Monday, February 16, 2009

Nurture, not Nature

Like many of my generation, I have always been keenly aware and appreciated the contribution made by Arthur Cossons. During over 35 years of teaching in Beeston, many of those who were at Church Street school had every reason to be grateful for his dedication - and, more specifically, many were inspired by his passion for local history.

On Saturday, it was my pleasure to attend a meeting of the Thoroton Society and to hear his son, Sir Neil Cossons, deliver the Maurice Barley Lecture entitled "A Nottinghamshire Historian: Arthur Cossons (1893-1963)" - a vivid account of the life of his father.

And what a life! Yes, we knew of his dedication but now we learned of the intensity in which he pursued it. His interests were broad - including geology, natural history, philately, railways - where is knowledge was particularly encyclopedic - and, of course, history, particularly local history. Any aspect of these or numerous other subjects he took an interest in were always pursued thoroughly and with zest.

As early as 1912 - before his service in the Royal Army Medical Corp during World War 1 and while working as a clothier's assistant in various locations in the south Midlands - he began to submit short articles to local papers describing walks and cycle rides. This continued after he trained as a teacher after the War and found work in Beeston. Throughout that time he wrote for local papers - at one time, even finding time to write a daily column for a Nottingham paper - and eventually contributed to series on the BBC.

His was a prolific writer and a regular speaker to groups and societies throughout the area. This included involvement in the Workers' Educational Association and this and his original research throughout the area - including his pioneer work on Nottinghamshire turnpikes, eventually extended to six further counties - brought him into contact and in lifelong collaboration with the influential academic trio, W. E Tate, J D Chambers and Maurice Barley, particularly in campaigning for the preservation of the county's heritage. But, notwithstanding the opportunities that this reputation and network of contacts brought - with the possibilities for a mainstream academic life that inevitably arose - he remained content with his headship in Beeston and the interests he had developed. Local history, rather that academic life, was his thing and he was the very opposite of a high-brow intellectual. He was indeed, a true "gentleman scholar".

Throughout his whole teaching career he campaigned tirelessly for the development of a school museum and loan service - he had himself gathered together an eclectic collection of historical artifacts which I vividly remember being shown by him, with characteristic patience and enthusiasm, when I was only about nine. It was somewhat ironic that the loan service became a reality, with his own collection as the basis, only months before his death in 1963.

Neil was accompanied to the meeting by his sister Hilda who had collaborated in the story of their father's life, based on the voluminous archive that he left. Together, they demonstrate a clear example of the power of "nurture" - Hilda's career was with Leicestershire Archives while Neil's well known career saw him holding the most senior positions in the museum and heritage fields. Here, surely, are examples of early life influencing their life's work - "nurture", it seems, was the dominant factor.

And, I venture to say, for all of us whose formative years were influenced by Arthur Cosson's life, there was an element of nurture. We have much to thank him for.