The Girls Grammar school, Thame and the origins of Holton Park Girls Grammar School

There are various snippets about Holton Park in our archives but we thought it would be useful to create a summary of these as well as including more of our original research, and information from Marilyn Yurdan’s book, School Songs and Gymslips – available via Amazon.

There had always been a strong connection between LWGS and Holton Park when both were grammar schools: pupils shared lessons; joint concerts were held; pupils took roles in plays and musicals – the list was endless in the 1960s and included sharing the infamous Blue Bus to take pupils to and from school. Then the two school turned comprehensive in 1971 and they went their separate ways.

But the connections went right back to the 19th century when the girls school was originally founded in Thame. Marilyn Yurdon writes that its origins were a private school for girls which opened in 1849. At this time, Thame could boast of a number of other private schools including the Oxford County School that, for a while, was more successful than Lord Williams’s.

Indeed the  girls grammar school started as a private school in a building situated next to the Wesleyan Chapel in 1849. This school was acquired by Mrs. J. Pearce, formerly a mistress at Thame’s National school, in 1870 and remained as a private school.

In 1877, the school had been renamed the Girls Grammar School Thame and moved into the old LWGS building on Church Road (LWGS of course had relocated to a new site on the Oxford Road.)

At this time, the school’s motto Palma Non Sine Pulvere ‘No reward without effort’ was adopted.

In 1889, the school (but not the buildings) was acquired by three spinsters: a Miss Ellen Dodwell and two partners, Miss Emilie Hughes and Miss Emma Annie Cowell and was again renamed to The Old Grammar School for Girls. (They remained though in the Old Grammar School building.)

Subjects taught at this time included English, Mathematics, Science, Latin, French, German, Music, Drawing, Painting and Fancy Needlework. The school buildings were said to be commodious and standing in their own grounds with a tennis court. Hockey was played on what is now the ground of Thame Cricket Club adjacent to St Mary’s.

Boarders paid £12.12s per term – though some lessons such as music were extra.

In 1903, an inspection of the school by the local education authority stated that it was run in a satisfactory way, ‘and has every appearance of being well conducted and a refined atmosphere.’

In 1906, Miss Dodwell successfully applied to the Oxfordshire Education Committee for the school to be recognised as a Pupil Teacher Centre. (This meant that they could formally teach trainee teachers with the benefit that they could increase the number of pupils and receive some additional income from the LEA.)

In 1908, with pupil numbers growing, another moved took place, this time to the High Street in the buildings that had just been vacated by the Oxford County School. A contemporary record notes that the buildings comprised of a fine dining hall, assembly hall, five classrooms, gymnasium and a 32′ x 18′ swimming bath, all approached through an ancient 16th century archway that had been part of the original house on the site. The Girls Grammar was now formally recognised and inspected as a secondary school by the Oxfordshire Education Committee. It had four pupil-teachers on the roll in 1909, 54 day pupils and it also continued to take boarders who numbered 29. Most entered the school around the age of 12 and would stay until they were 16; no more than a handful would stay on for another one or two years. Yearly fees were £7.17s for tuition. Boarders paid £31.10s for their board and accommodation.

The school also ran a kindergarten for both boys and girls.

An inspection from 1913 records that the school had 8 teaching assistants in addition to the three owners. Fees had remained largely the same but school numbers had increased to 114 with 12 boys still attending the kindergarten. However, only 5 girls were aged 17 or over so most still continued to leave when they were fifteen or sixteen.  (The report noted that most of these younger leavers went back to home, a few passed on to other schools and very few became teachers. They were not aware of any girls going into business.) The Inspectors thought that for a small school, the buildings were ‘exceptionally good’ for a private school charging low fees in a small country town.

The teaching was said to be good with girls being entered for the Preliminary, Junior and Oxford Local Examinations.  The usual curriculum for secondary schools was followed with French being the main foreign language taught; science was well-provided for but the only domestic science subject was needlework.

When Miss Dowel and her two partners retired in 1917, a limited liability company was formed to manage the school with two new owners: Miss May Hockley (1882 – 1966)  and Miss Clara Sophia Messenger (1880 – 1970) as principals. (Both were teachers; we know that Miss Hockley had come from Clapham High School where she was Senior Mistress.) They brought in new staff whose salaries ranged from £75 to £140 per annum. (Most of the old staff left.)

Miss Messenger – who was a member of a well-known Oxfordshire family of auctioneers – looked after the secretarial and domestic side of the school including the catering and housekeeping.

In 1919, the first issue of a school magazine was published. Called The Grammarran it ran to 14 pages, and was printed by Castle Printers, in Thame. To date, we have found only one copy of the magazine, and only the first issue so it is unknown how long it lasted.

It does, though, provide a snap-shot of life at the school, shortly after the 1st World War had ended. The over-riding impression is that there was a light hearted air to the school. The youngest girls were called ‘babies’; flowers were brought in and displayed in all the classrooms – which themselves had been painted in bright colours. The dining room was painted blue with a green dado, and the seventeen boarders bedrooms had been painted with a rose-print wallpaper. A Fancy Dress Ball was held in the Town Hall. On the other hand, Miss Hockley emphasise that the world was still facing the most difficult of times: obsession, exhaustion, and huge destruction all of which meant that ‘a stupendous task of reconstruction’ lay ahead, and the girls had to face up to their responsibilities when they became adults.

In February 1919, great fun was had when the whole school went ice skating on the frozen meadows below the church. Besides plenty of tumbles, it was noted that some unwary souls ventured to areas where the ice was thin with not unexpected consequences.

That same month, the aforementioned Fancy Dress Ball took place. Costumes were made, and cakes, tarts, custard jellies, and sausage rolls were baked. Costumes included Red Indians, Japanese, a Jockey, Boating Couple, a Pied Piper and a Jester, as well as various stately Victorian ladies.

Exams taken included the Senior Oxford, Junior Oxford, various music exams from the RAM and RSM Boards, a drawing exam set by the Royal Drawing Society, and a German Language Association exam.

Various outside speakers visited the school including a Serbian priest and representatives of various Christian missionary societies. Madame Bertha Moore gave a concert; a French concert was mounted by the pupils. The Rev A R Runnels-Moss, was a well-known expert on Dickens, and he toured the country giving recitals of various works. In May 1919 he came to the school where he enacted excerpts from Nicholas Nickleby.

Form VI was the smallest class and at the time had only a handful of girls studying for their Matric exam. The Middle IV had 24 girls of whom nineteen were boarders and five day-girls. The Lower IV had 23 girls; Lower III, fifteen girls of whom five were boarders. It also had three boys in the class (at least temporarily). Finally Upper I had ten pupils.

By 1920, with the country slowly returning to some semblance of normality the school had 9 full time and 5 part-time teachers with 135 girls on the roll – all of whom were still fee paying, and 76 were boarders. (Though the fees had now gone up to a £11 per year for day scholars and £53 for boarders.)  The school was ordered around 7 classes: Form VI, Middle V, Lower V, Middle IV, Lower IV. Lower III and Upper I; and two Houses, called Hampden and Wykeham.

Sport included hockey, netball, tennis, and swimming.

The teachers included Miss Hancox, Miss Barbour, Miss East, Miss Jackson, Miss Buckman, Miss Stewart, Miss Grimwood, Miss Daniels, Miss Lythall, and Miss Joce.

At this time, the school was still the only grammar school for girls covering east Oxfordshire and west Buckinghamshire and hence took on an important role even though it was private. Interestingly, it was noted that none of the teaching staff were graduates but despite none having paper qualifications, the quality of teaching was good. Indeed they were described as ‘a competent body of women.’

In 1920, an Old Girls Association was formed. Reunions were held annually at the school and subscribing members received the Grammarian, the now twice-yearly school magazine.

Until the Geddes economy measures of 1921 the County Education Committee subsidized the school by an annual grant of £125 and made grants for natural science and domestic science equipment. It then appears that the school had to rely on its fee income.

During the in-between war years it enjoyed a roll of around 150 pupils so was similar in size to LWGS.

By 1929 May Hockley had written to the Oxfordshire Education Committee, ‘Dear Sirs, I shall be obliged if you will give me full information as to i) the conditions under which the Board of Education would arrange to take over a private school such as this and ii) the adjustments which would be entailed.’

The Board wrote back and said it had no powers for the purchase of schools but that she might like to write to the local education authority.

In 1931 there were 140 pupils of which 60 were boarders. (And Misses Hockley and Messenger remained the joint Principals.) However, financially it was slowly finding life more difficult. The need for the school to increasingly lose its independence and be under greater control of the LEA increased: initially the LEA was prepared to give money in the form of grants for buildings and equipment and scholarships for pupils.

In 1933, the school was sued for neglect of a pupil boarding at the school.  Mr Thomas Stanley Stewart of Golders Green claimed that the school had ignored his daughter’s Gwendoline complaint of pains and this led to her having to undergo an emergency operation. (The outcome of the case is unknown.)

In the 1939 Census, 25 boarders were recorded (though this doesn’t mean this was the full complement.) Ten teachers were on record (all female and single), and three servants.

In 1943, it ceased to be a boarding school but day girls were coming to Thame from all parts of the County, and Miss Hockley announced that they were thinking of moving the school closer to Oxford. However no move happened.

In 1948 there were 110 county scholars, 30 fee payers and 35 in the preparatory department. This same year the two principals retired, the school was taken over fully by the Oxfordshire Education Committee, and the school moved out of Thame: initially to Water Eaton Manor with 132 pupils including a preparatory class. There were the girls in the fifth year but apparently no sixth form. Then in 1949 Holton House and 30 acres of land were bought by the Oxfordshire Education Committee to be turned into a county grammar school for girls. It had now come under the full control of the Oxfordshire Education Committee and a good proportion of the girls came from Thame. The preparatory class was dropped and a sixth form class was established.

In 1952, The Girls Grammar School (Thame) Ltd was formally wound up by the Chairman E P Messenger, having ceased trading after the school had been taken over by the Oxfordshire EC.

By 1953 the attendance was 165 and in 1955 the school had 171 pupils including 18 in the sixth form. (LWGS had 180 pupils with 29 in the 6th form in 1957.) The reason for the discrepancy in 6th form numbers was clear: many girls were not allowed by their parents to carry-on with full-time education after the age of 15 or 16 and were expected to go out and work.

At this time, all the teaching was carried out in Holton Park House – a magnificent building surrounded by a moat and extensive ground – but both LWGS and HPGS had new buildings added in 1963 reflecting the increasing number of pupils that were being admitted: indeed these buildings were identical other than being mirror images of each other. consisting of a kitchen, main hall, gym, library and staff rooms.

In terms of teaching staff, this reflected the singe-sex status of the two schools: HPGS was mainly women and LWGS mainly men.

Indeed in terms of success, number of pupils, subjects taught and so on the two schools were all but one: in fact they were viewed by the local education authority as being twin schools that happened to be some seven miles apart. Not surprisingly, in the early 1960s the LEA discussed the advantages (mainly economic) of merging the two schools into one grammar school. However in the mid 1960s plans were put into place to create comprehensive schools in the County. While some thought was given to again merging the two schools – along with the Wenman and Wheatley Secondary Modern – it was felt that it was both too costly to build a mega-campus and that the school would just be too big.

In October 1966, Miss Hockley died, and four years later in 1970, Miss Messenger died at the age of 91.

In 1971 when both schools became comprehensive they went their separate ways. The connection with Thame was also lost as the catchment areas were amended: LWS took all pupils from Thame (and much of East Oxfordshire) whereas Holton Park, which now became Wheatley Park, took pupils from central Oxfordshire.

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