Tied to Munro
Albert Edward “Wagger” Harrison, third-generation Jamaican and son of J.S. Harrison, Justice of the Peace of St. Elizabeth, was born in Manchester, Jamaica, on October 17, 1869. He spent about 50 of his 68 years at Munro as student and then teacher and headmaster, and in fact, like his predecessor, he died in office.
He attended Munro College, then known as Potsdam School, where he gained Class 2 honours in Senior Cambridge examinations in 1886. Upon leaving Potsdam, he became an Assistant Master at the old York Castle School in 1890, and at Jamaica College in 1891. A former headmaster of Potsdam, Rev. William Simms, had left Potsdam in 1883 and had become Headmaster of Jamaica College, where he temporarily made Jamaica College the first degree – granting institution in Jamaica, and so Harrison gained his B.A. while teaching there.
He returned to Potsdam in 1893 as Second Master, and served in that capacity as deputy to Headmaster William Davies Pearman for 14 years until 1907, when he took over as Headmaster on the death of Pearman, with an annual salary of 300 pounds. He was Pearman’s former student, and had also become his son-in-law when he married his daughter May Pearman.
Munro’s First ‘Legendary’ Headmaster
Harrison was not the schools’ first great headmaster, but was perhaps its first legendary one. The 125th Anniversary Munronian states that “though one cannot approve of all the methods used to accomplish the goals, one cannot deny that a great institution was developed.” It states further that “he is undoubtedly one of the prime makers of the school.”
The “methods we might not approve of” is undoubtedly a reference to his extremely liberal use of harsh corporal punishment, not with the cane, but with the supple jack. The supple jack, once a popular instrument for flogging convicted prisoners, was a climbing vine procured from Pearman Bush by an unlucky student, on whom it was tried and tested before being commissioned into active and continuous service. Legend has it that he sometimes administered canings publicly, on what are now the tennis courts, somewhat in the manner of medieval public executions. Some critics therefore described him as barbaric and even sadistic, and the late eminent journalist Morris Cargill, who kept running away from Munro to escape Harrison and the supple jack, describes himself as an advocate of corporal punishment for boys, but only if it is limited to standard canings, and not the severe floggings that Harrison was reputed to deliver.
He was widely respected for his efficient administrative and exceptional teaching abilities, but his stern, aloof, and somewhat larger-than-life personality also meant that he was feared, and his nickname “Wagger” was a corruption of “ogre,” which is how the smaller boys saw him. As his own son, Geoffrey Harrison, wrote about him in 1981, “…as headmaster he bestrode the Munro community like a colossus. He had a strong personality, great energy, a quick temper, and a loud voice. When he shouted at a lazy or sullen boy in one classroom, the boys in even distant classrooms heard and shivered in their shoes…”
Paradoxically, despite his famous temper, booming voice, and propensity for public floggings, he was also still described by many of his peers and indeed students as warm, kind, loveable, even, and possessing a good sense of humour, as well as being the consummate gentleman with ladies. Old boy A.D. Soutar wrote, “…again and again his reaction in certain instances was opposite to what we had come to expect from him. It was puzzling too to observe how genial and even jovial a host he was in relations with visitors…after I left school, I found him most charming and friendly.”
Building the Munro Brand
Building extensively on the foundation laid by the school’s founders and the headmasters before him, it was Harrison who truly created the Munro brand, and Munro College – quite literally – became Munro College under his watch.
Potsdam School was named after a German city, and the name was changed ten years into Harrison’s tenure in 1917, during World War One (then called the Great War), as Potsdam Palace was central to the German war administration. At around the same time, the school colours were changed to blue and gold from red and black, which were declared too “piratical.”
Several other landmark events, as well as landmarks, came in his tenure:
- What was then called Mount Grace, and later became the staff quarters for single teachers, was originally built for him and his wife in 1906 when he was still second master.
- On June 29, 1910, he was one of six headmasters who organized the very first Inter-Schools Championships Sports at Sabina Park in Kingston.
- In 1918 he expanded the Coke Farquharson building into what became the reading room, new dormitory, and housemaster’s office and quarters.
- He was a long-time Justice of the Peace, and in 1920, became the first Munro headmaster to be appointed Custos of the parish, supervising all the other Justices in the parish.
- In 1925 he built the present dining room, the headmaster’s office and study was constructed under his watch in 1929, as was the Pearman baby dorm, built in 1933.
- One of Munro’s greatest unsolved mysteries also happened on his watch. In 1932, a teacher named Mr. McDonald disappeared from his quarters in Coke Farquharson one night without a trace.
- Although he stressed the value of academics over sports, Munro still became a sporting power under his leadership, and won 33 major sports trophies in his 30-year stint as headmaster: 13 Olivier Shields for football, 4 Athletics Cups, 3 Mordecai Cups for boxing, 9 Perkins Shields for under-19 rifle shooting, and four DeCarteret Shields for under-14 rifle shooting. Those years also produced 41 academic scholarships, including 15 Jamaica Scholarships and 13 Rhodes Scholarships, and the school population grew from 85 to 130 during his administration.
- His forte as a teacher was undoubtedly mathematics. One year in the Senior Cambridge Examinations, his students took first, second, third, and fifth places in Maths, not in Jamaica, not in the West Indies, but in the world! He taught Maths with great skill and unyielding ruthlessness, and if you were one of the few students slow to get it, then any stubbornness to receive it through the ears was assisted by generous applications of the supple jack at the other end.
Harrison’s motto was “Possunt quia posse videntur,” “they can because they think they can.” Academic and ancillary staff on campus as well as students caught that spirit, and generally made the motto their own.
He found time to for a few activities outside Munro College, and in addition to his duties as Custos of the parish, raised horses and mules, many of which were exported to Panama to help build the canal.
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1937, Albert Harrison died unexpectedly of a ruptured appendix in the Black River Hospital. He is buried in the churchyard of the Black River Parish Church.
The next day, the Gleaner wrote: “…Hon. A.E. Harrison is dead. This was the news that shocked the island community yesterday. Revered and honoured, he has gone to his rest. When the historians come to record the good work of those who have striven for the advancement and progress of Jamaica, his biography will fill a bright page. Throughout Jamaica his name is a household word, respected by all. He was a devoted friend to a host of individuals, particularly to the many hundreds of old Munronians who have passed through the famous centre of learning since 1895…”
Munro College was truly a family affair for him. A photograph of the school taken in 1936 shows his son, E.D. Harrison, on the academic staff. Part of his legacy was two sons who attended Munro. The other was Geoffrey O’H. Harrison. Both majored in Mathematics in the Higher Schools Exam of 1925, and both got subsidiary Latin and French.
Because Potsdam had been rescued from its own demise in 1875 by the moneyed class, Munro had acquired a reputation of being elitist. It was indeed elite but never intended to be elitist. Subsequent administrations would correct that perception of Munro and enlarge its egalitarian embrace. For his part, Harrison consolidated the structure and the brand, and left the school on an upward trajectory in academics and in sports.
For the above and other reasons, Custos Albert Edward Harrison was proudly inducted into the Munro College Old Boys Association Hall of Fame.