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Hilaire Belloc and the Oratory School

Hilaire Belloc was the grandson of Joseph Parkes and the great-great-grandson of Joseph Priestley. His mother Bessie had been born in Birmingham; originally a Unitarian like the rest of her family she had converted to Catholicism in 1864. She married Louis Belloc in France in 1867; her daughter Marie was born in 1868 and her son Hilaire in 1870. He lived a long and eventful life, dying in 1953.

 Oratory School Edgbaston

The Oratory School, Edgbaston, circa 1920

The family lived in France and in London when Hilaire was very small; then moved to Slindon in Sussex. When he was ten Bessie wrote to Cardinal Newman at the Oratory in Birmingham to ask for a place for her son, (Joseph) Hilaire Belloc, at the recently opened Oratory School. At this age, according to his mother, he had 'a pronounced taste for all natural science.' Hilaire had always lived at home, and when he arrived at the school in Edgbaston, Birmingham, he did not like it at all; writing that it was 'fearfully rough' and that the food was 'uneatable.' However he settled in, and stayed there until he was seventeen. He studied and learned to love the classics, won prizes, and made friendships with Arthur Pollen and with Charles Somers Cocks that would last all his life. According to the Oratory School Magazine he was remembered as 'a clever, lively and very untidy boy, with no interest in games, but an immense interest in everything else.'

 Illustration from The Path to Rome

View of the Alps; illustration from The Path to Rome

During the next few years Hilaire Belloc tried farming, then ran a journal; he travelled in America, and met his future wife Elodie. He did French military service for a year, going to Toul in 1891, then returned to England and studied at Oxford University. A few years later he walked from Toul to Rome; writing about this in 'The Path to Rome'.

For most of his life Hilaire Belloc lived in Sussex, and travelled widely, but did not forget his school. His sons Hilary and Peter also studied at the Oratory School when it was still in Birmingham. Hilary started there in September 1917, and left at Easter 1921. Hilaire himself gave several talks to the Historical Society of the Oratory School between 1916 and 1921; 'Criteria to estimate the value of money in the past' in February 1920; 'What is true history?' in February 1921. He kept up his connection with the Oratory School all his life. After he died in July 1953 there was an obituary in the Oratory School Magazine. It named him as the 'most distinguished and gifted of all the Old Boys' and mentioned that he had sent a picture of himself to the School only a few months earlier.