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History of the School

Stowe School opened with its first 99 pupils, mainly aged 13, on 11 May 1923. There were two boarding Houses, Bruce and Temple, then both in the western part of the mansion. The following term Grenville and Chandos Houses were formed in the eastern wing, with Cobham and Grafton following soon afterwards as further parts of the house were converted into accommodation and classrooms. Chatham was the first purpose-built house, designed by the school’s first architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He had been instrumental in developing a vision for saving Stowe as a new centre of learning to match its crucial role in national culture and politics of the 18th Century. He had personally bought Stowe Avenue in 1922 before old Etonians presented it as birthday gift to the new School in 1924.

Helped by Harry Shaw, who had bought the estate the previous year, the new School succeeded in saving Stowe House and landscape gardens from demolition at their sale in October 1922. The School boasted a double foundation. Edward Montauban chaired the preparatory school committee seeking to found a new leading public school after the First World War and was the first to envisage the new school at Stowe. The finance came later through the Rev. Percy Warrington and the Martyrs Memorial Trust, giving rise to the group of Allied Schools.

J.F. Roxburgh was Stowe’s founding Headmaster. His aim was to produce a modern public school concentrating on the individual, without the unpleasantness of fagging or arcane names then common in other schools. Instead he sought to instil a new ethos enthused with the beauty of Stowe’s unique environment where the best of traditional education would be tempered by liberal learning and every pupil would “know beauty when he sees it all his life”. Pupils and staff would relate in a civilized and open way, showing confidence and respect based on Christian values. Such was Roxburgh’s success in developing this vision that he was recognized as a formative figure in 20th Century English education, “greater than Arnold” in Gavin Maxwell’s words.

Stowe’s early success led to its rapid expansion. Walpole House was added in 1934 and the School reached 500 pupils by 1935. The art school, sports pavilion, and staff housing date from this period too, when the Legal & General Company provided financial support during the recession. Stowe made rapid progress academically too; in 1939 Charles Graves commented in the Daily Mail that “nearly 60% of the boys go to Oxford or Cambridge, which is said to be a higher percentage than that of any other public school”. Teachers included T.H. White, author of the Once and Future King. Among sporting feats Old Stoic Bernard Gadney captained England’s rugby team to take the triple crown in 1936, while in the early 1930s Laddie Lucas and John Langley were both national boy golf champions while still in Grenville House, helped by the golf course originally laid out in 1924. Sir Robert Lorimer’s magnificent Chapel was opened in 1929 by Prince George, while in 1933, on the school’s 10th anniversary, the Prince of Wales launched the repair of the garden buildings with the restoration of the Queen’s Temple as a Music School.

The Second World War saw 270 Old Stoics killed in active service, a high proportion which Roxburgh understandably found difficult to bear. There were also 242 decorations. These included the Victoria Cross for two former contemporaries in Chatham House, Major Jack Anderson and Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, the later founder of the Cheshire Homes.

Eric Reynolds replaced Roxburgh as headmaster in 1949 but it was not easy for him, especially after a climbing accident, or his successor, Donald Crichton-Miller, to develop Stowe under Roxburgh’s powerful legacy. Nevertheless there were substantial additions, with the Roxburgh hall for plays and concerts, new classrooms, design workshops, a running track, a new golf course, Nugent House, more staff housing and the creation of the Beagles pack. Stowe continued to regain confidence and expand again under the next headmaster, Bob Drayson. Lyttelton House was opened in 1967 and girls joined the Sixth Form in 1974, meaning Stowe was one of the first former boys’ schools to do this. Academically too Stowe was flourishing once more. New science laboratories were added in 1972, an indoor swimming pool in 1973 and a sports hall in 1978. Former pupils were making their name in many walks of life. Michael Ventris had helped decipher Linear B and Noel Annan and Anthony Quinton were well known academically. By 1988 The Illustrated London News included three Old Stoics among “the twenty-five people who really matter in Britain”, more than for any other school.

In 1989 the School gave the garden and its many buildings to the National Trust and in 1997 the Stowe House Preservation Trust took over the restoration of Stowe House. This enabled the School under Christopher Turner and Jeremy Nichols to concentrate again on upgrading its academic and boarding facilities, along with the addition of a computer network and an Astroturf pitch. Meanwhile an endowment for further bursaries was established. In 2003 the incoming headmaster, Anthony Wallersteiner, launched full co-education, with two new girls’ houses, Queen's, opened by HM the Queen in 2007, and Stanhope, opened by Sir Nicholas Winton in 2009.

Michael Bevington
June 2009

 

Bibliography:

Annan, Noel, Roxburgh of Stowe: The Life of J.F. Roxburgh and his influence in the Public Schools (London, Longmans, 1965).

Bevington, Michael, Stowe House (London, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2002) ISBN 1903470048.

Bevington, Michael, Stowe: The Garden and the Park (Stowe, Capability Books, 3rd ed. 1996) ISBN 187207216X.

Croom-Johnson, the Hon. Sir Reginald, The Origin of Stowe School (Ipswich, W.S. Cowell, 1953).

Macdonald, Alasdair, Stowe: House and School (Ipswich, W.S. Cowell, 1951).

Macdonald, Alasdair, Stowe School: An Illustrated History (London, Dalton Watson, 1997) ISBN 0901564303.

Meredith, Anthony, Discover Stowe: The House, Stowe School, 2002

Meredith, Anthony, Discover Stowe: The Grounds, Stowe School, 2002

Rees, Brian, Stowe: The History of a Public School 1923-1989 (London, Stamp Publishing, 2008) ISBN 9780954487928.

Stephan, Brian, Stowe: Hearsay and Memory (Stowe, Stowe School, 1998).

The Stoic (Stowe School Magazine, 1923-)

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