While exploring the review pages of the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in the 1930s, I found that only one reviewer was named. Among the totally anonymous or mysteriously initialled reviews (how I would love to know the identity of EKM and LASW), only Frederick T Wood was allowed to sign his columns and be held to account for his views.
It is not surprising that he filled a position of such stature for he was a remarkable man and a great addition to the cultural life of Sheffield, not only in the 1930s, but until his death in 1967, just a term after his retirement from schoolteaching. He reviewed a wide range of books: a biography of Thackeray; the latest novel by Louis Golding dealing with the persecution of the Jews in contemporary Germany; the latest anthology of modern poetry; and a history of the social life of the Middle Ages. He dealt with each volume in a fair, scholarly and totally accessible way, perhaps his skills as a teacher helping him connect with the general reader.
The only information I have been able to find about Frederick Wood is on the website of Firth Park School. From 1928 to 1961, Wood was English master at Firth Park Grammar School for Boys. Reading Sheffield interviewee John D, whose interview you can find here, was at Firth Park, but sadly doesn’t mention Wood.
Dr Wood’s influence spread far beyond Firth Park or even Sheffield. He was known across the globe as the author of English Prepositional Idiom which was printed in many different languages, and is still generally available.
The following obituary from the Firth Park School website makes it clear that he was a highly reputable scholar, a brilliant teacher and a man who, guided by his strong Unitarian faith, had strong principles.
In 1928, Frederick T Wood, having achieved his doctorate at London University, was confronted with the choice of a career as University Lecturer or as Schoolmaster. Choosing the latter, he was soon invited to an interview in Sheffield for the post of English master at Firth Park Secondary School. By the next post came a similar invitation from Birmingham: but the interview at Sheffield was the earlier one, and he was offered the post at Firth Park. And so he left his native Kent to come to Sheffield, and to the School which was to be his academic home for the rest of his teaching life. How deeply he has enriched the life of this city and this school. He soon turned to the writing of books, first School Text Books, then Anthologies and other works, and – recently – he produced his greatest work, Current English Usage, which is certain to be a standard authority for many years to come. Altogether he has published over thirty volumes, the majority for students in all parts of the world who wish to learn and understand the English language. His works have appeared in a dozen languages, including Serbo-Croat, Arabic and Japanese. At the same time he has been a devoted and conscientious member of the school staff, setting a high standard of scholarship for his Sixth Forms, and meticulous in the performance of the multifarious details of school life. In particular, he has for thirty-seven years carried the immense burden of the School Magazine, a task which he undertook in 1929 – “on a temporary basis!” He was not, however, simply academic in his interests. He was a man of principle, devoted to the truth, and dedicated to the championing of freedom of thought and speech. He was never afraid of being in a minority of one. He conceived it to be the right, and the duty of each individual to proclaim and indicate the truth as he sees it. He was a genuine nonconformist in the widest sense of the word. He was a devoted member of Upper Chapel, Norfolk Street, and on many Sundays in the year went out as a lay-preacher to the country chapels of Derbyshire and the West Riding. He was a notable personality in the Unitarian denomination, and was the President Designate of the Assembly of Unitarian Churches for the year 1968. His fame and reputation was nation-wide. He told the story that he received a letter, safely delivered at his Sheffield home, addressed simply “Dr. Frederick T. Wood, England.” He is the only member of the staff whose name has ever appeared in “Who’s Who.” His letters and articles have appeared from time to time in The Times. He was offered – but declined – the post of Professor of English at a Swiss University. Yet, despite all this, he never paraded his learning or tried to impress with his importance. He was always prepared to go to infinite trouble to clear up difficulties about the meaning and use of words, both for staff and boys. He was invariably kind, helpful and good-natured; he loved to tell stories against himself. He never said or did anything mean or malicious in all his time at Firth Park.
When he retired at the end of the Autumn Term in 1966, he was so much looking forward to the freedom he would enjoy in writing the many books of which he had already drafted the outlines, and we all wished him a long and happy commitment to the consummation of his work. But it was not to be. His early death has caused us much sorrow; but we honour him for his scholarship and integrity, and remember him with affection for his goodness of heart.
For a teaching lifetime he ran his race solo
Pacing relays of boys in the school he refused to leave,
Turning down a Professorship abroad;
And making a map of even the seemingly bleakest moorland
Of prepositional idiom for foreigners
So they might immigrate to our mother tongue.
I think of him screwing his erudition down
On exam scripts, accurate to half a mark;
Or classifying himself in his “English Usage”
Not as “Kentish Man” but “Man of Kent”.
Exile to the externalised catarrh of our
Northern so-called Spring, the dignity of the
Old Buildings tower rising above
His ground floor room as he removed a howler
From a schoolboy’s brain, he could tell the hair’s breadth
That had fallen golden from the Muse’s head
Between the pages of a school edition.
Unitarians and Sheffield reading
Frederick Wood is one of a number of Unitarians who have contributed hugely to the love of reading in Sheffield. The research by Loveday Herridge and Sue Roe on the Sheffield reading societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth century (which we plan to feature shortly) shows the importance of the Unitarian tradition of curiosity, learning and high principles in the formation of our first reading societies. Frederick Wood worshipped at Upper Chapel, just round the corner from where City Librarian J P Lamb was overseeing that other magnet for those who wanted to explore the world of the imagination and the intellect: the Central Library.
If you remember Frederick Wood, we would love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org