Tavistock and Summerhill School – A Brief History

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Tavistock and Summerhill School was established through the merger of Tavistock Hall and Summerhill Court schools in 1973.  The antecedence of Summerhill can be traced back to the 1880’s and the Belvedere School.

Belvedere School

In the 1880’s, it is believed in 1888, the Belvedere School was established in a large house of that name at Bolnore Road, Haywards Heath.  The principal was Mr Stephen Yeates who, ‘with assistance from resident and visiting masters, offered a sound English education, with classics and modern languages, shorthand, book-keeping, music and drawing.’ [W. Ford, The Metropolis of Mid Sussex]

In the early 1900’s it was a thriving establishment that provided a day and boarding school for boys and a day only department for girls. The girls’ classrooms were in the main house on the corner of Bolnore road and Wealden Way with the boys’ classrooms in huts on the other side of the road.  In 1912, Mr C.J.D. Gregory was the owner and headmaster.  His sister Miss Ada Gregory was head of the girl’s school, while Charles Gregory looked after the day boys and boarders.  However Mr Gregory as owner was much in charge and set the standard for the whole school.  As a teacher he was very much a ‘jack of all trades’ and a strict disciplinarian, noted as being handy with the cane.  Neither Ada nor her brother were married.

The day fees in 1920/3 were £4-10s excluding lunch, with the school day being 9.00am to 1.00pm, and 2.00pm until 4.30pm.  Cricket and football was played in Victoria Park.

A pupil at this time was Queenie Viner and she recalls the girls walking ‘through the town in a crocodile from Bolnore Road to a corrugated hut behind the Sussex Hall to be coached in gymnastics, in full regalia, gym slip, long sleeved blouses and bloomers!  Our coach was Mr Cobbold and his assistant Vera Cook.  The Sussex Hall was the venue for our Prize Giving day, when we all wore white dresses.’

The curriculum included French and Latin, but no science subjects were taught.  The school was said to be popular for the children of successful tradesmen and the lower professionals.  It is said to have taken pupils up to the age of 18 years, although this seems rather late having regard to the general school leaving age.

A noted pupil of Belvedere was Group Cpt. Frank Carey, a Battle of Britain fighter ace, who left the school in 1927. [Details available]

During the 1930’s the girls department closed and perhaps at a similar time boarding for boys ceased.  Also in the 1930’s, Dick Gregory and David Gregory, relatives of Charles Gregory, were teachers at the school.  The next sequence of events is a little unclear but is thought to be as follows.

In the late 1930’s, Charles Gregory died from a tragic accident; he choked to death after swallowing his whistle while referring in school football match in Victoria Park.  Dick and David Gregory then took charge.  However David Gregory soon left, it is believed this was shortly before the art of World War11, following the death of his wife to start a new life in Tanganyika.

Then Dick Gregory took over the running of Belvedere but it was not long before he was called up for war duty, thereafter Captain Gregory was seen only very occasionally at the school.  His wife Marcelle Gregory was left to try and run the school.

Mrs Gregory gave the task her best endeavour teaching English, History and Geography plus sports.  She made every effort to maintain normal school life during the war years, e.g. organising performances of Shakespearian plays for parents.  However these were difficult times and with a shortage of good teaching staff, academic standards suffered and fell below that needed for the achievement of the School Certificate.  However Mrs Gregory was very successful at instilling good manners, self-discipline, respect for others and the importance of appearance into her pupils. The school uniform at this time was a navy blue blazer edged in light blue, grey trousers and a navy blue cap with light blue cross overs.

Mrs Gregory is well remembers for enthusiastically leading and playing both football and cricket, she particularly excelled at the latter.  Cricket was played in Claire Meadow, often to an audience of Canadian soldiers who were more interested in the Headmistress than the game! In competition with other schools Belvedere teams were much feared and were usually victorious, especially at football.

Sadly the school was struggling to keep going and the Gregory’s decided to sell the school in 1944, and it would appear that the new owner, Mr Cross, started to become involved during the Autumn term of that year.  The timing is recalled as after the passing of the VI flying bomb threat.  Mr Cross and a few boys, in red uniform, from his previous school appeared but were not involved in lessons with Belvedere pupils.  Belvedere School closed with the departure of Mrs Gregory and vacated their Bolnore Road premises at the end of 1944.

Summerhill Court School

At the start of the spring term 1945, Mr Cross opened his new school Summerhill Court at Summerhill, which he rented.  This school comprised boys transferred from Belvedere School and some boys, who were boarders, from his previous establishment.  It is thought his previous school was called Parkstone; it was not a local school and perhaps came from Parkstone, Poole

The uniform for the new school was purple blazers and caps.  However despite being paid for in advance by the parents, few uniforms were delivered and likewise swimming lessons at the Birch Hotel.  Parents began to realise that the school accounts were perhaps questionable and there were comments regarding other areas of concern.  Many ‘Belvedere boys’ were quietly withdrawn from the school.  This was the beginning of a very difficult but thankfully short period in the history of the Summerhill Court.  To quote a subsequent owner and headmaster, the school ‘scarcely merited the term Prep School.’  After a couple of traumatic years the Crosses sold the school. [Anecdotes available]

On the 24th June 1949, the school was incorporated as Summerhill Court School [Haywards Heath] Ltd.  The major shareholder and headmaster was Mr. S.D. Majoribanks, known as Capt. Majoribanks.  Unfortunately due to lack of capital and a small number of both day boys and boarders, no doubt due to the Crosses poor stewardship. the school got into financial difficulties.  this resulted in four parents taking over financial management of the school for two years.

In September 1951, Mr H.J. Ewins effectively rescued the school.  After a term as a junior partner, Mr Harold Ewins and his wife acquires all of Majoribanks shares in January 1952 and with his wife became the sole shareholders.  They started to re-establish the school.

The school remained a day and boarding preparatory school for boys.  The school role in the 1950’s was generally about 90 pupils with about half being boarders.  Most boys went onto public schools such as Lancing college, Ardingly School, Hurstpierpoint School or Brighton College.  It continued to flourish under Mr Ewins control and he is held in high regarded as a good headmaster with the nickname of ‘Bodge’, by old boys of the period.  The deputy head was Mr Charles Finch who together with his wife, Moira, made a significant contribution to the day to day life of the school.

[Interestingly Harold Ewins’ father Dr Ewins introduced M&B 693 made by May and Baker, the drug that saved Winston Churchill from pneumonia].

Tavistock Hall School

Tavistock Hall was established in the mid 1930’s at Tavistock, Devon by Mr Harold ‘Buckie’ Bucknall, regarded as an eccentric with a talent for running schools. In 1939, he moved the school to Heathfield, East Sussex.  A boarding school for boys, it occupied a substantial house in spacious grounds and accompanying woodlands.  Described in it prospectus as ‘standing amidst bracing firs 600 feet above sea level’ and boosting ‘an abundance of good food’ with its suitability for the healthy care and education of young gentlemen was, of course, unequalled.

Reality during the war years was perhaps a little different.  A young boy, whose mother had died tragically and with his father overseas, recalls ‘I was sent in 1943 to a boarding school, Tavistock Hall, in Heathfield.  Most of the staff were kind and the headmaster, extremely so.  This was a pretty part of the country and the school’s old mansion. However, we were often miserable and always hungry.  the food poor, we were always cold and lonely.  I cannot eat swedes, turnips, cabbage, etc. to this day as it was fed to us so often. We all had boils and chilblains in winter because of the poor diet and damp.’

Mr Bucknall acquired a second boarding school, Skippers Hill at nearly Five Ashes, in 1945.  Nothing further is known of the Tavistock schools until 1973.

By the early 1970’s, it is understood that a fall in demand for full time boarding created financial pressure while its location was considered as unsuitable for the day school.  The proprietor at this time was Mr Jack Bucknall, the son of the founder.  Mr Bucknall explored several options eventually selecting to acquire Summerhill Court on the retirement of Mr Harold Ewins.  Mr and Mrs Bucknall purchased all the shares, in the School, on 31st July 1973, in time to open the School as Tavistock and Summerhill for the Autumn term.  The buildings and grounds continuing to be leased.

Tavistock and Summerhill School

The new school continued as a day and boarding preparatory school for boys until 1980 when girls were admitted as day pupils.

However, perhaps the most significant changes occurred in the period immediately prior to Mr Bucknall’s retirement in 1988.

The available details are not entirely clear but a notice from Friends of Tavistock and Summerhill School to staff dated 11th March 1987 says, ‘Negotiations are currently taking place between the Friends, the Landlords of the school property and Mr Bucknall for the Friends to set up an Educational Trust to purchase the entire assets of the school, including the new 125 year lease, from Mr and Mrs Bucknall.  This has been made possible by an offer of a donation [conditional upon planning consent being granted for the redevelopment of the playing field site] to enable Mr and Mrs Bucknall’s interest to be purchased thereby securing the future of the school for the next 25 years’.

A letter from the Friends to Parents on the same date advised, ‘Following the meeting on 26th January, discussions were held with the landlords to attempt to retain a part of the playing fields for use by the school in the future.  These discussions regrettably were unsuccessful, the landlord stating all interests in the playing fields were loss lost during negotiations for the current lease and that retention of any part of the fields were not further negotiable in any circumstances.’  It further commented that the landlords ‘have offered to donate a sum of money to the Friends to set up a new educational trust…..’

This seems to suggest that at some stage Mr and Mrs Bucknall had acquired ownership of the property and grounds that houses the school from the previous owner, Elizabeth Eggar-Byatt.

Charitable trust status was achieved and with the appointment of a Board of Governors the school entered a new phase in its development.

The next change was in 1989, when due to falling demand the boarding facility was withdrawn.  The dormitories were converted into classrooms.  To replace the loss of the school playing fields alternative facilities were established at sparks Farm, Cuckfield.

This was followed in 1993 with the opening of the Nursery School.  It allowed four stages in school life to be offered, Nursery, Reception, Pre-preparatory and Senior School with pupils being prepared for Common Entrance.

Mr Terry Locke, the headmaster, left the school in July 1993 and the post being filled by the Deputy Head, Flora Snowling, until the appointment of Michael Barber in September 1994.

The school continues to develop with pupil numbers approaching 200.  A new classroom block was opened in September 1998 to facilitate a new class in year group three and to replace an old and decaying building.

The school closed in 2015/2016 academic year after suffering a decline in pupil numbers primarily resulting from the economic conditions in previous years and a period of uncertainty.

 

 

 

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