“It is so important to keep a history of a school, or any building.” These are the words of Karen Brock, who took it upon herself to become the archivist of Dulwich Preparatory School, Cranbrook. Now, seven years later, this passionate historian is preparing to play a big part in the school’s 75th anniversary in Kent. And while many schools have wonderful histories, the stuff of books, Dulwich Prep’s is unique.
As international events took a grim turn in 1939, the headmaster of Dulwich College Prep. in London, John Leakey, prepared an emergency evacuation camp to be constructed in the orchard on his father-in-law’s land at Coursehorn in Cranbrook. On September 1st, a train taking 135 boys aged five to 13 set off from West Dulwich Station. After 9pm they arrived at Cranbrook Station and in the pouring rain made their way by car, sheep lorry and on foot to the camp three miles away.
They were heading for their new home – six wooden huts, some bell tents, a marquee and some camp kitchen equipment. Now, all those years later, the school is one of our most popular prep schools: a case of ‘from small acorns…’
The 75th anniversary is being celebrated in some style this year. Karen said: ‘For me that means exhibitions for June when we’re inviting alumni to come back. I’ll also be doing an exhibition for the summer ball!’
Headmaster Paul David said: â€œThe anniversary has given us the opportunity to reinforce the children’s understanding and knowledge of the school’s history. We’re focusing on the autumn term for events with the children. We’re still in the planning stages but we have decided to turn our annual arts week into a 75th anniversary celebration. We will have external speakers and lots of practical events. The week will start with a whole school performance and concert at the Assembly Halls in Tunbridge Wells. This will be a celebration with songs, poetry and other historical anniversaries; for example, in 1939 The Wizard of Oz was released; and 2014 marks Twiggy’s 65th birthday! So we’ll be bringing together the old and the new.
â€œWe are also looking at ways we can tie in with our brother school in London, possibly to recreate the journey with our older children. We really want to bring that history alive, just like we do in lessons. We’re really excited about putting this together.”
So what of those early days? After the initial decampment from London, the site grew, thanks to parents sending lorries to Cranbrook with supplies. The orchard was littered with school furniture, books and equipment, lockers, beds, gym equipment and pianos until Mr Leakey’s wife, Muff and her helpers took order.
Gradually more beds were brought down from London, until the camp housed 200 boarders, according to a news report at the time. The boys made the long trek to classes at Cranbrook School. The first winter was a bitter one – thick snow lay around the camp and temperatures plunged to minus 15 °C – nevertheless the boys made the journey four days a week without a break.
With the fall of France to the Germans, the area became too dangerous and the school was relocated to the Royal Oak Hotel at Betws-y-Coed in Wales for the next five years.
In spring 1945 preparations for the return to Dulwich were made. But when a new acquired building in London was bombed, Mr Leakey decided to take over Coursehorn and use that as the junior boarding house. Coursehorn began with forty junior boarders (aged six to ten), and now has 540 pupils set over three departments from ages three to 13, in 50 acres of Wealden countryside.
This history sets the scene for the comprehensive archive that Mrs Brock has been working on. She explains why it is so important for young people to understand their history: ‘When I expressed an interest in creating an archive the headmaster of the time gave me some boxes and said: ‘You can do it!’ and here I am! It was like Christmas! Every box I opened revealed something new – whole school photographs, reports…it was a treasure trove. There were old school magazines, pieces of literature from the children and I even have an old uniform – a grey flying-type jacket and cord knickerbocker-type shorts!
“I also work with two young archivists who volunteered to help me, giving up their lunchtime playtimes. That says it all! We will look at different aspects, like a photo, and try to date it – we look at the uniform, the background or the buildings. They’re learning through it.
â€œMy favourite find was for a man in my village who came to the school just after the war and I found a little piece of writing he had written for the school magazine. I sent it to him and he wrote back and said: ‘I can’t believe you found this!’ That gave me such a big thrill. It’s like being a detective.”
Indeed, without her work, lovely stories would be lost forever. One boy who experienced those early days was Dr Alex Robinson, who said: â€œWe all slept in dormitories in the main house. I remember the sound of radio always on. I also fondly remember making a stool in woodwork which I still have today.”
Claremont School, now based across two sites in St Leonards-on-Sea and Bodiam, also has an interesting war story. The school was founded in Hove in 1925 by the O’Byrne family. During World War II the school moved to Bradfield College in Berkshire. Unfortunately, by the end of the war the original building in Hove had been bombed so Claremont School moved to its current location in Ebden’s Hill.
The building, a magnificent Norman Shaw designed mansion house, was built in 1888 for the Ebden family, who kept it until 1935 when it became Langley Place School; it was not until 1945 that Claremont amalgamated with Langley Place.
Once a small, boys’ boarding school, Claremont is now a thriving, co-educational day school and occupies two sites – the Senior School opened in 2011, in an elevated site overlooking Bodiam Castle.
A spokesman said: â€œThe next step for Claremont is a new, purpose-built Sixth Form on the Bodiam site that will open in September 2014.”
Another school with a fascinating past is St Andrew’s Prep at Meads near Eastbourne. The site where the school now stands was until 1877 a farm known as Colstocks or Wellcombe Farm. Meads village was very small and made up of a few fishing cottages, two large houses and All Saints Chapel which still stands today.
In 1865 Colstocks was bought by a Mr Goodwin, who founded the first school on the site. It was then sold, in 1877, to the Reverend Francis Souper who named the school ‘Meads’ until 1882 when he renamed it after St Andrew, the disciple whom Jesus had first met by the sea. In 1890 the Reverend E L Browne bought the land and remained headmaster for 43 years.
Like many prep schools St Andrew’s was a small boarding school for around 100 boys aged between seven and 13 years. The first day boys joined the school in 1964 and in 1976 girls were admitted. During 1977 St Andrew’s merged with Ascham, the prep school of Eastbourne College and in the same year nursery age children were accepted. The school now accommodates over 375 children, boys and girls, boarding and day, between the ages of 12 months and 13 years.
A spokesman for the school said: â€œSt Andrew’s treasures and respects the school’s long history through frequent use of the on-site School Chapel for assemblies and services, house names and traditions that stretch back to its Victorian roots. The outlandish stripy blazers – still worn with pride today – are a nod to that past.”
As it has always done, St Andrew’s keeps up with changing times, reinforcing the modern way to ensure that the pupils are treated as individuals. With modern spaces and facilities, schools are proud of their past – with many former pupils giving an insight into just how much education has changed over the years. The broadcaster Peter Snow spoke at the most recent speech day, recalling memories of “early morning dips in the bracingly cold plunge pool and feasts under the School Chapel”.
It really is true what they say: school days are the happiest days of your life.
- words: Lesley Finlay
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