A Short History of Sherborne School
Sherborne School exudes history. Sherborne Abbey rises high above the hamstone campus setting the tone for one of the great English Independent schools. Below the Library there survives Anglo-Saxon masonry. The Headmaster and the senior staff now have their offices in the Abbot's House refashioned in the 15th century, the library was, perhaps, the Abbot's 'Guest Hall' (13th-15th century) and the Chapel occupies another monastic refectory of the 12th-15th century.
However, the great 'public' boarding school we see today is just over a hundred years old, almost all the brainchild of the Revd Hugo Daniel Harper, Headmaster 1850-1877, and his immediate successors. However, he took over and transformed an undoubtedly venerable site, a local Free Grammar School refounded under the auspices of Edward VI in 1550, and some even more ancient adjacent buildings. Sherborne School is an example of the rising educational expectations of the Victorian era, its high-mindedness mixed with a nose for business, the impact of the new railways, and, not least, the Victorian genius for creating new institutions and then pretending that they were, after all, very old.
By the mid-16th century a schoolmaster was operating with a handful of pupils in Sherborne and, although not a monk (he was married!), the dissolution of the monastery in 1539 so threatened his livelihood that local initiative was necessary to rescue him. The result was, eventually in 1550, the foundation by Royal Charter of a small 'Free Grammar School'. The School clearly flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries, perhaps sometimes reaching a maximum strength of 60-80 pupils taught by two masters, doubtless with a handful of assistants. Since the School buildings then merely comprised the Old School Room - a fine edifice (1606) - with the 'Oak Room' wing of School House (1670), the staff residing in the former Abbey Lady Chapel, it must have been very crowded and noisy. One can still see the names of 18th century pupils rather theatrically carved on to the window-sills of the Old School Room. Most pupils enjoyed practically free education as 'foundationers', but their numbers were always made up, sometimes even to a half, by 'tablers', fee-paying boarders, essential for the School's financial well-being and providing some private profit to top up the Headmaster's salary! Nearly all came from the immediate Sherborne area, or surrounding counties. The curriculum was narrow - Arithmetic, Hebrew, Divinity and the Classics - but there was an ambitious library much augmented by a huge purchase in 1687, most of which survives in excellent and seemingly scarcely used condition in the modern Beckett Room.
By the middle of the 19th century Sherborne School seems to have hit deep trouble. There were only two boarders left to thirty-eight foundationers. The revolutionary plans of the visionary new Headmaster, H D Harper were, therefore, eagerly embraced. The railway arrived in Sherborne in May 1860 and Harper proposed completely to relaunch his ailing school on enterprising lines, with new buildings, more staff, more subjects including 'modern' disciplines such as history and to fill it with fee-paying boarders recruited from all over the country. It was wildly successful: by 1877 there were two hundred and forty-eight boarders and eighteen staff. From that point onwards it was a story of continuous physical expansion until the end of the century. Old buildings were commandeered and new ones added - the Library, Chapel, School House (1860) and, beginning with the Big School Room (1879), the Courts, rounded off early in the 20th century - you can see the dates on the various buildings, if you look closely. The School established boarding houses in the town: The Green (1865), Abbey (1869), Abbeylands (1872), Harper (1873), followed by Lyon (1911), Westcott (1920), Elmdene/Wallace (1931) and the Digby (1964).
Modern times brought yet more expansion, testimony to the fact that Sherborne developed into a very good school, with an able and dedicated staff, popular with parents and set in idyllic surroundings. The School has developed a strong academic tradition, especially since 1945, and has produced a collection of fairly great, but always good, alumni to fill the ranks of the upper-middle class establishment: Alan Turing, the world-class scientist undoubtedly the best of the bunch.
Would Hugo Daniel Harper, or, still more, the mediaeval monks, have been pleased?
Dr Huw Ridgeway MA, DPhil, FRHistS
Former Head of History (1982 - 2010)