Memories of Dr Doncaster

This month's blog has been written by our voluntary, Honorary Assistant Archivist, Nigel Webb. Mr Webb has explored some of our earliest archives that describe what Oakham School was like under the headmastership of Dr Doncaster in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Supposedly, in 1878, Headmaster Tabraham, who had just been sacked, destroyed the archives whilst drunk one evening. If true, that would be why we have so little of consequence before that date.

Luckily, though, various OOs, who were at Oakham in earlier years, kept their own archives or wrote down their memories of their schooldays and, in due course, let us have them.

We particularly treasure a little batch of memorabilia from Headmaster Dr John Doncaster’s days: we have the letters of James Sandby Padley, 1839-41, to his father in Lincoln and, overlapping with these, the recollections of Sam Cheetham, 1839-46.

Padley’s father was a surveyor, architect, civil engineer and antiquary of note and young James arrived at Oakham in 1839 at the age of 14;.  His letters are remarkably mature in style and he was evidently something of a musician:

On 15 September 1839 he wrote hoping that his father, whilst sending him his birthday cake, would also send some pictures to fit up his study.

He also says:

‘I think I stand very high in the Doctor’s Favour, I have been twice into the Parlour since you left, once to supper & to play before some Company, all of whom applauded my Playing very much … The second occasion was with a group which included his elder brother Augustus and Mrs D was so pleased with our playing that she gave us one sovereign to buy any new music we liked …’

His letter of 20 February 1840 indicates one possible reason for Dr Doncaster’s particular interest in him:

‘Dear Father,

The marks for the 4th class came out tonight and were as follows:

Padley 770

Cheetham 663

Gibbon 364

Baddeley 321

… and another five ending with Heycock 104.

Having given some further detail, he adds:

During the course of the extion I found out the utility of writing quick.’

Sam Cheetham, second in the list above, also wrote down some of his memories of this period, picturing an education very different to today’s:

‘With the Head I went through the whole of Horace, Lucretius …, portions of Juvenal, Perseus, the fifteenth book of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’… To this day I remember the portions of Catullus, Propertius, Tibullus and Martial which I read there… Of Virgil, we read, I think, too little. He also read a good deal of Greek and discovered that Plato had a subtle charm of style beyond the reach of Demosthenes.’

He did not remember learning any English history but learned a good deal of English, both prose and verse, including speeches of various eminent politicians, which resulted in the historical contexts being explained.  He thought the mathematical teaching very good. He learned [the geometry of] Euclid very thoroughly, and acquired a fair knowledge of algebra, trigonometry, conic sections and … differential calculus.

Samuel Cheetham went to Cambridge, had a distinguished academic theological career and became Archdeacon of Southwark Cathedral; James Padley also entered the Church, remaining a curate only.

Robert Noble Jackson arrived in the School in 1845, aged 17, when Sam Cheetham was Head Boy, and stayed only two years, also going on to Cambridge. He got up to all sorts of mischief but assisted the three policemen in the town to keep order among the navvies assembled to work at the Manton tunnel; and, when tramps tried to set fire to the ward at the workhouse, helped the police, collared and handcuffed the rioters, and escorted them to gaol.

He, too, remembered his Horace and Virgil, etc., but also notes that 'Our food was rough – a pint tin of hot milk and a roll for breakfast, which we big lads supplemented with bacon, eggs, sausages, etc.; all prepared by our fags, who fed us, and washed up; a good meat dinner and very mild beer, that cheered but did not inebriate, and at tea, two thick slices of bread and butter, and beer ad libitum.'

After ten years in the Navy, including some war service, Jackson joined the Church becoming a Vicar and then a Rector, and was godfather to Cecil Rhodes.


Thank you for reading and please do share with us any memories you have of your headmaster or the School through our Twitter page, @OakhamArchives, or by emailing us at

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