Live-stream, 2018: Declamations


  • All boys in VI-1 and below must learn a Declamation.
  • All VI-2 boys who have been finalists are required to take part; for other VI-2 boys, entry is voluntary
  • No boy may choose a piece that was used in the previous year’s final (see below)
  • No boy may choose a piece that he has used in a previous year
  • Minimum length ~ 250 words.
  • Maximum length ~ 5 minutes.
  • Nothing from plays being put on at Radley this year.
  • Extracts from longer works are allowed.
  • No song lyrics.
  • No sketches.
  • No pieces in languages other than English.

These are the rules of Declamations in 2018, but it has taken 170 years for them to reach this format, and they will undoubtedly change again. Over the last few years, the influence of Youtube has meant that many contestants have researched classic performances, many more pieces are taken as monologues from films, and performance poetry and poetry slams are beginning to feature in the finals. So even something so apparently fossilised in tradition as Declamations is evolving before our eyes.

It was William Sewell who started ‘Declamations’  at Radley. He had published in 1846 a book of extracts for declamation in schools called The  New Speaker and Holiday Task Book, which was widely advertised in The Spectator, and which pre-dates the founding of Radley in 1847. This was part of Sewell’s drive to encourage public-speaking. As Warden in the 1850s, he encouraged the Fellows to give talks to the boys on Friday evenings; these meetings came to be known as the ‘-ologies’. Amongst rather unusual subjects were lectures on Fortification by Florio Hutchisson (the drawing master), and cooking lessons for the  Military Class conducted by Felix, the Belgian chef.

Sewell’s successor as Warden, Richard Norman, introduced theatricals on a small scale including scenes from plays, and ‘a charade of Box and Cox’, but they were soon replaced by ‘Recitations,’  a dramatic form of Sewell’s Declamations. Recitations, with the performers in evening dress, became the stock entertainment for All Saints’ Day, combined with music arranged by George Wharton, the Precentor. Norman’s recitations involved several performers, and were a very popular form of entertainment throughout the 1860s:

Shrove Tuesday after tea the Recitations took place in the Gymnasium.  Though the Recitations for the last  two years have been extremely good, still this time they were decidedly better. Ross ma, who gained the prize, performed the parts of Dogberry in  “Much Ado about Notbing,” and M. Jourdain in  “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,” in a manner which could scarcely be improved upon, and Henn spoke a  difficult  passsge from  the” Morte d’Arthur” with great success, and also made a very good Hotspur in “Henry IV.”  Bruges’s comic  powers as  the  first Grave-digger in” Hamlet” quite astonished the audience, and many others performed their parts extremely well. (Radleian March 1866)

However, some lamented the loss of the short plays in favour of Recitations:

Correspondence. For some time the” Recitations” seem to have quite taken the place of acting, which used to be universally liked.  At one time  but few terms passed by without either some farce being got up for the edification of the small boys, or else those who could appreciate (the beauties of) Shakespeare were delighted by one of his more tragic plays.  We cannot help thinking that something of this sort might be got up this term.  We should not like to see it entirely take the place of the Recitations–far from it-for there are many who would rather take part in reciting some pathetic piece; but might not this  be very easily managed by allowing those  who might like it to entertain the audience by Recitations between the Acts.  Some may think that this would be turning too much of our attention to mere comic acting, but we think that some serious piece could be performed without much difficulty, and that, if there  was time a short farce might be got up to conclude with.  (Radleian October 1866)

They achieved their wish with the re-founding of the Shakespeare Society.  This is the oldest recorded society at Radley College.  In the 1930s it eventually became the Radley College Amateur Dramatic Society, and in the 1980s a Drama Department was formally constituted.:

THE SHAKESPEARE CLUB. Our readers know that for some  time  the Shakes peare Class, originally founded  by the late Warden (William Sewell), and thoroughly  appreciated we believe by all  who joined it, has ceased to meet.  The want of it was felt, and under the impulse given by the Recitations, it has been found possible to supply that want.  Within the last few weeks not only has Shakespeare been the subject of common  conversation,  but a club  has been established, with a view if possible of perpetuating the Shakesperian Mania. It is clear that a club possesses some  advantage over a class, being a less  dry, less formal kind of meeting.  We need not enter into the details of its construction, it is  enough to say that it consists of members voluntarily united to increase their knowledge of the great English Poet.  The meetings that have at present taken  place show no lack of enthusiasm.  The first play decided on was Hamlet. (Radleian Dec 1866)

The editors of The Radleian enthusiastically recorded the performers and performances throughout the 1860s.  But Wardens change and times change with them.  By 1871, Charles Martin had a larger school to govern and with it, less time for family or country-house style entertainments. 1877 saw the abolition of Recitations at the All Saints’ entertainment, in favour of a plain concert; and resentful Old Radleians complained that this new man in 1872 had actually made Recitations compulsory for all, to be done by forms in School to a mere audience of boys, with none of the All Saints’ glamour.

Recitations returned for All Saints’ Day of 1880, but the Warden had bigger ideas; and in the following year the first Latin play, the Andria of Terence, was performed. The programme included also extracts from Shakespeare and Moliere a form of entertainment which was to last till 1900, when the first Greek play was produced. Other Latin plays performed later included the Adelphi and Phormia of Terence, and the Trinummus, Aulularia and Captivi of Plautus. A Latin prologue, spoken by the Senior Prefect (the less erudite with the text secreted in the College cap), introduced the performance. Charles Vincent, who became the first Tutor of B Social, wrote the first prologues; they referred to the outstanding events of the year, and increased in length as the years proceeded. The plays were elaborately staged at the east end of the Gymnasium (now the Coffee Shop).

Play, 1892. From the album of HRM Bourne

The Recitations probably continued within classes until the end of the century, but it was no longer a formal part of the school’s Gaudy or All Saints’ celebrations. In 1916 a new departure was made in the institution of ‘Declamations,’ when members of the different forms recited in public in School (now the Library)  choice pieces of English literature,  and provided a most interesting and stimulating entertainment.  The prizes were given by the Warden, and various distinguished people kindly came and gave the awards and words of encouragement and advice.  This was one of several initiatives by Warden Gordon Selwyn.  He is best remembered for ordering the introduction of Rugby as the school’s official sport, but he also re-introduced a number of Sewell’s original Radley institutions: most notably the Spes Memor ring (given to outstanding boys) and Declamations. Selwyn was probably influenced by the work of one of the Dons, Lionel James, biographer of William Sewell.  Most notable among the Declaimers under Selwyn, was 6th Former Yovan Markovitch from Serbia, who performed ‘Serbia, my homeland’ in Serbian in 1917. The institution lapsed after Easter 1918 and appeared to be completely forgotten until the 2nd World War, when Warden Vaughan Wilkes re-introduced Declamations as part of a re-civilizing of the school:

Mr. Wilkes was an ardent believer in the duty of public schools to share their benefits with others less fortunate, and well before the Fleming Report was issued  secured the  support of the  Berkshire Education Committee for a scheme of free places for boys from elementary schools.  After some show of reluctance by local headmasters, the new ‘Decimal’ system was started in 1942., and has since operated with complete success, fourteen free places having been filled to date. Another agricultural class was started in 1940, this time based on the Labs and not on a neighbouring farm.  Later on ‘Declamations’ were revived, with notable success; and a system of ‘Projects,’  generally theses on self-chosen subjects, was introduced, to encourage boys to carry out a piece of work in their own time and in their own manner. It was stated in the last chapter that Warden Ferguson’s period in work was the period of the ordinary boy; this was emphatically the period of the scholar. (Boyd, History of Radley, p356)

Declamations has been performed continuously at Radley since the 1940s. Its format has changed.  In some years the different year-groups performed their Declamations in different terms.  Judges have ranged from distinguished Old Radleians to Ted Hughes whilst Poet Laureate.  In the 1980s the reprise was introduced, at which the winners and runners-up in all categories, performed again to an invited audience: in 2014 David Coulton, former Chaplain, donated a cup for the Victor Ludorum.   In the 1990s, Declamations in French was introduced.  In the same decade, Alex Allen became the first boy to win in all five years of his Radley career.

So what makes a winning Declamation? In 1969 the judge, Norman Ayrton, summed it up:

He stressed the need to communicate the mood, shape and sense of the poem or passage being recited: this requires “courageous concentration” and respect, for the poem”means more than you”. One’s aim should be to “evoke an atmosphere around the poem” ,and in recitation “a poem needs to grow, and develop, to be sustained to the end.”In order to communicate, as in the theatre speakers should look “at their audience, not up or down”; “take their time”; “speak up “but not “push the poem”; “respect punctuation “rather than ignore it so that they mangle the meaning; and perhaps first and foremost spend time finding a good poem.

At the beginning of this article, I stated that the Recitations grew out of a particular method of schooling: the memoriter, in which boys frequently learned large sections of text by heart to recite accurately in class.  Recitations developed in a world where memory was trained from an early age.  In the days of the internet, memory is becoming used less and less as a learning tool, and the skill of remembering large sections of text is no longer taught.  Declamations Day brings those skills back into use.

Clare Sargent, 2018

© Clare Sargent, 2007. Published in the Radleian, 2007