ history, no one had ever attempted to teach them the real truth of the making of wars... (he) tore the whole pile viciously in half and flung it into the empty grate

From then on Monty decides to start teaching history properly. He described the timeline he drew on the white board during the next lesson.

A line ran right across the rectangular board from end to end. It was divided roughly into divisions which were explained below it. Thus the three biggest dividing strokes bore beneath them the legends, from left to right:

4000BC              First Egyptian Kings;

2000                   Hammurabi, Abraham (?);

A.D.                     Jesus Christ;

2000 A.D. (?)   The next Great War (?); The Confederation of Europe (?)

The other incredible names starred smaller divisions: Sargon, Buddha, Suleiman the Magnificent, and so on. Above, parallel thick chalk lines which often overlapped, were marked: Egyptian Emp., Assyrian Emp., Roman Emp., and the like. And … what was little more than a dot on the far right labelled: Brit. E.

Buoyed by this first lesson Monty decides to redesign his course. Talking to himself a couple of evenings later he maps out his idea.

I’ll plan a new syllabus to-night. Hang it all, I’ll teach ‘em English History! I’ll give them a sense of Time to start with – rub it in – Time charts and all that. Then I’ll let ‘em see what’s big in their period, and what isn’t… The Revolt against Autocracy, that’s the first thing. Then the people’s Revolt against Aristocracy, that’s the second thing … The Field of the Cloth of God, indeed! That tripe can go to the waste-paper bin. I’ll take big subjects and run ‘em right through … Let me see: The Expansion of Europe, the Growth of Democracy – I’m hanged if they are too young… I won’t let ‘em learn particular dates at all! A sense of time and sequence and comparative chronology, that’s what they want… Bring in all the colour of the world – show ‘em the great movements – make ‘em feel that it’s all alive and coming to them.

Monty begins the new syllabus immediately and becomes increasingly excited about his new approach. After a week he explains to a fellow teacher, Mr Strut, his change of approach.

I’ve taught history all my life as if I were a grocer’s assistant, and history a Cheshire cheese. Cut it off in slabs and slapped it down on the counter! It didn’t matter a damn if it spoilt the cheese. [now] I’m trying to give those kids a sense of history. I want to make ‘em feel that they’re part of it all – that England’s a little part of a great whole – that we’ve come out of a wonderful romantic past – that we’ve got to make for a still more wonderful future.

Mr Strut warns Monty that he is going to get into trouble, but Monty ploughs on with his approach. Soon the Headmaster is receiving complaints from the other teachers. First the divinity teacher Reverend White is furious to learn that Monty has been telling his students that there was no proof that Joseph, Moses or Abraham ever lived. (Since the oldest contemporary inscriptions depicting a King of Israel was the Obelisk of Shalmaneser – completed 500 years after Moses possibly lived.) Next the senior history master complains that Monty has practically set aside his textbooks and actually discourages their use among the boys. The final straw is when the results of the public examinations – the Locals – are revealed. Monty’s students are praised for their fascinating essays, deducted marks for their lack of knowledge of dates and admonished for questioning the facts of the scriptures. Monty loses his job.  

Outline of History

There can be no doubt that Monty’s views on teaching history, in the first half of the novel, are Keable’s. After Monty is asked to leave the school, he goes on a series of adventures travelling around North Africa before rather surprisingly returning to the school ready to teach history for the exams.

Despite the unsatisfactory ending, the discussion on history teaching is intriguing. Keable was joining a debate that had had been activated by HG Wells.

Wells was very critical of the teaching of history feeling it promoted isolationist and nationalistic ideas. So, during the First World War, he decided to publish a history of the world which could be enjoyed by all students irrespective of their nationality. His initial plan was for expert historians to write the chapters and for him to edit their work, but very few historians were prepared to put their name to such a work. So instead, he set aside a year to write the book himself. HG Wells’ Outline of History was published in 24 fortnightly instalments from November 1919. He wrote in the introduction:

Universal history is at once something more and something less than the aggregate of the national histories to which we are accustomed; it must be approached in a different spirit and dealt with in a different manner. This book has been written primarily to show that history as one whole is amenable to a more broad and comprehensive handling then is the history of special nations and periods.

This Outline deals with ages and races and nations, where the ordinary history deals with reigns and pedigrees and campaigns, but it will not be found to be more crowded with names and dates.

The book really does cover the history of the world. There are forty-five chapters. The first seven deal with the time before man. The next nineteen take us up to the Roman empire. And there are only seven covering the period from the Mongol empire and Renaissance to the Great War.

Keable has Monty reading the book in the holidays before his ‘madness’ begins.

It is perhaps with a certain shame and even a little incredulity that one writes the truth. That the Professors of Ancient and Modern History in the University of Cambridge, that Macaulay and Green and Ransome and even Tout, should have done so little, and that Mr H.G. Wells should have done so much, this must appear shameful and astonishing. But it is the literal truth. Montague-Smith B.A. … read ‘The Outline of History’. He read it when twelve years of Ransome and small boys had sickened his soul and taught him to regard the kings and queens of England as so many carcases hanging by their legs in a butcher’s shop from which joints must be carved for the customers’ consumption. He read it when four years of history-in-the-making had shown him that battles are not crossed swords and a date, and still less heroics in scarlet and gold, but stinks and filth and agony and a sick, mangled feeling and hospital smells; that campaigns are not pleasant little maps with zig-zag lines on them and still less gay marches and jolly winter quarters, but utter boredom and most uncomfortable journeys and the fevered expensive pleasures of prostitutes and drink; and that whereas history is read in the names of kings and generals, it is written with the numbers of innumerable Smiths. And for these reasons he read ‘The Outline of History’ again and again, and it mattered little to him that frequently its minor statements could be contradicted and oftentimes its quite major theories riddled more than he had been with shrapnel, for something that was bigger than all these was entering his head and sinking down into his soul. What the best part of twenty years of teachers and textbooks had not been able to do, Mr H.G. Wells had done with one book.

It would be easy to suggest that it was H.G. Wells alone who made Keable question how to teach history. But there is no doubt that Keable was already thinking along the same lines as Wells before he had read his book. In 1918 while still a priest Keable wrote an article about the training of priests in Africa and suggested that church history should be taught differently:

the course wants to be pictorial and vivid and covering all the centuries, embracing the whole Church. Half a dozen names and two or three dates are ... all that a native priest needs.

The Outline of History was a huge best-seller. It sold more than two million copies, was translated into many languages and an abbreviated version – A Short History of the World – was equally successful. But it was heavily criticised by historians, partly for the many mistakes which Keable hinted at, and by theologians who disliked the fact the book was written by an atheist. I have read that it was highly influential on the teaching of history, but I am not convinced. History teaching, certainly in the UK still seems very piecemeal, and the idea of history teaching being holistic and non-nationalistic still seems a long way off.

Keable does seem to have been ahead of his time. I don’t know what the history exam results were like for the students he taught, but he certainly inspired some of them to go on and study the subject at university and that is the best one can hope for as a teacher.