Stowe School is 100 years old in 2023. But how did it become a school for 900 pupils from its original use as a ducal palace for one family? We'll look at the events from 1889 to 1923 from the decline of a leading aristocratic family to the creation of a new public school before modern times paved the way for modernisation.
Titles and heirs – the end of an era
On 26 March 1889, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos passed away at his London residence. Having three daughters meant the title died with him and has never been revived.
The estate was burdensome on the family finances and his eldest daughter Lady Kinloss chose to rent Stowe out to the Comte de Paris, the French pretender to the throne (many of his exiled family lived in Buckinghamshire), whilst she and her family lived in Biddleston Park.
After the Comte’s passing in 1894, Lady Kinloss placed an advert in the first issue of Country Life magazine in an attempt to sell Stowe. However, it would not be until 1921 that it was finally sold. Lady Kinloss and her family lived locally at Maids Moreton in order to reduce living costs but came back for a short while a few years later in 1899.
The Stowe estate was inherited in 1908 by her eldest son, the Master of Kinloss. In 1914, WWI was declared and at the age of 27, he died in action. His brother inherited the house, but although he had married locally, had neither the financial resources nor passion to maintain Stowe. It was then sold in 1921.
The house was finally sold in 1921 to Harry Shaw, who wished to gift it to the nation. Having saved Stowe House from almost certain destruction, he suddenly became famous overnight. He publicly declared his desire to present Stowe to the nation, an offer which, in turn, was publicly debated. But without an endowment to go with it, he was turned down. His ideas to transform the house into a film studio or a racing stud (in which he had experience in running) came to nothing and he was forced to sell it again.
On the lookout
Post WWI, more parents were seeking boarding-school education and new schools were needed. Stowe offered a great opportunity, an ideal location and ample space. Present at the earlier 1921 sale, and biding his time, was Lord Montauban, an educator who already had the idea of turning Stowe into a school but didn't have the capital at the time. But fate was to give him a helping hand. Throughout September and October 1922 the idea of turning it into a new public school - and what to do with the art treasures inside - was played out in the local newspapers. When the house came up for sale again, this was the moment to seize. Chairing the preparatory committee which became the group of Allied Schools, Montauban was able to turn dreams into a reality when the finance came later through the Rev. Percy Warrington and the Martyrs Memorial Trust.
The governors of Stowe School acquired the estate and opened in May 1923 with ninety-nine boys.
Much work was required to bring the house up to date. On arrival, the 99 pupils only had one bathroom available to them!
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis was appointed architect to manage the development. From internal works which required thirty miles of plumbing and electrical wiring to building four new boarding houses, the school transformed rapidly.
A great example of this is the Chapel. The original family chapel in the house couldn’t accommodate all the pupils, so the school surveyed several options. The best location was where The Temple of Bacchus stood – work began, but rather than use all new materials, the builders decided to make use of existing materials available on the estate. If you’re fortunate to go on a Chapel tour, look along the rows of columns standing proudly inside the building, these were taken from The Temple of Concord and Victory.
Pupils, known as Stoics went on to enjoy the house, garden and parkland to its fullest over the coming years. We’ve picked a handful of illuminating memories and photos from our archives to illustrate what life was like over the past one hundred years at Stowe.
- To test if the ice was safe, the heaviest housemaster would make his way onto the lake before pupils enjoyed ice skating
- Swimming in the Eleven Acre Lake was an essential part of physical education
- During WWII, windows across the South Front were blacked out using tar. An off-course bomber dropped some extra load and hit the garden
- The Beatles played in the school theatre in 1963, just days after they’d hit number one. They had been booked by a pupil for £100 before they'd become famous
- Target practice consisted of bending a knife with a butter pat before springing the dairy onto the State Dining Room ceiling. Whilst conservation cleaning was underway in 2020, we even found a sausage
- The first girls started in 1974 for sixth form going fully co-educational in 2003
Stowe has always moved with the times. The house began with humble intentions before it sprouted wings and the façades were redesigned multiple times. The garden morphed from formal alleys, views, parterres and an octagonal-shaped lake to a more fashionable natural landscape.
So, it only makes sense that a school for ninety-nine expanded and became more inclusive. In 2003 girls were welcomed to join at entry level with Queen Elizabeth II opening a new boarding house. The school shop now occupies the Menagerie which was once full of stuffed animals. A state-of-the-art music school and theatre have been added to the complex. Rather a relief, students now swim in an Olympic-sized pool rather than a lake.
Celebrating a centenary
On 11 May 2023, the Stowe community marked a moment in history to celebrate Stowe School's centenary with the opening of Mr Roxburgh’s Garden.
As the first headmaster of Stowe School, J.F. Roxburgh commissioned the young landscape architect, Brenda Colvin (1897-1981), to design a formal flower garden outside his suite of rooms on the South Front of the main house. This was one of Colvin’s first commissions and she went on to design just under 300 gardens in her 60-year career. It felt like an appropriate time to recreate the design that was lost during the recent restoration of the South Front facade.
We can only wonder what Stowe will look and be like in another 100 years' time.
A bright future
Working together as partners for the greater benefit of the Stowe estate has resulted in the amazing restoration and transformation visitors see today when exploring the house and garden. Stowe School, ourselves as Stowe House Preservation Trust and the National Trust guide Stowe’s evolution as we continue to provide a successful education for pupils whilst welcoming the public.
There’s one thing for certain, Stowe would have been demolished if the governors had not purchased the estate. This monumental, imaginative eighteenth-century testament to Britain’s history could have well been another post-war housing development. A national treasure lost, a fate many country houses and estates suffered in the twentieth century. How fortunate are we today for our predecessors’ forethought? For when you visit Stowe, you will always remember its grandeur and scale as intended by its original creators.