1882 Demolition of the Old School

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John Saunders
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1882 Demolition of the Old School

Postby John Saunders » Tue Apr 04, 2017 6:34 pm

I came upon this heartfelt letter from an old boy of the school which was published in the South Bucks Free Press, on 9 June 1882:


To the Editor of the “South Bucks Free Press"

Sir.—In the year 1857 I had the good fortune to become a pupil at the Royal Grammar School in your good old town of High Wycombe, and for six years I remained an inmate of the Head Master's House. I can hardly doubt that this letter will meet the eyes of some few to whom the writer’s name will be familiar, even after the lapse of nearly twenty years, and this must be my excuse for departing at the outset from the matter I write about to pay a passing tribute of praise and respect to him who so ably and worthily filled the Head Master's chair during my sojourn at High Wycombe Grammar School.

Shortly after bidding a long farewell to High Wycombe, 19 years ago, I came to New Zealand, where I have been ever since, witnessing and sharing in the various vicissitudes common to life in a new country. Occasionally during these 19 years the mail has brought me a South Bucks Free Press directed in the well-known hand of my loved and respected friend and preceptor, the Rev. James Poulter. As I look over these papers I see names that I recognise as those of old schoolfellows, who like myself have shaken hands with boyhood and youth and who appear to have settled down to that lot in life which Providence has provided for them. I see the names of places too that I remember well—places dear to memory with thoughts of many a pleasant half-holiday ramble. Hughenden, Marlow, Beaconsfield, Wooburn, Missenden, and Prestwood bring to my mind many recollections of pleasant memories as I read the familiar names.

At one time I have been interested in reading an account of the distribution of prizes at my quondam alma mater, as I may well term the Grammar School. At another I have been gladdened by reading of the late Mr. Street's able restoration of your noble parish church. Yet again I have been cheered by reading your account of what fell from my old friend and schoolfellow, Mr. E. J. Payne, on the occasion of Mr. Poulter’s resignation: and of Hughenden and the illustrious dead recently interred there I need hardly speak, for Hughenden is now a household word the wide world through.

But can I believe what I read in your issue of January 13th [1882] to the effect that the Grammar School buildings are to be demolished? Dear as every stone in them is to me, I will not be so garrulous as to plead that the more modern parts should be left in statu if those competent to judge of the wants of a large and important town like Wycombe see fit to replace them with more suitable buildings in which to carry out the important work of the school. But do I understand that it is even contemplated to pull down the ancient parts of the building, the Norman arches and columns, and what I have been led to believe and think to be the original roofs, not to mention the north wall of the schoolroom? I devoutly hope that I am wrong; but the impression left on my mind, after reading the report of the meeting of the Governors of Charities held on January 11th [1882], is simply that by the time this letter reaches you this unique relic—as I believe it to be—of mediaeval England will he swept from the face of the earth.

The contemplation of such a catastrophe must be my excuse for troubling you with this letter. Were the building to be destroyed it would be a loss not only to Wycombe and the county of Buckingham but to England, for when I spoke of the older parts of the Grammar School being unique I used no figure of speech. The style of architecture in which they are built is comparatively common, I know, but the building itself, I contend, is without a fellow in England, though something of the kind may be found at Angers and elsewhere in France. I have met archaeological students even here in New Zealand who have questioned me with keen interest about the Grammar School on learning that "I hailed”—as we say in the colonies—from High Wycombe.

Of course I am at a disadvantage writing from this distance, and seeing only an occasional Wycombe paper, but the archaeological tastes I imbibed at Wycombe are still too strong upon me to allow of my keeping silence. Averse as I am to rush into print. and without having any ambition to be an alarmist, nothing would please me more —if you see fit to publish this letter—than to receive a copy of your paper containing this, with an editorial note to the effort that I have hit on a mare's nest. If I am correct, though, the whole thing is too terrible to contemplate, and is deeply to be deplored. Did not Mr. Brandon, the well-known architect, survey the Grammar School years ago with a view to its restoration? Since then I know Mr. Payne, above alluded to, prepared a design to this end, for I have a small photograph of it: and later still I saw a design in the Building News by Mr Vernon, whom I think I may claim as a schoolfellow. However, I shall be glad of information, and I hope some charitable friend of twenty years ago who recognizes my name will remember me with an occasional Free Press. that will enlighten me as to what is going to be done with one of the
most interesting buildings in England.

Apologizing for the length of my letter,

I am sir, faithfully yours,

Philip Cuthbert Anderson,
Clerk in Holy Orders

Christchurch, New Zealand
Easter Monday 1882

A note on the author: his vital dates were 14 August 1848 - 24 December 1932, so he lived a long life as a clergyman in Australasia. (More details here.)

Rev. James Poulter, was of course the headmaster of the school from 1852 to 1879. EJ Payne was a scholar at the school in 1856/57 and went on to gain a first at Magdalen Hall [Hertford College], Oxford, before going on to have a varied and distinguished career (see page 13 of JI Mitchell's photographic history of the school). Arthur Vernon was the architect of both the 1883 and 1914 school buildings. The 'illustrious dead' buried at Hughenden was of course Benjamin Disraeli, interred there the previous year.

Turning to Rev. Anderson's letter, one can't help feeling great sympathy with him, learning of the imminent fate of the lovely old building where he had been taught. As we know, in the end the Norman arches and columns did survive, after a fashion. It was a case of 'the operation was successful, but the patient died.' The school history tells the story, around page 51. Because of the penny-pinching and vacillation of local Wycombe administrators, the Norman arches and columns weren't incorporated into the fabric of the new building. They still stand but look dismal and unloved, in front of Vernon's no doubt functional but unattractive 1883 school building in Easton Street. I am sure I am not alone amongst old boys in having looked wistfully at the mid-Victorian images of the mediaeval school, not unlike an Oxbridge college, and imagined it as part of a much more attractive school building that could have survived into our own time.
John Saunders
RGS 1963-70 (personal website http://www.saund.co.uk)