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Bedfordshire Middle Class Public School

Bedfordshire Middle Class Public School at the time of its opening [Z50/67/67]
Bedfordshire Middle Class Public School at the time of its opening [Z50/67/67]

The Bedfordshire Middle Class Public School Company Limited was created in 1867 with the express purpose of building a school in the county. Two years later that school, in Ampthill Road, Kempston opened. The principal subscribers were, as might be expected, the principal men of the county: the Duke of Bedford subscribed £10,000, Samuel Whitbread (Liberal MP for Bedford 1852-1895) £2,000 and Earl Cowper (who was Lord Lieutenant), Colonel Higgins of Turvey and Charles Magniac (who would be Liberal MP for Bedford 1880-1885) £1,000 each.

The site was 22 acres and 2 perches of which 19 acres 3 roods 27 perches had been purchased from the Duke for £3,000 and 2 acres and 15 perches from the Midland Railway Company for £418/15/-. The design for the school was the subject of a public competition, won by Frederick Peel of London and it was built by William Huddleston of Lincoln. The building was of red brick and stood three storeys high, the front was about 300 feet long; over 300 boys were eventually accommodated in the seven dormitories. The total cost was £27,500.

The school opened with 70 boys a total which had risen to 105 two months later, of these 60 were farmers' sons the rest being sons of tradesmen and other businessmen; ages ranged from 9 to 18 and only 39 of the boys came from Bedfordshire. The Harpur Trust saw the school as direct competition and in 1873 met the challenge by admitting children from anywhere rather than just from Bedford as had been the case hitherto.

The high point of 315 boys in 1870 was too many and conditions became very cramped and around 200 was later considered to be the most desirable number. In 1875 the school changed its name to Bedford County School because, as the Bedfordshire Times reported: "The word Class grows more and more odious and its disappearance from the name of a public institution must have an advantageous effect".

The school had been left with a mortgage debt when the cost of building it exceeded estimates. In 1898 this debt was £3,000 and in that year Bedford County School Limited (the renamed Bedfordshire Middle Class Public School Company Limited) was wound up and the buildings, furniture and good will conveyed to Rev. Farrar for £10,000. Farrar introduced electric light into the school as well as hot water for the dormitories. He also built a new library and cricket pavilion and improved the sanatorium and chapel. Perhaps as a response to the Boer War he set up a School Corps in 1900, which became part of the Officer Training Corps in 1907. It was in this year that the school underwent its third and last name change to Elstow School - presumably Kempston School did not sound so grand; the new name is misleading as the whole site is well within the boundary of the parish of Kempston.

The school was, like most public schools, very keen on sport. Cricket in particular was taken very seriously and the averages are included in the Wisden Cricketers Almanacs of the period. One of its pupils was Percy William Sherwell (1880-1948). He had been born in Natal [South Africa] and was one of the many overseas students to attend the school. A wicket keeper and opening batsman, he played for Transvaal and appeared in 13 test matches for South Africa, all as captain, between 1905/6 and 1910/11 (making 427 runs at 23.72 with a highest score of 115, against England at Lord's in 1907). In the photograph below, from 1894 the boys are (right to left): back row: B. Whittaker; J. L. Macassey; G. C. B. Méiviélle; P. A. Maynard; A. E. Mills; middle roe: W. B. Sherwell (brother of P. W. Sherwell); N. Duckworth; E. O. Warden (captain); C. G. B. Abrahams; R. Morgan; front row: R. Orton; J. Warden

The First XI 1894 [Z845/1]
The First XI 1894 [Z845/1]

The school closed in 1916, partly due to the Great War - the buildings had been requisitioned for use as a military college and the numbers of boys had fallen greatly because many attended the school from overseas. The other main reason for closure was the age and ill health of the headmaster. Farrar sold the buildings in 1920 to the Cosmic Crayon Company and in 1922 they were being leased, in part at least, by Taylor's the box makers. The buildings were demolished as late as 1964 to make way for the offices of Robinson Rental, later Granada TV Rentals and at the time of writing [2013] offices including those of Central Bedfordshire Council. The school's war memorial was transferred to Elstow Abbey along with the communion table from the chapel.

The headmasters of the school were as follows:

  • Rev. William Groome: 1869-1871 (previously headmaster of Rossall School in Lancashire, he died in 1871;
  • Edward E. Morris: 1871-1874 (he left to become Headmaster of Melbourne Grammar School in Australia);
  • Charles William Bourne: 1874-1881 (formerly of Marlborough College and later Headmaster of King's College School, London);
  • Thomas Henderson: 1881-1893;
  • Rev. Charles Frederick Farrar: 1893-1916 (grandson of Bedford engineer John Howard and formerly of Manchester Grammar School) 

Sources

  • Bedfordshire Historical Records Society volume 110 article by Sylvia M.Woods "A Remarkable School";
  • X373/399: photograph: C19th;
  • X204/1-13: deeds and account book: 1858-1898;
  • AB/RD/A1/12: discussions at Rural Deanery meeting: c.1865-1880;
  • CRT130Elstow2: articles on school: 1868-1869;
  • CRT130/MEMP41: drawing of school: 1868;
  • P81/6/4-5: correspondence regarding communicating drain with Castle Brewery: 1869-1884;
  • AD1100: subscription "to be invested for deserving boys leaving": 1869;
  • X95/206: report of clerk: 1869;
  • AD3238/8-9: prospectus and press advertisements: 1869-1880;
  • Z50/67/67: photograph of school: 1870s;
  • AD4008-4012: certificates presented to pupil: 1870-1877;
  • Z210/138: Midsummer yearbook: 1870;
  • X393/7 p.1: engraving of school exterior: 1870;
  • X291/242/1: picture and newspaper cutting: 1870;
  • X95/361: address by pupils to Earl Cowper on his marriage: 1870;
  • Z426/6-7: meteorological observations kept by school: 1872-1874;
  • X67/681: circulars regarding company meeting: 1872;
  • WY910: receipts for shares in company: 1872;
  • Z336: certificate for history and geography issued to pupil: 1874;
  • Z50/143/179a-b: photograph with two views - one of them of the County School: late C19th;
  • X271/78-79: Lord Lieutenant's prizes for ancient languages and mathematics: late 19th century
  • X271/14-77: school magazines, year books and letters from old boys: 1876-1973;
  • X67/692-693: reports of company directors: 1876-1879;
  • Fac103/6: school report for pupil: 1876;
  • transcription of census return for school in Bedfordshire Family History SocietyJournal Vol.8 no.6 p.11: 1881;
  • CRT180/441: notes on former pupil C.H.G.Aston: 1888;
  • CRT180/241: information on pupils the Sherwell brothers: 1890s;
  • CRT180/492: Notes on Sir Richard Runciman Terry's association with the school: 1890-1892;
  • Z845/1-2: photographs of cricket XI: 1894;
  • BP44: photograph of masters in scrapbook: 1897;
  • X271/18: The Elstonian magazine of old boys: 1897-1900;
  • Z860/1: photograph of hockey match against United Universities: 1898-1907;
  • X271/38: photograph of pupils: early C20th;
  • X271/5/1-2: pupil and old boy registers: c.1900-1963;
  • X291/438: prospectus: c.1900;
  • CDE80/1-10: plans of new latrines: c.1900;
  • Z49/875: photograph of school: c.1900;
  • AD1082/3: newspaper report of fire at school: 1901;
  • X271/11: photographs of war memorials and other plaques: 1902-1953;
  • CRT150/156: recollections of former pupil S.F.R.Hunt: 1905-1908;
  • 130 Kem: Elstow School prospectus: c.1907;
  • Z160/315: mathematical tables in use in school: 1908;
  • X291/204: postcard showing the school: c.1910;
  • X396/90: postcard showing the school: c.1910;
  • X271/39: photographs of dining hall and chapel: c.1914;
  • Z624/1: photograph of Russell House senior and junior gym teams: 1916;
  • Z726/1: commemorative volume presented to James Shorter, clerk since 1869: 1916;
  • Z160/286: photograph of soldiers outside school: c.1916;
  • P128/8/2: Elstow vestry minutes regarding plaques and chapel fittings from school: 1920;
  • P128/2/3/2-3: Elstow church faculties for communion table, brass and war memorial: 1921-1922;
  • AD1082/4: newspaper report of fire at Taylor's Box Factory in old school premises: 1922;
  • CRT180/505: obituary of former pupil: 1927;
  • P128/2/3/7: metal from sports cups melted down to make cross for Elstow Abbey: 1933;
  • CRT180/545: obituary of former pupil and Bedfordshire cricketer H.R.Orr: 1940;
  • P128/2/3/17: faculty for memorial window to William Groome, the first headmaster: 1963;
  • Z49/114-115: photographs taken just before demolition: 1964.