The School developed from very small beginnings. On 30th May 1751, John Pyrke was elected as the first boy to be educated at the expense of the recently formed Clergy Orphan Society – later to become a Corporation. John Pyrke was sent to a school in Thirsk, Yorkshire. After one temporary move, to Silton Hall in the parish of Leake near Thirsk, the first separate Clergy Orphan Boys’ School was opened at Acton, Middlesex. In 1812 the School was moved to St John’s Wood at the nursery end of Lord’s Cricket Ground. The Sister School for girls was on the same site.
On 2nd October 1855 the boys’ School moved to Canterbury, the site and building being paid for by Doctor Samuel Warneford; the chapel was completed in 1858. The name of the school was changed from the Clergy Orphan School to St Edmund’s School in 1897; Junior School was opened in 1898 and the first non-Foundationers were admitted in 1902. During the First World War, ex-pupil BH Geary was awarded the VC. In 1923 the chapel was extended by eighteen feet and the Houses were given their present names. Electric light replaced gas in 1926. The first dayboys were admitted in 1937.
1940 saw the evacuation of the School to Cornwall for the duration of the war.
1949 marked the Bicentenary of the Clergy Orphan Corporation and Princess Margaret visited the School the following year. The Close houses were built in 1955 which also featured a visit by Princess Alexandra. In 1957 Science moved from the bottom end of the asphalt to the old sanatorium; four years later the classroom block was built. The Dining Hall was extended in 1963 and the New Wing opened five years later followed in another two years by the swimming pool.
The School took on the education of the Cathedral Choristers in 1972. The School Hall was opened in 1975 releasing Big School for conversion into house premises including Grant House which lasted twenty years until the return to four houses when day numbers increased.
The first girls were admitted in 1982 and in 1996 the school was refounded as a fully independent school.
This summary is drawn from Jock Asbury-Bailey’s history of the School, Foundation on a Hill. Until this book was published in 2007, the only available School history was a booklet assembled by Junior School teacher, Harry Winter.
Jock has used a little of Winter’s material but has produced a wonderfully researched and complete account of the School’s early years and development right through to the present day, and all fully illustrated with fascinating photographs. Foundation on a Hill can be ordered through the Society Office.
A History of St Edmund’s Chapel
The main school building was completed for 1855 and the chapel was started in 1857. The original plan was to place it in the middle of the main building but it was finally decided that it should be at the west end so giving symmetry to the school. It was completed in 1858 at a cost of £3035 plus £170 for the carving of the pulpit and altar rail (the total is about equivalent to £300,000 in today’s money). Lady Warneford gave £1000 towards the cost.
The first service was held on Sunday 6th June 1858. The pattern of services at that time gave, on Sunday, morning and evening services; Holy Communion was on the first Sunday of the month and on Festival days and, during the week, there were two services each day, morning and evening. Before the chapel was built, the boys attended the Cathedral on Sunday mornings.
Headmaster Butler had wanted the pews on each side to face each other in the manner of Oxbridge colleges; he was over-ruled. The walls were decorated in sgraffito work (some of this was briefly uncovered about thirty years ago). The lighting was by ornate gas lamps. Originally there were no choir stalls. The 24 inch bell was cast in 1957 by Charles & George Mears (now Whitechapel Bell Foundry).
In 1918 it was decided that the most appropriate War Memorial would be to enlarge the chapel. One suggestion was to have a second aisle, but the final design, by Charles Blomfield, was to extend the building by eighteen feet at a cost of £3789 plus £250 for the choir stalls (about £152,000 today). The Dedication, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was on 9th October 1923. Five years later Bishop Knight conducted the Dedication Service for the Altar and Reredos which had been carved by Messrs Dart and Francis of Crediton. The Reredos had the enlargement of the painting of Christ Crucified, by Antonello Messina, and oak shields, representing the arms of sixteen of the English Dioceses, painted by a daughter of the Headmaster. In 1929 the shields were removed to the front of the newly completed gallery, which was later to be extended in 1956.
An inscription on one of the stained glass windows at the East End of the chapel tells us that they were dedicated to George Currey, who was Treasurer of the Clergy Orphan Society, in 1877. The first organ was built by a Mr Allen in 1859. FH Browne installed a second instrument in1896; the pipe-work of this organ was retained and re-voiced for use in the 1937/38 rebuild (featuring an unusual Pedal to Choir coupler for players who could not play the pedals), again by FH Browne. This was replaced by a 100-year-old Father Willis organ which was installed in 1976. This organ sounded well but, with its straight pedal board and hitch-down swell pedal, was not an ideal teaching instrument. In 1996 the present Copeman Hart electronic instrument, which had been built for Southwell Minster, was installed.
Conducting the services over the years have been one early chaplain, RE Walters, in the 1880s and 1890s, otherwise successive Headmasters acting as chaplains up until 1945 and, since then there have been specially appointed chaplains.
(Compiled with information from Jock Asbury-Bailey’s book Foundation on a Hill.)