To Serve Them All My Days

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For the 1980 television adaptation, see To Serve Them All My Days (TV series).
To Serve Them All My Days
First edition
AuthorR. F. Delderfield
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherHodder & Stoughton
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Pages638 pp
LC ClassPZ3.D37618 Tn PR6007.E36

To Serve Them All My Days is a novel by British author R. F. Delderfield.

First published in 1972, the book was adapted for television in 1980. It has been adapted twice by Shaun McKenna, first as a stage play at the Royal Theatre Northampton (Royal & Derngate) in 1992[1] and again as a five-part series of 45-minute plays for BBC Radio 4, first broadcast in January 2006.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

David Powlett-Jones, a coal miner's son from South Wales, has risen from the ranks of the South Wales Borderers and been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in World War I after serving three years in the front-line trenches. In 1918, after being injured and shell-shocked, he is employed to teach history at Bamfylde School, a fictional public school in North Devon, in the south-west of England. He swiftly earns the respect of many of his colleagues, with the notable exception of Carter, an ambitious science master and Commanding Officer of the school's Officer Training Corps (OTC), whose military bearing compensates for the embarrassing fact that he was released from military service, for medical reasons. Following the Armistice, the two men disagree on whether or not the school should erect a war memorial; David loses the argument but wins the respect of Brigadier Cooper, one of the governors.

Under the tutelage of Headmaster Algy Herries, who views him as a possible successor, David discovers a vocation in teaching. He also forms a close friendship with the curmudgeonly English master, Ian Howarth, and with several students of unique personality and talents.

David meets a young nurse, Beth Marwood, and in 1919 they marry; shortly afterwards, they have twin daughters. Five years later, Beth and Joan are killed in a road accident. The surviving daughter, Grace, is badly injured and requires many months of rehabilitation before she can return home (both daughters die in the television adaptation). It takes encouragement from one of the schoolboys to persuade David to contemplate life without his wife, but he carries on for the sake of Grace. His feud with Carter increasingly revolves around the men's diametrically opposed political beliefs and culminates in a violent confrontation, at which point Herries is forced to mediate an uneasy truce between them.

David remains concerned about life in Wales, particularly among the miners, and is politically affected by the General Strike of 1926, which receives play in this and other Delderfield novels. By the mid-1920s, he has also returned to a scholarly writing project, a biography of Margaret of Anjou, which he had put to one side after Beth's death. Whilst researching the book in London, he once again meets Julia Darbyshire, a teacher who had worked briefly at Bamfylde, and strikes up a romance with her. She is now running a business for an American entrepreneur and is determined not to return to Bamfylde which she found suffocating.

By 1927, Bamfylde is looking for a replacement for the aging Herries. Although David receives much support, the Governors decide to award the position to a South African named Alcock. Alcock's authoritarian management of the school brings him into conflict with the staff, with some of the pupils, and eventually with David. During this period, Carter and David discover that they have a common adversary in Alcock and resolve their differences, which for a time distances David from Howarth. After a couple of terms under Alcock, Carter and a number of other masters resign. By this time, Alcock has become highly unpopular among the teaching staff and regards David as the ringleader of the opposition. In 1931, Alcock brings a formal complaint before the Board of Governors in order to seek David's dismissal. After hearing that the Board has backed David, though before this becomes common knowledge, Alcock dies of a heart attack while writing out his resignation. David is appointed as his successor.

David's relationship with Julia ends when she travels to the U.S. with her boss, whom she marries. However, David becomes romantically involved with Christine Forster, an aspiring Labour politician and cousin of an ex-student. She is determined to build a political career but is unable to break into this male-dominated world. She eventually accepts a travelling fellowship in Canada and Europe, much to David's disappointment, though her experiences in Germany give him a good sense of the rise of National Socialism, anti-Semitism, and the likelihood of coming war. When Christine returns to Britain in the mid-1930s, the couple marry. After a difficult period of adjusting to life at Bamfylde, Christine accepts a teaching position at the school and they have a son.

It also transpires that Julia Darbyshire had borne David a son soon after moving to America. The son becomes a pupil at Bamfylde, and David does not learn of his paternity until the end of the book, when Julia informs him of it in a letter, shortly before her death from breast cancer in the U.S. As headmaster, David moves the school forward. As the book ends, World War II has begun, and he is facing the prospect of losing many of his former pupils in another war.


To Serve Them All My Days mirrors the history of Britain in the post-Great War era, casting David's experiences against the difficulties, contradictions, and social issues of the inter-war years. David's life focuses on how Britain comes to terms with the turmoil of the Great War, the General Strike, socialism and the formation of the National Government in particular.[3]

"Bamfylde", the fictional independent school in North Devon, was influenced by West Buckland School, the school that R.F. Delderfield himself attended. The headmaster during his time there was Ernest Charles Harries and his wife was Eleanor (Nellie) on whom the characters Algy Herries and his wife are based.[3] West Buckland is a thriving day and boarding school. As it has developed its campus and facilities since the 1990s, the school has adopted some of the names used by Delderfield in his novel, naming two new boarding houses Boyer and Bamfylde, and a new Preparatory School building after Delderfield himself.[4]


In a 1972 book review by Kirkus Reviews called the book "A pleasant autumnal comforter for Delderfield's following, which, if unrolled by the yard, day after day, will serve to the first snowflake."[5] The Historical Novel Society called the book "a gentle meander of a novel that occasionally becomes a plod. Anyone who is a teacher will absolutely long for the kind of pupils who populate the pages. Even the delinquent ones are thoroughly good eggs underneath while David Powlett Jones is an absolute saint who can set any troubled child on the right path, including the bed-wetters and illicit pipe smokers! However, that’s not to sneer. It’s a genuinely warm, comforting novel."[6]