Plaque erected at the Site of Sudbury Grammar School founded 1491
During the 15th century the site now occupied by William Wood House and its grounds was a small farmstead, the boundaries of which seem to have changed little up to the present day. For a time it was occupied by a certain John Hille, whose dwelling almost certainly stood in the important lane (now in part known as School Street), which ran from St. Gregory’s church to the Dominican priory in modern Friars Street. At some stage the property was acquired by William Wood, the scholarly priest who was Warden of Sudbury College, which had been founded by Simon of Sudbury and his brother about 1375. An important figure in the town, Wood was also the rector of the collegiate church of St. Gregory, in the sanctuary of which he asked to be buried when he made his will in April 1491. He also left in trust Hille’s former house and land to provide in perpetuity a school where ‘a worthy and honest man’ should live and teach boys grammar.
Wood died in 1493 and during the next two centuries there are only brief glimpses of his foundation. By 1568 the profits of the land attached to the schoolhouse had been substantially augmented by the rent of a farm at Little Maplestead, the donor of which is unknown. After the Dissolution, the patronage of St. Gregory’s church and its chapel of ease, St. Peter’s, together with that of the grammar school, passed into the hands of successive owners of the former College, not all of whom respected Wood’s wishes. In the early 17th century, six poor scholars regularly received a free education, and ‘with the good liking of the townsmen … very many others have been taught there’. However, by the 1630’s the school was ‘very much decayed’ and only ‘rich men’s sons’ were accepted, owing to the machinations of the unscrupulous patrons, John and Oliver Andrew. Fortunately, the practice of teaching six poor boys was soon resumed and continued until the late 19th century.
About 1700 the schoolhouse was occupied by Alderman Thomas Smith, and later, at a rent of £6 per annum, by Thomas Roberts, a say weaver, ‘he covenanting to keep and leave the glass windows in good repair’. Whether the school was then moribund or carried on elsewhere is not clear, but the Revd. Humphrey Burrough seems subsequently to have taught boys in the original building. Burrough, curate-in-charge of St. Gregory’s, was the uncle of the artist Thomas Gainsborough, and the boy (and probably his brothers) received tuition at the school. According to Gainsborough himself, his picture Cornard Wood ‘was begun before I left school, and was the means of my father’s sending me to London’ in 1740, when only thirteen years of age.
From 1785 until 1817, the Revd. William Finley was the Master, and latterly taught about sixty day pupils and boarders. Like his predecessors, he received the Little Maplestead farm rent as part of his salary, but at his death, the patron, Sir Lachlan Maclean, M.D., claimed the income for himself. Instead of appointing a new Master, he spent £700 rebuilding the old two-storeyed, half-timbered schoolhouse and let it out to the Revd. Simon Young at a nominal rent, on condition that he continued the tradition of teaching six poor scholars. These actions caused considerable local resentment, and in 1830 a lawsuit began which continued for many years, during which, from 1841, the school was closed. Maclean eventually lost the case, and on 26 July 1858 a scheme was approved by the Court of Chancery for the management of a newly constituted Sudbury Grammar School.
Already, in 1857, plans had been drawn up to replace the existing building with the one which now forms the oldest part of William Wood House. The ‘new school room and master’s house’, which cost about £2,500, was designed by a London architect, Robert Philip Pope, and was built by a Long Melford firm. Strict economy had to be practised throughout. Materials from the demolished building were re-used, and one proposed feature, a bell tower ‘to rehang the present bell’, was reluctantly removed from Pope’s original plan.
The new school opened on 1 February 1858, the Master, the Revd. John Cooke, being the sole member of staff. The 26 pupils ranged in age from eight to fourteen and came from both Sudbury and the surrounding villages. During the next few years it struggled to survive, until in 1880 it was provided with a Board of governors in accordance with the 1878 Education Act. Nevertheless, the 1880’s saw a decline in numbers which was attributed to the prolonged economic depression, but the appointment in 1888 of the enterprising W. G. Normandale proved to be a turning point. In 1895 there were 38 day boys and 24 boarders, the highest roll recorded for almost eighty years.
Normandale’s boarders were drawn from far afield. Testimonials and letters survive from parents living not only in many parts of East Anglia and London, but also from as distant as New York and Pittsburg. One wrote sycophantically to the Headmaster: ‘I am more than pleased to express my entire satisfaction at the progress my son has made under (your) kind care. When he left home he was very delicate, but one year has worked wonders; he looks robust and happy.’
Some old boys have written their own accounts, not necessarily in the same adulatory terms, of living-in. An extant list of items required by a boarder is extremely comprehensive and clearly made considerable financial demands on pupils’ parents, who paid £40 boarding and £10 tuition fees. The boarding house closed in 1932, and the accommodation was little used for the next twenty years.
Despite the lack of facilities and the small intake, the school produced during the nineteenth century a surprising number of distinguished old boys. A pupil in the 1830’s was George Murray Humphry, later Professor of Surgery at Cambridge University, who was knighted in 1891. According to his obituarist, he ‘always had a pleasing remembrance’ of the school, and ‘spoke of it in the highest terms’. Another distinguished medical man who, with his brother, was a pupil in 1862, was Sir Leander Starr Jameson, who led the abortive Jameson Raid in 1895, and was premier of Cape Colony, 1904-8. Roughly contemporary with him was William Holman Bentley, who became a Baptist missionary in Central Africa and translated the New Testament into Congoese. Another pupil a few years later was Henry Wickham Steed, journalist, lecturer and broadcaster, and editor of The Times from 1919 until 1922.
The recurrent financial problems that had beset the school over the years, and which had led to the sale of the Little Maplestead farm in 1891, continued into the new century. Science teaching to an acceptable Board of Education standard required the construction of a purpose-built laboratory block. The Governors, unable to afford this development, had little alternative but to seek the assistance of the local authority, and an appropriate extension to the main school was eventually built at a total cost of approximately £1,335 and remains as part of William Wood House. A contemporary plan shows that the school, in fact, was extended into a part of the public highway. It was clear that Sudbury Grammar School, which still had less than a hundred pupils, could no longer remain independent, and at their final meeting on 9 July 1909, the Governors authorised their clerk ‘to hand over all books and papers relating to the school to the West Suffolk County Council’.
In 1912 R. L. Gillingham was appointed science master, and four years later succeeded to the headship on the death in action of Capt. R. S. Smylie, the holder of that post. Smylie, who is commemorated in a stained-glass window in St. Gregory’s church, had in 1911 founded the Cadet Corps, which flourished until the closure of the school in 1972. Parades and training took place within the school quadrangle.
Pupil numbers were boosted to 150 in 1923, when Hadleigh Secondary School was closed and its boys transferred to Sudbury. They were the first ‘bus boys’ and their tales of escapades en route are worth the hearing. Hadleigh boys were all allocated to a new house, appropriately named Taylor, after the Hadleigh martyr. The other school houses, Humphry, Jameson and Gainsborough (which included the boarders) were named after famous old boys.
The arrival of the Hadleigh contingent presented an accommodation problem, and an ex-army hut, divisible into three classrooms, was provided. Unfortunately, at the start of term it was but a make-yourself-a-hut kit. Once erected, it did stirling service until the closure of the school, although not until 1964 were ceilings provided, and gas convector heaters replaced the coke stoves.
Although the boys enjoyed a relatively large playground, there were no proper playing fields until 1929, when the County Council provided in Acton Lane a twelve-acre field, wherein was built a pavilion. Its distance from the school was a disadvantage.
In the late thirties pupil numbers had grown to about 180 and new buildings were planned to alleviate the problem of increasingly overcrowded accommodation. It had been R. L. Gillingham’s strong wish that a new school be built on the Acton Lane site, the headmaster’s house being Wood Hall. He was over-ruled, and the development took place within the constricted school playground. The chestnut trees along Christopher Lane were felled at the end of the summer term, 1939, and footings for the new extension excavated in August. Despite the war, construction went ahead. A two-storey building was erected along School Street, and an assembly hall and stage (doubling as gymnasium and art room) in Christopher Lane. Plasterwork and fittings, except for bare essentials, were completed after the war, but the new wing was used from 1940, when Haverhill boys were transferred to Sudbury after the closure of their secondary school.
In the post-war period numbers increased steadily: 1952, 180; 1961, 220; 1966, 327; 1971, 404. Even with the new school buildings there was insufficient accommodation, especially because sixth-form numbers, under twenty pre-war, climbed to a hundred. Teaching spaces for small groups were at a premium. Some were provided in 1964, when the Headmaster’s house was absorbed into the school. ‘The whole of the first floor was converted into a handsome new library, with maple mahogany shelving’, it was reported, ‘…a library really worthy of the school.’
Other reallocations of space took place within the main building. Three years later extra hutted classrooms were provided in the garden, and a caravan classroom appeared in 1969. The spacious precincts of the 1857 school had ultimately been filled with clutter.
In 1966, West Suffolk County Council approved, in principle, of comprehensive education. The end of William Wood’s foundation was nigh. Work was started in the summer of 1970 on the new Sudbury Upper School, in Tudor Road, at a contract price of £600,000. The well-proportioned and distinctive façade of the 1857 building which cost £2,500, contrasts markedly with that of its replacement.
Sudbury Grammar School closed in 1972. All Saints Middle School occupied the site until it moved in 1987 to new accommodation on the very Acton Lane site spurned in 1939. The old buildings then were empty, abandoned and vandalised for four years. The once thriving, successful school had become but a scene of desolation.
It was none too soon that Babergh District Council acquired the site for development as sheltered accommodation. In 1991, the quincentenary of the founding of Sudbury Grammar School, the restoration of the listed 1857 building began.
Magnificent refurbishment has brought the school to its pristine glory. Names of old Grammarians, inscribed on the wall above the terrace, have been preserved. On the site of the 1940 buildings is a new suite of apartments in style well in keeping with the main edifice.
The name of the founder of the school was most appropriately given to the new and restored structures, the formal opening of which, in 1993, happily coincided with the five hundredth anniversary of William Wood’s death.
John Gambert Webb and Anthony R Wheeler
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Sudbury Grammar School Old Boys’ Association