Sat in the corner of Cutts Close just behind All Saints church, is a building which to visitors of Oakham, is easy to pass by without a second thought. However this building was and still is integral to the school. This building has been known by many names throughout the years but is most commonly referred to as Old School.
In this post, we will explore the early history of this building and how for most of Oakham’s history thus far, it was the centre of school life.
The site for the school was acquired by Robert Johnson in November 1584. On the land previously had stood two chantry chapels until 1547 - rare survivors of the 1536 dissolution of the monasteries. However, with increasing religious tensions within England and ex-church lands being a lucrative business, an inquest was initiated and the land was eventually given to Anthony Collins and George Woodnet. It was these gentlemen from whom Johnson purchased the land. The religious history of the site is not forgotten, as W. L. Sargant highlights in his book The Book of Oakham School. The classical inscriptions on the wall stand to ‘remind us both of the reformation and the Renaissance’.
John Speed's 1619 map of Oakham. Old School is noted on the map under the letter F.
Immediately, Johnson ordered for a school house to be built on the site and this building would be Old School. It seems to have been cobbled together using older buildings as one can still see other structural foundations incorporated within Johnson’s school building.
There is no evidence for boarders' or master's accommodation at this point and so it is theorised that the school community would have taken up residence in the town or the old hospital.
For many years, until the headmastership of Hodge in the latter 19th century, Old school was the only school classroom. Its layout appears to have been quite steady too throughout three hundred years of use:
A ‘narrow gallery raised a step above the floor on each side of the Old School. The Master would sit at one end of the room with the upper side, and the usher at the other end’.
In the early 19th century, pupils would sit ‘round one of the fireplaces in the Old School reading not only classical books, but also English books’.
Old School being used as a classroom into the 1960s.
In 1722, the building is recorded as going through its first refurbishment with the floors and seating being taken up and re-laid and the Colly Weston slates on the roof being replaced as well as the wood beams inside. This work cost around £200 in total. Despite this being the only classroom, there is no record of where the boys were taught during the renovation work.
However, by the 19th century, the building was being commonly described as ‘damp and dusty’ and ‘lit with candles’. Under the headmastership of Dr Doncaster, there were some improvements made in order to make the classroom slightly more hospitable e.g. new windows, a fireplace in the west end and the planting of trees on the banks in Cutts Close to allow the boys to learn outside in the summer months.
When Hodge became headmaster, he was still expected to sit in the Master’s seat, next to the top fire.
But with a growing number of boarders and the wish to expand the school, the capacity of the small Old School was becoming unsustainable…
We will continue with the Old School’s story in an upcoming blog post! In the meantime, we would love to hear your memories of Old School whether as a pupil or just seeing it as a visitor to Oakham.