Headmaster's Study

Headmaster’s Study

St. Albans School, England

Last June I had the honor of giving the Founder's Day address at St. Albans School, England. It was a thrill for me to worship in the spot where Saint Alban was martyred and share my thoughts with the faculty and students of a school that is perhaps one thousand years old. Headmaster Simon Wilkinson graciously arranged for Martha, Kevin ('97) and me to spend the month of August in his home at St. Albans School. The School is in the lovely city of St. Albans, just twenty miles north of London. Frank Kilvington, who was headmaster of St. Albans from 1964 to 1984, has written a lively history of the school. The history shows some interesting parallels and some distinct differences from St. Albans, Washington.

Sometime between the founding of St. Albans Abbey in 948 and the arrival of the Normans in 1066, an abbey school called St. Albans was begun. The earliest written record of its existence dates from the year 1100, but it is clear that it had been in operation for a long time before that date. The school met in the Lady Chapel in the east end of the abbey church. St. Albans showed its belief in the written word by possessing the third printing press to exist in England. When the abbey was destroyed during the Reformation, the school closed also.

In 1570 Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter for the reopening of St. Albans School. The school was to be for boys. It included both day and boarding students and was closely associated with the abbey church. For several hundred years after 1570 it had a unique fund-raising device. The income from licensing fees of all wine shops in St. Albans went directly to the school. (St. Albans, Washington, is investigating a similar arrangement here.) Like its namesake in Washington, it was committed from the very beginning to providing scholarships "and poor men's children were to be received into it before others." School hours were from six a.m. to eleven a.m. and from one p.m. until five. However, on Saturdays the lucky children were dismissed early at three p.m. All schools have problems with maintenance and particularly roofs. By 1606 the school had to spend the princely sum of five pounds to repair the library roof, and in 1622, 624 pounds of lead had to be used to replace the main roof of the school.

Readers of the Bulletin will remember that a few years ago Princess Diana swam in our Lawrence Pool. Our older cousin had a royal visitor as early as 1626 when King Charles I visited St. Albans. For quite a few years there was a growing scandal because the Visitors appointed to oversee the school spent a significant portion of the school income on their annual dinner. By 1711 that dinner cost more than one-third of the annual amount paid to the headmaster.

Educators will always be debating curricular matters. In the eighteenth century, there was a very long and lively debate about whether the school should continue to emphasize "Latin, Greek and classic orders" or begin to offer an education better suited to those who would be spending their lives in trade or commerce. One of the best lines I have ever seen was written by Benjamin Preedy, the headmaster in 1762. He wrote to the Corporation "that he had no scholars to teach but that he was ready and willing to teach as many as should be sent to him." Amazingly, he hung on as headmaster for twenty-one years and was succeeded briefly by his son.

I suppose it is true that all schools occasionally have their legal difficulties. The history of St. Albans, England, makes it clear there were a number of times it was involved in cases in Chancery, some of which dragged on for as long as five years. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the school moved out of the Lady Chapel of the abbey and into the old medieval gatehouse. Gradually more buildings were built (at the rate of about one a decade) and the school spread down the hill. I am personally intrigued by the fact that Montague Jones, the headmaster from 1902-1931, who increased the school from 56 boys to 454, had been a cross country ronner at university. Apparently, he looked for similar skills in some of his teachers. A member of the faculty, Tommy Hampson, won the 800 meters at the 1932 Olympics Games, establishing a new world record. The World War II brought both hardships and glory to St. Albans. The first British flying officer to be decorated for bravery was an old boy of St. Albans.

After the war, the school continued to change. In 1956 it closed its boarding operation. In1972 the Labor government abolished the direct grant system which had been a major source of income for the school. At that time, it became an independent school and moved vigorously into the modem era of serious fund-raising. Part of that fund-raising continued to be aimed at providing scholarships for boys who were unable to pay the tuition. In the 1970's, a program of social service was instituted. Today, St. Albans stands as a first-rank day school with excellent facilities and a strong reputation of preparing boys for university.

Frank Kilvington and Canon Martin enjoyed visiting each other. I am delighted that the Mullins and the Wilkinsons have established contact and that we had the pleasure and honor of spending part of our sabbatical at our much older cousin in England.

This letter appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of The St. Albans Bulletin.

St. Albans School, Mount St. Alban, Washington, DC 20016, 202-537-6435