Giant People:
Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin was a writer and storyteller (for he disliked the term ‘novelist’) who was born in Sheffield but raised on a West Midlands smallholding in the Forest of Arden. Via a complicated career path that took in Sotheby’s and an Archaeology degree, he eventually became a travel correspondent  with The Times before establishing his reputation with a string of highly regarded titles that seamlessly interwove fact, fiction and local folklore to often stunning effect. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989.

The Wellington Connection

Chatwin was educated at Old Hall School in Holyhead Road between 1948 and 1953. While the experience was largely an unhappy one, he returned again to Shropshire in the early 1980s to begin researching the award-winning On the Black Hill, the century-spanning odyssey of a Marches farming family and its fluctuating fortunes. His visits were inspired by long-time friend Penelope Betjeman, who told him of local stories that were “just as good as all those things in Patagonia you write about.” In fact, Chatwin’s South American odyssey seems in itself to owe something to his schooldays. It was reading Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around The World and retracing his journey in the Old Hall library’s Times Atlas that is thought to have at least partially motivated the four-month trip that resulted in the classic In Patagonia (1977). 

Why Is It Important

In June 1988 The London Review of Books published The Seventh Day, practically the last story Bruce Chatwin wrote. The semi-autobiographical account of a “nervous and skinny boy with thick fair hair” who hated boarding school so much he developed a near fatal bout of constipation, the tale was largely based on the writer’s own experiences at Old Hall. In particular, the legend of Tommy Woodhouse, who in 1924 became the only pupil in the school’s history to expire on campus. As Bruce’s younger brother Hugh (also a former pupil) observed, for a boy who had not been brought up with other children “Old Hall could be a frightening place.”

Bruce Chatwin (image: Paul Massey)

Giant Steps

The former Old Hall School (and the half-timbered, Arts and Crafts-inspired World War One memorial chapel mentioned in The Seventh Day) still stand on the corner of Holyhead Road and Limekiln Lane but now form part of a private residential development. Nowadays, the institution is based in a modern building close to Wrekin College, with which it shares a chapel. It’s here that the memorial plaque remembering the unfortunate Tommy Woodhouse is now housed, although viewing is strictly by appointment only.

The former Old Hall School chapel in Holyhead Road