A New History of St Edward’s

The first ever advertisement for St Edward’s School appeared in 1865. A ‘first class modern education’ was offered at the new establishment in central Oxford featuring ‘Classics, Mathematics and book-keeping, Drawing, French, Music, and the elements of Physical Science, twenty five guineas per annum; washing and the use of books, two guineas extra; there is an excellent playground.’

A New History of St Edward’s School, Oxford, 1863 — 2013 by Malcolm Oxley, published this week, provides a vivid narrative of the journey the School has taken from these early beginnings to the Teddies of today.

For the first time, the history of the School is set against its wider social context. St Edward’s was born of the Oxford Movement, a High Church impulse which strove to re-assert the importance of faith in the nation’s life in reaction to the secularization of the preceding 150 years. The Movement placed renewed emphasis on the rituals of worship, the needs of the poor, religious communities — and schools. Where better to lay the groundwork for a different kind of society than in schools? The education at St Edward’s was to be as much about Christian morality as academic work.  It is hard to believe today that this ideal was greeted with suspicion – and even hostility.

As well as a thoroughly-researched and serious account of the School’s history, the book is an engrossingly human story. We learn of the challenges of the early years in New Inn Hall Street: ‘Mackworth Hall was little more than a slum … there were rats everywhere’ and ‘some of the Masters slept in cupboards.’ Simeon, the first Warden, had to battle for the survival of the school, with its ‘few friends — and many enemies’, against daunting practical and financial challenges.

Today’s schools strive to provide the very highest standards of pastoral care. Readers will be surprised and occasionally horrified by the values that characterised St Edward’s at earlier stages in its history — values that would have been common to all schools at the time. In the early days, ‘teachers were hired [for the] classroom … had no supervisory duties … and had no obligation to take an interest in their pupils’. Even the values of the 1960s can seem alien today. The author recalls ‘the beating of a quite senior boy in the autumn of 1962 for practising his oboe when he should have been watching the 1st XV’.

There is humour too. Legislation during the Great War required the turning off of lights, so that ‘people kept bumping into each other in the Quad. Headlong collisions were staged to annoy the masters’. We learn that ‘bashers’, the straw boaters compulsory until 1965, were used to hide ice cream, and fish and chips. Though almost certainly not humorous to its enactors, the 1940s practice of ‘crow-hopping’ must have been quite a sight. Prefects were allowed to enforce this punishment for such trivial offences as looking at a senior pupil. The offending boy was required to ‘squat on his haunches, with the bible in one hand and a complete Shakespeare in the other, and hop up and down the day room.’  Despite the harshness of the early years, the history of St Edward’s as documented by Malcolm Oxley reveals a community very much at ease with itself, where relationships between all constituent parts were genial. Within the Common Room of the later years of the 20th century, there was, we are told, a tremendous sense of fun. The following exchange between the eleventh Warden, David Christie, and Geography teacher, Joe McPartlin, is perhaps indicative of that conviviality: Warden: ‘Have you prepared your lessons for tomorrow yet? JM: ‘Warden, I prepared them in 1963’ Warden: ‘Don’t you think you should bring them up to date? JM: ‘Not really, Warden, the Alps haven’t moved very far since then.’

There are, as one would expect, as many different views of the school’s past as there are former pupils. Patrick Lacey, at Teddies during WWI, records: ‘When all is said and done, our daily round in those days had a concentrated grimness … that lent itself pretty exclusively to the survival and pleasure of the fittest.’ Much more recently, Olivia Cooper reflects, ‘I could not have chosen a better place to study — I certainly worked harder and got far better grades enjoying myself at Teddies than I would ever have done elsewhere. I believe it helped to produce some of the most rounded, friendliest, most confident and loveable people I know. And I wouldn’t change a minute of it.’

Order a copy here.

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