Stowe's Unique History

J.F. Roxburgh

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 Stowe welcomed girls into the Sixth Form from 1974, one of the first former boys’ schools to do so. 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 world-famous garden and its many important buildings to the National Trust. These have now been returned to their former splendour, with both Stoics and visitors enjoying the glorious vistas of lakes and landscapes. Since 2012 the New Inn near the Corinthian Arch has been reopened as a popular visitor centre, with the garden entrance at the original Bell Gate and its stunning revelation of the House reflected across the Octagon Lake.

The separate Stowe House Preservation Trust took over the restoration of the House in 1997. Thanks to generous benefactors, three great campaigns from 2000 to 2011, costing £20M, have returned the resplendent North and South Fronts to their original majesty. Inside, four of the key state rooms have so far been restored to their former exquisite appearance. On the ground floor an inter-active Information Centre opened in 2015, allowing visitors a glimpse of Stowe’s fascinating history, from big-spending dukes to the School’s foundation and current restoration. Without the financial burden of one of the most important houses and gardens in England, the School was able, under Christopher Turner and Jeremy Nichols, to concentrate again on upgrading its academic and boarding facilities, from fire detection to computer networks and Astroturf pitches. Meanwhile an endowment for further bursaries was established and the Old Stoics became more involved, giving careers’ advice and opportunities. A link started under Sir Richard Branson, an Old Stoic, has allowed a succession of pupils from a South African school to enlarge their horizons by spending a year at Stowe.

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 in 2009 by Sir Nicholas Winton, the Old Stoic who organised the Czech Kindertransport saving 669 children in 1938-39. Lyttelton became a girls’ house in 1993 and in 2013 Nugent became an all-age girls’ house. West House was created out of three Fielding Dodd buildings in 2014 for sixth-formers, while other houses underwent a rolling programme of refurbishment. School numbers have reached 770, with all Stoics just fitting into the Chapel. 

The last decade has also seen a wider building programme to enhance the academic life of the School and support the increased numbers. The interior of the Fielding Dodd’s Art School was superbly transformed by Rick Mather Associates into contemporary studios and classrooms, while the stunning Chung Music School skilfully reflects the rond-point on Nelson’s Walk with views towards the Rotondo. This has allowed drama to take over all the renovated Roxburgh Hall, still famous for the Beatles’ visit of 1963. All classrooms have been upgraded while new areas of grass and sculpture aid the aesthetics. An Equestrian Centre was built beside Home Farm, while the old squash courts, now replaced by new ones at the Drayson sports complex, have been converted to StoweBucks, a popular social centre. During 2015-16 the Science Laboratories are being extensively rebuilt with state-of-the-art facilities and an impressive atrium to welcome the growing number of Stoic scientists.

Sport at Stowe has also flourished over the last ten years. In cricket four players have represented England at U17 and U19 levels, with Ben Duckett one of two players with a batting average of more than 60 in the World Cup, while the School’s first XI was first in national rankings in 2007 and 2011. In rugby three players represented England or Scotland at U17 and U19, and the School’s first XV won the Rosslyn Park U18 in 2015. Other Stoics have represented their country in athletics, hockey and lacrosse.

With its physical renaissance and the new themes of ‘Inspiration’ in the Visitor Centre and ‘Growth Mindset’ in the classrooms, Stowe seems to be recapturing the vibrant originality it saw in the 18th Century when it became a leading hub for architects, poets and politicians with their new concepts of culture and liberty based on classical ideals. It thus continues the vision of the School’s creators like Montauban, Warrington, Williams-Ellis and Roxburgh, who all valued the intriguing and creative blend of old and new.

Michael Bevington
October 2015


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