The Wokingham Paper

James Furlong was a nurturer as much as an educator says former Holt Pupil calling for a memorial

James Furlong
James Furlong painted in oil by Tiggy Chadwick

A FORMER Holt School pupil is calling for a memorial to her teacher, after his death in the weekend attack at Forbury Gardens.

Meg Webb, who left the school in 2016, has written an open letter to co-headteachers Katie Pearce, Anne Kennedy, and the board of governors, asking for the humanities block to be renamed in James Furlong’s memory.

Mr Furlong, who joined the school in 2012, was its head of history and government and politics.

In her letter, Ms Webb wrote: “We ask that James’ memory be preserved within the school for the years to come. Therefore, we wish to present to you the idea of renaming the current Humanities block to the ‘James Furlong Building’, or some iteration thereof.

“The building was erected and first opened during his time in the department, and though future cohorts of students will never have the privilege of being taught by James,
we firmly believe that he should be remembered and honoured by all that pass through its doors.”

Ms Webb, who was taught by Mr Furlong for the four years of her GCSE and A-Level classes, described him as a “nurturer as much as an educator”.

She told Wokingham.Today: “The humanities block was built when he was in the department as head of history, and that’s where his classroom has resided for the majority of his teaching.

“He massively developed the history department during his time there. I think he made a really positive impact on the way that history was taught in the school.

“Future students that come through won’t know him, but I’d hope that if they walk through the doors and see the James Furlong Building, given the nature of Holt students and their natural inquisitiveness, that would mean they would ask who James Furlong was — and it would prompt conversation.

“It continues his legacy in some way, because he was so important to so many people.”

And Ms Webb hopes the memorial will be inspired by input from the Holt School community.

“I think it would be nice if it was a collaborative effort between staff, faculty members, students and his family to decide the intricacies of what happens,” she said.

“Whether it’s a name on the front of the building, or whether they have some additional information inside as well.

“I’d also hope that going forward, it can be a place of healing and remembrance for the people that did know him.

“Lots of students return to the school, and teachers that knew him still work there. It might also be of some comfort that way.

“And also for his family and friends to know that he still has a place. Not just with them, and in people’s hearts, and back in his home in Liverpool, but across the country there are places of remembrance for him that will remain for a significant amount of time to come.”

Reflecting on her time as his student, she said: “We were the first year group that he saw all the way through GCSEs and A-Levels, which is quite nice.

“Mr Furlong was a real character, he definitely had his quirks. He was incredibly witty, and quite snarky but in a good way — in a way that meant you were comfortable with him and you could be open with him.

“I just felt like the person who was teaching you was genuinely authentic. And what you saw was what you got. And I think that’s something that all of his students felt — that he was incredibly approachable. It allowed students to connect with him in a way that they wouldn’t with some of their other teachers.”

And Ms Webb explained that Mr Furlong taught much more than his subject.

“In Year 10 you don’t really know what your place is in the world, and as a person you’re changing so much,” she said. “The dynamics around you are also constantly evolving, I think it can be a very confusing and overwhelming time.

“But somehow he managed to break through that and allow you to feel comfortable, and allow you to develop. To have conviction in your options and to feel like you had a sense of place and a value, and that what you did and who you were genuinely mattered. And I think that’s something that he taught me, and something that he gave me.”

She added: “In terms of a history teacher he was absolutely exceptional. I think so many people that had history with him finished with a genuine love for the subject.

“His teaching methods were pretty innovative. He’d walk around school holding a flintlock rifle — unloaded obviously — and he’d dress up as monarchs and wear jousting equipment and things.

“It’s cliché but he managed to bring the subject to live. But he also had a really deep knowledge of rather niche information that was outside of the syllabus.

“Even in normal conversation, he would slip in something interesting and insightful — that’s just the sort of person that he was. I think he just had a natural curiosity about things, and it’s something that he then nurtured in his own students. And it’s something that I’ve personally carried with me.”

And pupils from across the school will be left with fond memories of fancy dress.

Ms Webb said: “I was one of the co-history prefects in Year 13 and we created the first and only house jousting competition.

“We asked Mr Furlong to preside over the tournament, which was Year 7 and Year 8 pupils bouncing on space hoppers holding broomsticks tabbed in paint, with targets for shields.

“And Mr Furlong came down to the field in full regalia. He had a floor-length monarch’s cape on, a crown and a sword, and he announced ‘Let the tournament begin’, and he really hammed it up which was massively appreciated. Sports day had nothing on it.

“But he’d always do stuff like that — particularly dressing up — he just had a whole collection of costumes in his classroom cupboard.”

Beyond the embroidered capes, Mr Furlong had a way of making history feel tangible, explained Ms Webb.

“I’ve always been interested in history since I was little,” she said. “Whether or not it would have become a career decision — that is something that I am really indebted to him for.

“I am now going into heritage and collections care which is obviously a historical field. And I think I wouldn’t be doing that without him.

“That love of the physical and history being tangible as well as something you read about in books — I think that was also something he was keen on. That’s sort of a legacy he has left behind in me particularly.”

And she has been left with a physical reminder of her teacher too.

“I borrowed a book from him on Eleanor of Aquitaine — he gave it to me in the last term of A-Levels.

“She was a medieval French queen, and mother to Richard the Lionheart. He lent me that book because he thought I’d be interested in it, and I forgot to give it back. So I saw it in my bookshelf on Sunday and it made me cry — but hopefully he’d want me to hold onto it.”

And with something tangible of her own, Ms Webb hopes that renaming the humanities block will create a physical place for the wider Holt School community to remember James Furlong, the educator and nurturer.

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