Our previous part to this blog series explored the early history of Old School up until the headmastership of E. V. Hodge. This part will explore the history of the building from Hodge to the present day. This blog also celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the opening of Old School as the Shakespeare centre in 1969.
Hodge’s headmastership is not only significant to the School, but also to the building we know as Old School. For centuries, it had been the only classroom for pupils to learn in. However, under a new initiative of Hodge’s which reorganised the structure of the School, more boarders were being attracted to come to Oakham. More pupils meant that more space was needed to educate them, and thus we see the first purpose-built classrooms being constructed.
During W.L. Sargant’s headmastership, the School grew bigger than it had ever been and Old School was still at its heart with the upper Forms having their lessons taught in the building. Unfortunately, the building had fallen into some disrepair and so within Sargant’s first two years at the school, refurbishments of Old School took place. In this renovation, the roof timbers were exposed and the North windows exhibited. It was under these renovations that Sargant commissioned his sister to produce the frescoes for the walls. The frescoes focus on the story of Gareth from the Morte d’Arthur - a fitting story which describes the life of a boy at school and his subsequent successes through ‘service and endeavor’.
Old School intereior with frescoes and exhibition cabinets.
In all, over £350 was spent on revamping Old School and work was complete in 1903. From 1910, when Junior House (now Chapmans) was acquired, lower forms were taught within that building, meaning that Old School was the domain of the older students.
Under Sargant, Old School became a museum as well as a classroom. Exhibition cabinets were set up and contained a variety of objects from human remains to Roman and Anglo-Saxon archaeology. Many of these items are on a permanent loan to the Rutland Country Museum.
The Old School exhibition cases were still present in the building during the 1960s.
For years, Old School remained one of the largest rooms within the school. However, the exponential growth of Oakham School and its pupils meant that teaching lessons slowly drifted away from the building. Thus, in 1969, Old School was converted in the Shakespeare centre. Other new uses for the room such as a music room, library and art school had been considered, but it was the idea of turning Old School into a specially adapted Shakespeare theatre which inspired the most imagination within people – especially because of the building’s Elizabethan origins.
For its transformation into the Shakespeare Centre, no external architects were hired. Instead, much of the building and design work were done by George Tyers Bros. with the guidance of R. B. Smith and J. Walton. Work done to the old building included removing the aged flooring, curtaining over the frescoes, and dismantling the museum exhibition cases that had been there since the headmastership of Sargant. A new gallery was constructed in which musicians and the audience could be seated. Additionally, a dressing room was built for the actors and actresses.
The Shakespeare Centre.
The Shakespeare Centre was opened by John Jerwood on the 25th October 1969 and the play performed on opening night was A Horse of the Colour. The music department and debating society also made use of the space in the years following its opening.
The opening of the Shakespeare Centre.
In 1984, the Queen Elizabeth Theatre opened and drama teaching and performances migrated over to a new, state of the art venue. The theatre structure was taken out of Old School and it was proposed that the space could be a grand meeting room.
The Shakespeare Centre is still used for performances, most recently The Hound of the Baskervilles, and also contains displays such as a display of school life in the 16th century in Summer 1994. Old School was at the centre of a Tudor day in 1994 where teachers dressed up in 16th century garb and renaissance music was performed.
Tudor day, 1994.
By the 1990s, the building had again fallen into so state of disrepair as it was stated in the Winter 1994 Oakham Update that ‘The long, elegant and uncluttered room will once again support plays and music, debate and discussion’ following a refurbishment in that year.
Rennovations of Old School in 1994.
Old School was officially reopened on 2nd March 1995 with a performance of The Pericles in the presence of long-time friend to the school, Richard DeMarco.
Photographs from the reopening of Old School/ the Shakespeare Centre, 1995.
The frescoes, once obscured by a mere curtain, were now more thoroughly protected by wooden panels. As we come to the modern day, Old School has become a venue which some students may dread… an examination hall!
If anyone is interested in seeing the frescoes, please contact the Archivist in advance in order to arrange a visit.
Please do let us know what your memories of Old School or the Shakespeare Centre are. Did you see a play in the building? Have you taken an exam in there?
Barber, J. L., The Story of Oakham School, (Wymondham, Sycamore Press, 1983)
Buchanan, J.D., Operation Oakham, (Wymondham: Sycamore Press, 1984)
Needham, Brian, Buildings and Grounds, (Unpublished).
Sargant, W. L., The Book of Oakham School, (Cambridge University Press: Privately Published, 1928)