The Eccentric British Headmaster Who Never Existed

iStock (man) / Dan Kitwood/Getty Images (Cambridge)
iStock (man) / Dan Kitwood/Getty Images (Cambridge)

For several weeks in 1948, strange letters began circulating through the British postal system. Most were addressed to headmasters at elite schools across the country; all were written by one H. Rochester Sneath, headmaster of a minor public school called Selhurst. Not a single one of the letters' recipients had ever heard of Sneath or Selhurst—because neither ever existed.

The eccentric headmaster of Selhurst, said to be located near Petworth, Sussex, penned a series of letters to other school leaders, full of weird complaints and even more bizarre pieces of advice. Sneath asked for help in dealing with rats and exorcisms, requested help finding a sex education teacher, and discussed plans for "an exhibition of Schoolboy Art [for] South America,” whatever that might have been. 

To the headmaster at Oundle in Northamptonshire, he wrote seeking help for an infestation of rodents:

No less than sixty-four rats of various shapes and sizes have been discovered in the precincts of the School with the result that three Matrons have had nervous breakdowns, and the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors, who was lunching with me and my wife, had a fit of hysteria upon seeing no less than six of these creatures, and collapsed in a heap, having to be carried away in a blanket.

To the headmaster of Tonbridge in Kent, whom he addressed as “Rootie,” he wrote:

You will doubtless remember old ‘Tubby’ Sneath—well it will give you a helluva shock, you old bounder, because last year I took on the Headship here. Do you remember prophesying my early death in a South American brothel? I must say that I never imagined that you would get muddled up in this racket either, and imagine my surprise when I returned from India to be told that the man whom I had carried home, drunk as a coot seven times a week, should have got a job. At least I presume the Headmaster of Tonbridge is you!

The alarmed headmaster wrote back:

I have received from you a letter opening ‘Dear Rootie’. It is not intended for me though addressed to the Headmaster of Tonbridge. In view of the contents of the letter I should be obliged if you would send me the name of the person to whom you have written as Headmaster of Tonbridge and on what the incorrect information is based; for if it is widely presumed that he is Headmaster of Tonbridge that needs correcting for reasons obvious to you.

The head of Marlborough College, one F.M. Heywood, was also a frequent target. On March 15, 1948, Sneath wrote a letter asking how Heywood had “managed to engineer” the school’s recent visit from the King and Queen. (Sneath explained that Selhurst was hoping for its own royal visit in celebration of its 300th anniversary, noting that “the nephew of a Balkan monarch” had once been a student.) Heyworth wrote back in a huff, saying "I did nothing whatever to engineer the recent royal visit … No doubt the fact that the King’s Private Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and the Archbishop  of Canterbury are all Old Marlburians had something to do with the matter.”

Not to be put off, Sneath wrote to Heywood again. This time, he wanted to discuss Mr. Robert Agincourt, a former French teacher at Selhurst now said to be applying for a post at Marlborough. Sneath wrote to warn against this possibility, and several paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

You will understand that nothing that I have to say about Mr. Agincourt is actuated by any personal malice but I feel it my duty to inform you of the impression that he gave while he was at Selhurst.

During his brief stay no less than five boys were removed from the school as a result of his influence, and three of the Matrons had nervous breakdowns. The pictures on the walls of his rooms made a visiting Bishop shudder and would certainly rule out another Royal visit. His practices were described by the Chairman of the County Hospital as ‘Hunnish.’ The prominent wart on his nose was wittily described as ‘the blot on the twentieth century’ by a visiting conjuror.

As you cannot fail to have noticed, his personal appearance is against him, and, after one memorable Carol Service, a titled Lady who was sitting next to him collapsed in a heap. He was once observed climbing a tree in the School Grounds naked at night and on another occasion he threw a flower pot at the wife of the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

Heywood responded that he'd never heard of the man. Sneath wrote back saying that Agincourt had abandoned the idea of an academic career and had become a waiter in a Greek restaurant in Soho. He also asked for the name of a good private detective, and a competent nursery maid. 

Sneath targeted more than just headmasters. He invited George Bernard Shaw to speak at the school's 300th anniversary celebrations, “in view of the long-standing connection between your late wife’s family and Selhurst school.” (Shaw wrote back: “Never heard of any such connection.”) He wrote to Scottish sculptor William Reid Dick asking him to create a statue of Selhurst’s founder “Puritan leader Ebenezer Okeshot." (Dick was interested, but Sneath never followed up.) He also asked Giles Gilbert Scott to design a new building at the school (the architect politely declined).

Most of Sneath’s correspondents fell for his ruse, but some were smart enough to smell a prank. One was John Sinnott, headmaster of Wimbledon College. During their correspondence about a potential exorcism designed to rid Selhurst of the ghost of a matron who committed suicide after having been seduced by a housemaster, Sinnott requested a packet of salt "capable of being taken up in pinches.”

Sneath’s unmasking came after he wrote to The Daily Worker, complaining that he was being prevented from teaching Russian at Selhurst. A curious reporter from the News Review investigated, and after being unable to verify any of Selhurst’s contact information, or any other trace of its official existence, exposed the hoax. The source of the letters: Humphrey Berkeley, a future Conservative Minister of Parliament, then an undergrad at Cambridge University. After Berkeley was exposed, he was formally rebuked by Cambridge officials, and forbidden from visiting the school for two years.

Berkeley went on to earn his degree from Cambridge, and was elected as a Conservative MP in 1959, the same year Margaret Thatcher got her start in Parliament (Berkeley's political career was considered more promising). His political life was relatively unremarkable, but in 1974 he published an illustrated collection of the Sneath letters, entitled The Life And Death Of Rochester Sneath: A Youthful Frivolity. Given his political post, Berkeley took care to downplay his mischievousness, calling Sneath’s existence “the only practical joke I have ever played in my life.” Today Sneath lives on not only in the book, but with his own Twitter account, appropriately used to annoy teachers around the world.

13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

Belgium's Blue Forest is One of the Most Beautiful Natural Areas on Earth

iStock.com/antonyspencer
iStock.com/antonyspencer

Imagine if the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz were all blue—and real. That's how Belgium's Hallerbos forest looks for a short time each spring. For roughly 10 days in April or May, innumerable bluebells blossom, covering the forest's floor in a lovely violet.

Dutch for "Halle's forest," Hallerbos is located about 30 minutes outside of Brussels. But while the forest is currently part of the Belgian state, its ownership has varied, starting with its first known owner in the 7th century. Records list it as having been part of the expansive land of the Abbey of St. Waltrudis, in Mons (about an hour south of the forest). A few centuries later, it became part of the duchy of Arenberg before passing to the French Republic after their troops invaded in 1794, then to the Netherlands in 1815, and eventually returning to the Duke of Arenberg in 1831.

Unfortunately, when World War I hit Europe, the German army felled much of the forest for wood, diminishing its original size of 1125 hectares down to 569 hectares (or roughly 1400 acres). Belgium regained control of the Hallerbos forest in 1929 and spent the next 20 years actively reforesting the land. This extensive history is what, in part, makes the forest look the way it is today—because though the trees are relatively new, the bluebells are ancient.

In fact, an abundance of bluebells is an indicator of the age of a forest. Certain types of flowers, including the small, white wood anemones and pale yellow native primroses, are very often markers of ancient woodlands—this flora grows deep underground and doesn't spread through trafficked or harvested land, meaning that that larger groves of them tend to only be found in secluded areas. And for bluebells (also called wood hyacinth or wild hyacinth), their life cycle is dependent on brisk weather and sunshine, so they sprout and bloom before the trees above them have fully budded. Then, as quickly as they came, they turn to seed and continue growing their roots deeper to survive another year.

And thus, the extraordinary sight of a blanket of bluebells scattered through the forest is best observed during the early spring. Of course, this effect makes for some absolutely gorgeous photographs, so it's no wonder that visitors flock to the woods each year. Hallerbos provides directions to the forest by both car and public transportation, as well as two different maps for walks through the growth and a bloom tracker to plan for the prettiest possible visit.

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