Research by Derek Turner.
Those who bought today’s Upper School site in the 1870s did the school an enormous long-term favour in acquiring such an extensive amount of reasonably level land, allowing space for the school’s later expansion a century later. Inevitably the present collection of separate buildings are a bit of a hotch-potch, reflecting the school’s needs at various times, the availability, more often unavailability, of sufficient funding, or the local education authority’s reluctance to provide what was needed. The resulting ‘modular’ assortment of buildings is mixed blessing. The need to walk to another building between lessons provides a little exercise and a useful clearing of the mind – but creates problems in bad weather. The complexity of the site also presents a challenge for visitors, and for students when they first arrive from the Lower School site. The school has done well to minimise the problem of reaching the right place by means of clear and attractive direction signage, helpful maps and named buildings for the various subject departments and other units of the school. It is the last of these that is the subject of this short piece, a critique not of its general practicality, which is evident, but of the details of how the labelling policy has been implemented.
There are good features, not so good features, and some strange decisions about the pairings of building names with the activities that occur in them.
The good features of the plaques on the buildings include, as already acknowledged, their very existence, the clear and modern design and the decision to name the buildings after distinguished headteachers, assistant staff, governors, former pupils – and one politician. Writing from the perspective of the school archivist, the acknowledgement for the benefit, however fleeting, of those who have made a major contribution to the school as it is today, is greatly welcomed. It would be good if the teachers in the various buildings were occasionally to take a moment to describe the contribution to the school’s history of the person whose name adorns the building. Were they willing to do so, however, some would experience difficulty even if they were knowledgeable about the school’s 450 year history, as the criteria that were used to name the buildings and pair them with their purpose are sometimes puzzling.
The not-so-good features include some lack of a match between the buildings that sport a plaque and those that are featured on the maps placed strategically in various places around the school. For an archivist and historian, but probably few others, the least good feature is the continued use of an inaccurate portrayal of the school’s – strictly speaking Lord Williams’s – crest: the wrong bird!
The attractively designed map designed for visitors lists the names and pairs in its key, as set out below. However, there are some anomalies on what is shown on the map and what is omitted. The various names and purposes will, however, be considered in the order in which they are listed in the map. Words in round brackets appear in the list, those in square brackets are added when the use of the building is not stated.
- Foundation building [no purpose given but predominantly management, administration and visitor reception]. This is the original 1879 building before its many later extensions. The name is reasonably apt though it would have been more historically correct to name it the ‘New Foundation’ building as it dates from 320 years after Lord Williams founded the school.
- Plummer (Sixth Form Centre). Oddly, the name and the function signs are not together on of several instances. Plummer, as the first headmaster of the new foundation, certainly deserves a mention for restoring the school’s fortunes and reputation. But to pair him with the sixth-form centre is ironic as he was singularly unsuccessful in persuading more than a handful of boys to stay on into the sixth form, as were many of his successors. Credit for building up the sixth form in the grammar school era should probably go to the long-serving but unpopular headmaster Dyer or the much shorter but enlightened headship of his successor Mullens.
- Hayter (Humanities). Sir William Hayter was without question the school’s outstanding chairman of governors during the period of dramatic change from small single-sex grammar school to large comprehensive. The building named after him dates from the time of his chairmanship so it is entirely appropriate that it carries his name. As a former ambassador Russia and Warden of New College it is also fitting that ‘his’ building is concerned with the study of the humanities.
- Howard Brown Building (Dining Hall). The plaque on the building actually reads ‘Main Hall and Gym’. Howard Brown was the outstanding assistant teacher of the grammar school era in almost every way: one of the longest serving, appointed to teach science he undertook a wide range of boarding and day activity duties, eventually becoming second master and the school’s historian. A good man, highly respected by the boys and popular with them as someone who really cared for their welfare as well their education. Given that the hall is a multi-purpose space it matches well Brown’s multi-tasking contribution to the school.
- Goodall Arts and Music Centre. Another entirely appropriate pairing. During the headship of headmaster, later Principal Goodall, school music progressed from near nothing to a centre of excellence. The other Arts less so but he was – and remains – a strong supporter of all kinds of artistic and cultural activities.
- Chiltern (Art and Technology) The buildings face the Chiltern Hills and border the Chiltern Housing Estate so the name has some kind of relevance but, given that there are a host of eligible people’s names that are not used, the decision to choose place names is difficult to understand. Headmaster Shaw was one of the first to recognise the importance of technical subjects, though he promoted them outside the grammar school curriculum.
- Skills centre [no name]. The skills centre came into existence partly at least as a result of the closure of Rycotewood College that specialised in agricultural machinery and furniture making. The college’s closure meant that there was no institution in or even near Thame that provided a suitable education for whose gifts were manual rather than academic. The Skills Centre filled the gap and Rycotewood would have been the obvious place-name, but that is used, inexplicably, as the name of the English department building.
- Syson (Science) Syson was a distinguished Old Tamensian and a great supporter of the school after he left. He donated a prize for Speaking back in the 1950s, and the new biology block in the 1970s was named after him. It is appropriate, therefore that the latest science centre should also bear his name.
- Clark (Mathematics) Anne Clark likewise has been and still is a leading supporter of the school since being elected as a Parent Governor (of two girls) in the 1980s. Chair various committees, and of the whole governing body for eight years; combining all this service with an impressive record as a university research scientist. Unsurprisingly as the school has only been co-educational for the last 50 of its 450 years, all but two of the other names on the buildings are of males. It is good that the school has begun to redress this imbalance.
- Lally Freedland (Modern Languages). Another very popular and dedicated teacher, the first one specifically appointed to teach slow learners. Sadly she died young after the death of her firstborn. Why she is now linked with Modern Language teaching is unclear.
- Elliots. [no function given but probably a store] This was the name of one of the types of temporary classroom that littered the site for many years. It may be so named as one of the few survivors of that architecturally unhappy period.
- Vocational Courses [no name] No obviously relevant name but various possible long-serving teachers or instructors in the grammar school era would be appropriate.
- Squash Courts. Goodall was the driving force behind the building of the court, funded largely by OTs and parents, and built mostly by teachers and students, but assistant master Mike Le Mesurier, father of the outstanding sports OT Rachel in the 1980s played a major part in promoting its use. I’m guessing Rachel was his daughter. Another possible candidate is Dick Mainwaring, a marvelous sporting coach in many games, including squash.
- Old Pavilion. [current use unspecified but seemingly a store] The school’s first cricket pavilion dates from 1909. Like the Squash Court it was the result of a massive fund-raising effort. It was opened by the then MP for Oxford Valentine Fleming (father of the James Bond author) in a big ceremony. His name could appropriately be given to the building. If it is that one. I’m not sure. However, in its present-day rather sad and shabby state it doesn’t merit a name, nor does it carry a plaque. As with Elliots, however, it deserves its place on the map as a reminder of an earlier era when the cricket field was in an entirely different part of the school grounds.
- Heads of Year, Careers & Connexions (Library and School Support) [no name] Only Student Support Services are actually mentioned on the plaque. The inclusion of the library in the building’s use would suggest naming it after an academic OT from the early years, perhaps Pocock, Professor of Arabic at Oxford in the 1630s. (Whether distinguished OTs from the era of the school’s original foundation should be included is considered in relation to Etherege – see below 17.)
- Lestor (Learning Support) This is Joan Lestor, former Under Secretary of State for Education, who opened the Lower School West buildings in 1975. Since LSW closed 20 years later the buildings have been used for a variety of different purposes. Historically therefore this pairing makes sense. Whilst the idea naming any school building after a government minister might be judged inappropriate, Joan Lestor is a worthy exception. A conviction rather than a careerist Socialist MP, a minister in several government departments, she spent much of her working life, both inside and outside parliament, working on behalf of disadvantaged children and at one point resigned her ministerial post because of government cuts to education. A politician therefore to admire and a most appropriate person for the building’s current purpose, though as described above Lally Friedland perhaps has an even stronger claim.
- Etherege (PE & Sports College). This is the most bizarre of all the pairings although the name plaque and the function plaque are on opposite sides of the building. Sir George Etherege followed a dual career in the later 17thcentury, alternating as a court dramatist and foreign ambassador, probably the only OT ever to combine both professions. He has no known connection with PE or sport and, as already mentioned, although there are other possibilities, he would have been a good candidate to have given his name to the English department. Good that is if it is considerate appropriate to use the names of former pupils who have no connection with the school’s present buildings. Etherege is the only one, despite a galaxy of other 17th century distinguished OTs. Why Etherege and not John Hampden, judges Croke and Holt, bishops Fell and King, and Anthony Wood, the antiquary and the first to write about the school? No building either to commemorate Harris, the school’s first headmaster, the most influential and one of the best and most long-serving.
- Quatremains [current use unspecified]. This too, is an odd choice as the Quartremaine family’s connection with the school is very limited. An important family in Thame in the later middle ages, it had died out by the time the school was founded. The almshouses provide the only link with the school. Founded by the family, the almshouses were re-founded by Lord Williams in the same year as he founded the school. For centuries afterwards the responsibility for managing both institutions lay with the headmasters and New College.
- Day Nursery/Communication and Interaction Resource Base [no name]. Joan Lestor’s name would have been appropriate for this building, as one of her ministerial posts was for nursery education.
- Rycotewood (English & Café Talk). The inappropriateness of this pairing has already been mentioned
- Thame Leisure Centre (Swimming Pool Facilities) [no name] Although now a single building, the Leisure Centre (originally Sports and Arts) and the swimming pool are effectively two separate buildings erected at different times. It is strange that neither, which serve both the school and community, is named. The headmaster most closely associated with swimming was Walter Bye in the 1920s, a much smaller, open air pool, but at the time a great improvement on Jemmett’s Hole, a muddy stretch of Thame river. Historically, the longest serving PE instructor was Mr Purnell.
Omissions from the list in the map but with plaques
A walk around the outside of the school reveals a few buildings and/or names that do not appear on the map. In no particular order:
- KS4 Pastoral Support
- Main Kitchen. Particularly for boarders, food was an important, if rarely praised, part of their lives. Perhaps one of the long-serving and hard-working school cooks, Nancy Castle deserves to be commemorated.
- Land and Environment
Names strangely omitted
As with any list such as ‘the best ten films, plays, TV comedies’, the selection below, in addition to those already suggested, is partly a matter of personal preference but the following would seem to deserve ‘a place in the sun’. It is possible that some of these already have rooms within the school, but at the time of writing the school is closed so this cannot be checked.
In addition to Harris, already mentioned:
- Headmaster Alfred Shaw, belatedly commemorated on a small meeting room in the new Clark mathematics building. Better than nothing but an ironic location as maths was one of the few subjects that Shaw, primarily a linguist, did not teach. A better candidate for that room would be the school’s only mathematician headmaster Bye.
- Norreys (family). Lord Williams’s successors for 100 years, the family that ultimately chose new headmasters from a shortlist of two proposed by New College.
- Bertie, later Earls of Abingdon, the family that succeeded the Norreys family for another 100 years and were still associated with the school into the twentieth century.
- Philip Wykeham, not the original William of Wykeham, but a direct descendant of Lord Williams and a governor for 42 years, 26 of those as chairman, probably a record.
- Peter More, 1949-82, Geography teacher, leader of many school trips abroad, later deputy head, and for a term acting head before Goodall’s arrival. The kind of efficient, loyal deputy that every school needs if it is to function properly.
- Betty Sadler, the first Senior Mistress, a key role in integrating girls into a school that had been male single-sex for 400 years that she performed most successfully
- John Fulkes, long-serving assistant teacher, head of sixth form, passionate and skilful cricketer who fostered close relations between the school and the town and served twice as Mayor of Thame.
- Jackie Kiers, who did for dance what Goodall did for music, introducing it successfully into the curriculum while the school was still a boys’ grammar and making brilliant use of the wider opportunities provided by comprehensive reorganisation, continuing to make the school a centre of excellence even after being severely injured in a horrendous car accident.
There are many distinguished OTs, both present-day and in the recent past and it would be invidious to select one set of names at the expense of others. OTs past and present will no doubt have their own strong candidates. Other long-serving and highly successful staff from all eras since 1879 would also be worthy of the perpetuation of their names.
As stated at the start, the school’s policy of naming its buildings – and interior rooms – is much to be welcomed for a variety of reasons already discussed, but it could be argued that it is unfinished business and that there are plenty of candidates for so far un-named buildings and teaching spaces that would potentially serve as a further reminder for current pupils of their school’s long and successful history. Perhaps, when the present plaques grow shabby and need to be replaced, some of the more bizarre pairings might be amended – and a correct version of the school crest used!
Honorary School Archivist, May 2020