There have always been brothers at Shebbear. A glance at the OSA Directory will show that. Sons and grandsons have also followed fathers. Yet there has never quite been anything quite like the Russ family.
They get a brief mention in A School Apart on the founding of the OSA: “Among those who joined , the membership being one shilling, were three brothers – there were actually eight at Shebbear during Ruddle’s time.”
Two more from another generation were to follow. The story of the Russ family would probably have remained largely untold had it not been for interest in the troubled and secretive life of Patrick O’Brian, author of the best-selling and praised Aubrey/Maturin seafaring novels.
Born Richard Patrick Russ, he changed his name to O’Brian in 1945, shortly after marrying Countess Mary Tolstoy, and reinvented himself as an Irishman. He died in 2000.
His father, Charles and seven uncles were boarders at Shebbear during Tommy Ruddle’s headship, and two of his older brothers were pupils in the early 1920s under John Rounsefell, one to die in action in 1943 and thought to be the role model for O’Brian’s fictitious hero Jack Aubrey.
At the same time, three of O’Brian’s sisters were boarders at Edgehill and an aunt was married to Frank Welch, Quaker businessman and eight-times President of the Old Shebbearians’ Association. The “kindly” Welches also looked after another younger Russ sister after the death of Charles’ first wife and wanted to adopt her.
O’Brian never made it to Shebbear because his father ran short of money. His stepson and definitive biographer Count Nikolai Tolstoy told me: ” I am sure he would have been a much happier child had he done so.”
Tolstoy’s meticulously researched biography Patrick O’Brian: The Making Of The Novelist, on which much of this article is based, is essentially about the author but reveals fascinating details about his closest relatives.
Why Karl Christian Russ, an immigrant from the Protestant heart of Germany, chose a small, remote non-conformist Bible Christian school in North Devon to educate his sons has never been explained.
After arriving from Saxony he had set up as a furrier in New Bond Street, London, and prospered. He won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition in 1878 and soon became Queen Victoria’s favourite furrier. Home was a large house, lavishly furnished, in St John’s Wood where as a result of their Latin lessons, the Russ children, when not having to spend their holidays at Shebbear, had to address their parents as mater and pater.
Tolstoy says: “One of the major purposes of the English public school system as it evolved in Queen Victoria’s reign was to produce a homogeneous class of gentlemanly administrators, qualified by classical education, probity of character and physical prowess to administer a burgeoning economy and ever-expanding Empire.”
Charles Russ, born in 1876, was the first to enter Shebbear at the age of 11, to be followed by Emil, Percy, Sidney, Ernest, Albert, Frederick and William.
The full version of this article will appear in the 2005 edition of the Shebbearian.