EAST ANGLIAN SCHOLARS
Although it would be nice to include Old Girls in this list, if you go back much more than a hundred years, most girls were offered only basic primary education. This was in state schools, and from the start state schools provided co-education. Most private schools, which alone educated children through to 17 or 18 years old, were exclusively for boys until very recently. Some, like Eton and Harrow, still are. In 1878 the Girls’ Public Day School Company (now the Girls’ Day School Trust) was the first organisation to promote schools for the secondary education of girls nation-wide. Previous to that, most females who rose to fame had been educated privately at home.
You would expect that Eton and Harrow, as major scholastic establishments, can boast many eminent ex-pupils, and they do; but even the less well-known academies can mostly point to at least one notable name among their alumni. In the hundreds of years that they have been going this is perhaps only to be expected. Chigwell School (founded 1619), so far south into Essex that it now counts as part of Greater London, is a school whose existence I was unaware of until very recently. This is very remiss of me, because the Head of Norwich School, when my son was there, had previously been Deputy Head at Chigwell; he has since moved on to be Headmaster of Harrow. I had not heard of Chigwell School, but I had certainly heard of one of its old boys – William Penn, the prominent Quaker and founder of the State of Pennsylvania in America.
Moving north into Suffolk we may examine the school roll of Ipswich School (its foundation lost in the mists of history but some time before 1399). Its most famous alumnus may be the adventure novelist Sir Henry Rider Haggard. Bury St Edmunds Grammar School has an even more famous literary old boy, Edward Fitzgerald, the author/translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of the most quoted poems in the English language. (King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds is now a co-educational state comprehensive.) Also in Suffolk is Framlingham High School; its most famous old boy is undoubtedly the pop singer Ed Sheeran, though whether his fame will endure is open to question.
In Norfolk Thetford Grammar School is the oldest of the lot, and claims its foundation was made by St Felix, the first bishop of East Anglia, in the seventh century. It was certainly in existence by the end of the twelfth century. During the 1740s Thomas Paine was educated there; he was the writer who later went on to be the principal author of the Declaration of American Independence.
England’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, began his education at a small private school in the village of Great Massingham in West Norfolk, a school which has vanished without trace. He was sent from there to Eton aged fourteen. Many of his successors in that position have also attended Eton school, including our late Prime Minister David Cameron. Also in Norfolk, the Norwich School lays claim to Horatio Nelson as its most famous old boy, although the claim of the Paston School in North Walsham is rather better; he spent more time of his short academic career at that school. The Paston School is one of the few State Schools to make an appearance in this article. It was obviously a private school in Nelson’s time (because state schools did not then exist) but when it fell on hard times, instead of going out of existence as many similar Grammar Schools did, it was taken over by the state.
Another state school is the King’s School in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Although it was re-endowed in 1528 (on the same site in which it still exists) it has been financed as state school since the implementation of the 1944 Education Act. As Lincolnshire is one of the few counties to retain a selective school education system, the King’s School is (unlike the Paston Sixth Form College) still a Grammar School. The reason I mention this school is that it was where Isaac Newton was educated from 1655 until 1660.
I have dealt with a few of the schools nearest to Eat Anglia, down the East Coast from Lincolnshire to Essex. There is no doubt that I could find similar examples from other parts of the country. The exceptional people I have mentioned obvious brought great intellectual ability to these schools; but had they not had some grounding in education, would they have excelled in later life? I think not. Even Isaac Newton, who had no mathematical instruction until he went to Cambridge University, still became the towering mathematical genius of the seventeenth century; might he have remained the simple farmer that his mother wanted him to be, without the intellectual discipline instilled by the King’s School?