Thame Grammar Schools


The best examples of the 16thC are Lord Williams’s Almshouses & his Grammar School.  The Almshouses were apparently built after 1550 when Lord Williams succeeded to the Chantry Property and before his death in 1559.  They replaced the original Quatremain Hospital which Leland said stood close by the Church and which Camden, writing in 1586, said no longer existed.  The present Building (now partly private Cottages & partly Store-rooms) is a picturesque Range of Timber-framed, 2-Storeyed Cottages set at right-angles to the High Street.  The Top-Storey Oversails and is supported on carved brackets.  There is a Central Angular Bay on each Floor. There were once 6-Cottages of 2-rooms each.  Externally except for some 19thC windows they have been little altered.  Buckler’s drawing of 1821 shows them when they were still 6 Almshouses.


The Grammar School, once used by Messrs Pursers as Offices and Store-rooms, was built in 1569.  The School was Founded by Lord Williams of Thame who upon his death on 14th October, 1559, Bequeathed in his Will dated 18th March 1559.
the Rectories and Parsonages of Brill, Oakley, Boarstall and Easton Beston [Northants] to mine Executors forever, to the intent that they, or the Survivor or Survivors of them, shall within the same erect a Free School in the Town of Thame, and to find and sustain with the Profits thereof, a Schoolmaster and an Usher forever, in such sort and time as my said Executors shall think most convenient for the maintenance of the said School forever.
The Building of the Schoolhouse began in 1569 (after sufficient Income had been accumulated from the Bequests), with Teaching starting late in 1570.  The original Stone Building, although much altered, is still standing amidst its later additions. It was roughly T-shaped, and contained Rooms for the Master & Usher in the West Front, and a Schoolroom 50ft x 20ft behind, with Attics above for the use of Boarders.  The windows of the Schoolroom contained the Royal Arms, together with those of the Founder and of his Connections.  There was a Playground in the North-east Corner, together with a Masters Garden & Orchard, at the Corner of which was the Privy.  For the 1st few years the Executors Superintended the Affairs of the School, but in 1575, realising that they “must someday go the way of all flesh,” they handed over to the Warden & Fellows of New College Oxford.  “all that Capital Messuage or House, newly builded in Old Thame, called the School House, with a Garden and Orchard and a Curtilage hereunto adjacent and lying.”  The School remained under the Guardianship of New College for almost exactly 3-Centuries.

In 1575 a Royal Licence from Queen Elizabeth 1 Associates New College Oxford with the School – “to uphold and maintain a free Grammar School for the Free Teaching and exercise of Grammar – in Thame for all time“.  This Link with New College is sustained today with the Warden of the College participating in School Affairs as a Foundation Governor and the Lord Williams’s Legacy has Educated many Generations of Families in Thame over the last 445-yrs.  The original Building still Stands in Church Road as a fine Elizabethan House converted for use as Offices.  Notable old-Boys of the early Period include John Hampden, a Statesman killed in the Civil War in 1643 & John Fell, Bishop of Oxford, 1675.

The Dormitory showing beds on either side and several wash basins

It is a 2-Storeyed Building with Attics, Bbuilt of rubble with dressed Stone copings.  It consists of Rooms for the Master & Usher, facing West on to Church Row, with Attics above for the Boys & a Lofty Schoolroom behind (50ft x 20ft).  Over the central Doorway is set a Carved Panel containing the Arms of Lord Williams.  The Forecourt is now entered from High Street, but the School was originally separated from the Almshouses by a Wall.

School hours, typical of Elizabethan Days, were 6 to 11-am and 1-5 or 6pm, 9-hrs in winter and 10 in Summer.  When darkness required it, boys had to supply their own candles.  There was a weekly ½-day in addition to Festivals & 4 Holidays of rather over a fortnight each.  Boys were admitted at the age of 7, as soon as they could Read & Write.  The only subject of instruction, as also the only Language in which instruction was given, was Latin.  It was only this Instruction which was “Free”; boys had to pay 8d on Admission, to be used for buying Books, and 2d a quarter to pay for cleaning, and “to the purchasing of rods” – though pupils who were Resident in the Town, or who were relatives of the Founder, were exempt from all Fees except the Capitation Fees of 1s a Quarter to the Master & 6d to the Usher.  Much emphasis was placed on Religious Instruction.  The School began & ended with a set form of Service, containing Latin Prayers, and a special Latin Hymn.  Before Dinner, a Passage from the Bible was to be read, and Church attendance on Sundays & Festivals was compulsory, the Boys meeting at the School and having their own Seats in the Chancel.

During the 1st half of the 17thC, the School was at the height of its Prosperity & influence.  Its Benches were crowded with sons of neighbouring Gentry, as well as of Farmers & Tradespeople.  Its Scholars, mainly Pupils of Richard Boucher, 1597-1627, who had the reputation of “sparing the Rod that he might impart his beloved Learning,” distinguished themselves in Parliament, on the Bench, and in the Church.  “The Families of the Ingoldsbys and Hampdens in Bucks,” says Anthony Wood, “while young had been mostly bred in the said School of Thame, and had sojourned either with the Vicar or the Master.”   During the Civil War Schooling was frequently disrupted by the use of the School Buildings to Accommodate both Parliamentarian and Royalist Troops and much damage to the Building and its Fittings was encountered.
Among the students there during the 2nd quarter of the 17thC was Anthony Wood, the Oxford Antiquary.  Thame about this time was the Centre of Military Operations between the King’s Forces & the Rebels, and was continually being beaten up by one side or the other.  Wood, though but a boy at the time, has left on record in his narrative some vivid impressions of the conflicts which he personally witnessed, and which bring the disjointed times before us in a vision of strange & absolute reality.  He tells of Colonel Blagge, the Governor of Wallingford Castle, who was on a Marauding Expedition, being chased through the Streets of Thame by Colonel Crafford, who Commanded the Parliamentary Garrison at Aylesbury, and how one man fell from his horse, and the Colonel “held a Pistol to him, but the Trooper cried ‘Quarter!’ and the Rebels came up and rifled him and took him and his horse away with them.”  On another occasion, just as a Company of Roundhead Soldiers were sitting down to Dinner, a Cavalier Force appeared “to Beat up their Quarters,” and the Roundheads retired in a hurry, leaving “Wood and the Schoolboyes, Sojourners in the House,” to enjoy their Venison Pasties.
The Building suffered during the Civil War, but was repaired by 1661 when Warden Woodward of New College found it ‘new mended, lathed and tiled‘.  However much of this damage was repaired, and during the latter part of the 17thC, the School regained much of the reputation it enjoyed before the Civil War.  At one time the windows of the Schoolroom contained the Royal Arms and those of Lord Williams & his Connections.    The decline of Thame Grammar School is generally considered to have begun during the 1st-half of the 18thC, with a succession of Masters whose primary interest seemed to be in the collection of their Salary & other Emoluments, rather than the Education of the boys.  The School reached its lowest ebb, under the Masterships of the Rev T T Lee (1814-1841) & the Rev T B Fookes (1841-1872).  By this time the School had also largely ceased to be a “Free” School.  The Establishment of “Howard House Academy” in 1840, under the Mastership of J W Marsh, was attracting more Day-boys & Boarders due to (according to the Schools Inquiry Commission in 1866) its low Fees, and the ‘Practical Business’ and ‘sound Commercial’ Character of the Education provided.  Education was also becoming readily available to all children, the British School being established in Park Street, in 1836.  By 1866, Thame Grammar School only had 2 day-boys on its Books and no Boarders.  From 1870 there were no Pupils at the School, the last boy commonly reported as Jack Stevens, the son of a Grocer in the Town, and Dr Fookes finally resigned as Headmaster in 1872.  A new Board of Governors was formed in 1873 with a view to the Establishment of a new School for up to 120-Scholars, 60 of them being Boarders. Consideration was given to extending the existing School Building, even at the expense of pulling down the Almshouses.  Finally, it was agreed to Build new Premises on a site in Oxford Road, opposite the old Priestend Tollhouse, and on Lland purchased from Mr Samuel Field.  Expenditure was approved by the Charity Commissioners, and with money raised from the Sale of the old School Building in Church Row, and other Property in Thame.  The old School Building was sold in 1877 and became a Girls School until 1908, when the Girls School moved to the Mansion House on the High Street and became the Girls Grammar School. (Now the Site of the Co-op Store).

The original Thame Grammar School Building remained empty for a number of years before being sold to become a Private Residence, and later Commercial Offices.  Various 19th & 20thC additions have been made to the old Building, including the Staircase & Bandstand bought from Lord Rothschild’s House at Halton near Aylesbury, when the School Building was used as a ‘Dancehall & Cafe’ between the 2-World Wars.

Jazz Trumpeter, Bandleader & Formula-1 Driver Johnny Claes 1916-1956 was born in London to a Scottish mother & Belgian father.  He was educated at Lord Williams’s School.  Although at 1st Johnny didn’t intend to race cars at all, somehow he got involved in Racing.  He was a Jazz Musician with his own Jazz Band (The Clay Pigeons) and seemed happy with that.  He spoke both French & English, which made him an easy target for the British Racing Drivers for their meetings with the ACF, for none of them was able to speak both Languages. Although he wasn’t top of the Bill, he was a fairly good Racing Driver who won several important Races. In F1, however, he never made it into the points.  He died during a minor operation while under anaesthetic.


Mansion House School
A House, once the ‘Mansion House‘ of the Knollys Family in the High Street, Built in 1572 and demolished in 1965. It was erected by Sir Francis Knollys (d.1629), and was later rebuilt & inhabited by Francis Knollys, MP (d.1757), and by Sir Francis Knollys, Bt, MP (d.1772).  During its time it served as a Private House, a Billet for Royalist Troops, a Refuge for 50-French Clergy.  The Mansion House School was opened in 1808–9 by John Jones, a former Master of the old Market House School, and continued for about 20-yrs.  In 1840 it was taken over by L D Hunt, and extensive alterations were made which included new Classrooms, Boarding Accommodation, 2 Halls, a Gymnasium & Swimming Bath, and the School was reopened as the Oxford County School.  In 1868 James Marsh, at one time a Master of the British School became Headmaster and the School was Amalgamated with Howard House School, a Private School which he had opened in 1854 at Cuttlebrook House.  At this School Instruction of a ‘sound Commercial Character‘ was given for low Fees.  By 1866 he had 120 Pupils, of whom 80 were Boarders.  The combined Schools Advertised under the joint names of the Oxford County Middle Class School & Howard House School, and promised ‘a practical Commercial Education‘. Boys were prepared for the Universities, the Civil Service, and especially for Professional & Business Careers. There was a Preparatory Department.  Marsh’s son J W Marsh succeeded him in 1883 but committed suicide in 1888 because of Financial difficulties.  The School was then taken over by T Gardner and in 1894 by C H Hills.  In 1900 it became a Preparatory School and in 1908 it was transferred to London.  It was used as a Girls Grammer School (East Oxford) from 1917 to c.1948  when the School moved to Holton Park, Wheatley.  In 1948, the Balfour Family had Sold the House & Park to Oxon County Council, which decided it should be the Site for a new School.

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