Soham Grammarians : from the School History


from the History of Soham Grammar School (Browning, revised Abbott 1972)

click on image for a larger version of this plan of the old school 1842

The Grammar School in Churchgate Street.

For what it looks like today and some information on the life of this building click on The Old Grammar School

A HISTORY OF SOHAM GRAMMAR SCHOOL [how the history came to be written]
J R Browning, from the Soham Grammarian Coronation issue, Summer 1953

It must have been late September, for I can recall the close heat of the old Lower VA room, where I was spending a free period looking across the lawn to the shrubbery - September, 1950, and the Headmaster came in with a small folder in his hand. He told me that this contained various papers relating to the School and asked me whether I would like to write an account of its history.

I agreed and thus began The History of Soham Grammar School, which, it is hoped, will appear in 1954, but as a longer, more comprehensive treatment than either the Head or I had ever conceived.

A first examination of the folder caused feelings similar to those that must have smitten the unfortunate suitors for Portia's hand when they opened their caskets - but that was the end of their quest, whereas mine I could see already was to be extensive and prolonged.

The earliest document, so far as I can recall, was about seventy years old and I believed the school to be two hundred years older than that! Frantic searching through various histories of Cambridgeshire showed that there must be some documentary El Dorado, but where ?

It was some months before these priceless documents were unearthed not half-a-dozen yards from where Soham Parish Council sits in august and awful majesty and the Old Folks' Club meets in fantastic revelry. There they lay, crumpled and musty, and they held all that can now be known of the origins and development of the Grammar School.

They are, almost without exception, receipts of those sturdy men who administered the School as part of the Soham Free School Moor Trust the Gentlemen Feoffees: no informative minutes of meetings, no letters in fine scholarly or crabbed hand of master or boy, no fragments of the work that must have gone on in the school, just bills and accounts and receipts: the few remaining bones of the skeleton.

Yet reconstruct with infinite patience, skill and imagination your skeletal brontosaurus, then clothe him according to fancy in flesh, and though his form stands before you, the whole age and the enormous mass of common-place, day-to-day detail eludes you: you can only guess at what must have been.

So with this: facts and figures, a few parchments, an odd domestic detail from the Feoffees' Account Book - with this unpromising though enormously interesting material and lacking the attributes mentioned of the skilled palaeontologist, I began to reconstruct the History of the Grammar School.

Fortunately, information and help were both forthcoming. In Pembroke College Treasury, surely the coldest place in Cambridge despite the warmth one feels on reading Gray's 'Elegy' in the original manuscript, I came across several vitally important documents.

One of them contained this clause, which for us far surpasses in significance and interest all the rest: "That the remainder of Soham Moor being 116 acres be settled in Feoffees to he chosen by the Lord of the Manor and the tenants . . . the Moor to be sufficiently imbanked . . . the charges thereof and surveying and setting out of the commons should be borne by the Feoffees out of the rents of the said 116 acres and the overplus to be for a Town stock, for to set the poor on work, binding out apprentices, raising a revenue for a Scholemaster as the Lord of the Manor and major part of the tenants should order."

My italics - and the date is the twentieth day of December, 1664. Now that, of course, is only the beginning of the story. When this provision became practical politics*, how and in what place, are all told in the History, which also deals with the vicissitudes through which the Grammar School was to pass.

Notice this description Grammar School, for I have examined evidence of the most diverse kind to try to establish that it was, in origin, a free Grammar School, not just a charity school. There was a danger, from which a new Scheme of Management in 1845 only just rescued us, that the Grammar School status might be denied for the future: there was a period when the school was closed not long afterwards and, let us pay tribute to the good sense of the people of Soham, exercised not for the first time, there was a petition that " this Valuable Institution be re-opened." The period up to 1945 is fully covered and the Headmaster will add an epilogue, 1945-1953.

Perhaps the mention of Pembroke College, which appears so often in the narrative, may puzzle you: here the Vicar of Soham, the Rev. Canon P. F. Boughey, helped to make clear the link that existed between this Cambridge College and the parish of Soham and, later, its Grammar School, particularly in the period 1686-1878: that link is still strongly maintained even now.

Mrs. Fenton, a daughter of that William Feather who became Master in 1866, Mr. Lavender Porter of Haddenham, a remarkable Old Boy, the oldest now surviving, Mr. E. Leonard, another Old Boy and Chairman of the Governors 1947-52, Mr. Ford, and many Old Boys have helped and will be thanked at the appropriate time, for they shed light on dark places.

Of the more personal aspect, a few words. One C. Priestley is the first recorded master, and reasons are shown why he was probably the first of all in the line of worthy men who have taught in the School since its foundation. The full list of those who followed is known and set out, among them one Bennet, who obliged the Feoffees to consult counsel's opinion. What tussle lay behind this ?

"On the representation made to me by Mr. John Kent of Soham, I am of opinion that the Feoffees may displace Bennet, formerly by them appointed to teach writing school at Soham, and may appoint a new writing master in his stead and likewise the Trustees of the School House who have given Bennet leave to dwell there as long as they should think fit may turn him out at their pleasure." L. Bune. January, 1740.

It has been difficult to do more than hint at the nature and scope of the History: no author is an impartial or an able critic of his own work, but I think the facts, no matter how badly or baldly they are put down, cannot fail to interest all Old Boys. Bearing in mind what the Free School Charity meant to Soham, recalling the close connection of the Grammar School throughout its whole history with the parish and people of Soham, I think also that the book should prove interesting to all local people. The Grammar School was, in origin, the handwork of the people of Soham and, in truth, it was their Grammar School - they and you should be proud of what they wrought.

[The book was eventually published in 1972: on this website priority is being given the the more recent history of the school. However if you have material relating to the period before 1916, please contact the website editor.]

* from Chapter I of the History
Historically, then, the position was this, that provision had been made as early as the deed poll of 1664 for the raising of a revenue for a schoolmaster as well as for the other uses mentioned. Despite Sir Thomas Chicheley's position as one of His Majesty's Privy Council he had no ex-officio power to make legally binding any of the clauses of the deed-poll: in fact, we have seen that, as lord of the Manor, he was happier if the old state of affairs prevailed. The really firm and legal enactment comes in the Exchequer Court decree of 26 April 1686, so that while on grounds of chronology one might say that the school was envisaged 22 years earlier, in fact, its statutory basis and its legal foundation must be taken as dating from 1686.

from the Soham Grammarian Summer 1969

who provided this drawing and who wrote the article?


Soham Grammar School grew out of the very nature of the land on which it stands. The town of Soham, standing in the south-eastern corner of the great Fen Lands, straggles along what was once the bank of the largest of the fenland lakes, Soham Mere.

In ancient times a place of more importance than today Soham was one of the earliest parts of East Anglia to be converted to Christianity and, while a large pagan Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been excavated to the east of the village, a very early Christian burial ground has been uncovered at its west end on the site of the parish glebe land.

When, many years after the famous voyage along the Ouse past Ely, Canute, now king and Christian, re-visited that city he reached it by sled across frozen Soham Mere.

In the great Domesday survey of 1086-7 Soham appears as the most important of the royal manors and lands of Cambridgeshire, heading the list of royal estates in the county. Its decline was due in part to the increased importance of Ely once a cathedral was established there in 1109, and partly to the improvement in communications which followed the drainage of the Fens in the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries.

Like all the other ancient fen settlements, the prosperity of Soham depended upon the waters and marshes surrounding it where fish could be caught, birds netted, reeds and turves cut and eels and lampreys landed in their tens of thousands.

It was through the drainage of these waters and marshes and the disputes attendant upon the drainage that the Grammar School came into being. The drainage and enclosure of the Fens everywhere and at all times were bitterly opposed by the small proprietors and the tenantry, whose whole livelihood depended upon the open waters of marsh and water, and were wished for only by the great landowners who hoped for increased profits from their lands.

There were many bitter words spoken and written and illegal acts done by those who had vested interest in the undrained fens - from the University of Cambridge which in 1620 expressed through the mouth of its Public Orator the fear that if the fens were drained no one would be able to visit Cambridge, to the peasantry of Soham who threw down and destroyed the enclosures.

It was from such a conflict between the peasantry and the lord of the manor, Sir Thomas Chicheley, that there emerged a lawsuit in 1664. The resulting judgment concerning the ownership of certain lands in Soham reads

. . what surplusage shall remain of the said rents and profits of the said One hundred and Sixteens acres shall, from tyme to time, be imployed to sett the poor of Soham at works, binding out Apprentices or for raising a revenue to a Schole Master as the Lord of the Mannor and major part of the Tenants of the said Mannor shall order and sett downe. . . .'

This then is the birth of the idea of a Grammar School at Soham, yet there were many difficulties to be overcome before the 'Schole Master' could begin his duties. The Commissioners of Drainage declared that they had no authority to recognise and legalise the uses to which the land was to be put, yet they were sympathetic to the plan which had the support of Pembroke Hall (now College), Cambridge. After the confiscation of the lands of French and other foreign abbeys and priories in the early fifteenth century, Pembroke Hall had been given the manor and church of Soham. It so happened that the master of Pembroke in 1664, Robert Mapletoft, dean of Ely, was himself the vicar of Soham, so that he had several reasons for being interested in the project of founding a school at Soham.

Even though the project was not allowed to lapse it was not in fact until 1686 that a further judgment by the Barons of the Exchequer Court gave a clear direction that the original ruling was both to stand and be implemented with effect from Lady Day (25th March) 1690. Although it was to be several years before a school building was erected, 1690 may be taken as the date of the foundation of Soham Grammar School.

The prosperity, and even survival, of the School depended upon the lands in Soham Moor. These lands, as we have seen, were thought to be about one hundred and sixteen acres, though in fact there were little more than a hundred, and they were to be used not merely to pay a school master but also to provide poor law relief and to article apprentices. Nevertheless, from the beginning the main concern of the Feoffees (trustees) of the Soham Moor Charity was with the School. This fact is reflected in the names which became current for moor and charity - Free School Moor and Free School Moor Charity, and later on merely School Moor, and the Feoffees becoming Feoffees of the Free School.

The primary use to which the rents and profits of the Moor were immediately, and subsequently, devoted was the establishment and maintenance of a free school. We know it could not have functioned before 1689, for the rents up to that time had already been earmarked: it was not housed in a separate school building until 1699, but it is more than likely that it had temporary shelter somewhere else in Soham. The Church Vestry, or some other building lent by the vicar are obvious suggestions: it is even possible that some room in a private house was rented until such time as the school buildings were erected.

The Victoria History of Cambridgeshire states that there seems to be no doubt that the School was, in origin at least, a Grammar School; eager as one is to accept this status from the very beginning it must in strict accuracy be said that no direct evidence in support of this belief has been found. In strict law, such a school was a foundation for teaching the learned languages, Latin and Greek, and nothing else. The likelihood is that it was a Grammar School owing something to the Classical tradition and education which alone, at that stage, justified the term. Why should there be a 'Lattin Seat and Tables' in the School in June 1722 which were repaired, together with other articles, by Will Lock and Son if Latin were not, or had not been, part of the curriculum?

This difficulty in deciding the School's status simply underlines a most regrettable and very important fact: there is barely a hint of what went on inside the walls of the free school. All that remains is a mass of bills, receipts, statements of accounts and balances: no intimate details to breathe life into these and if occasionally revealing facts, figures and measurements. It is almost incredible that not a single leaf from a primer or reading book has been found; that nothing but guesswork can be applied to the mysteries of the instruction and curriculum of the School; to the fancies, fears, pleasures and pains of masters and pupils.

It is sad, too, to think that, of all the yellow, crinkled documents dealing with every aspect of the school buildings and their maintenance, from supply of gates, oven-lids, pump-handles and fire-grates to tiling, painting and pointing, not one can tell us of the first construction of the School. No details remain of the cost, the builders and sub-contracts employed, the materials used or the time taken to build. It would all, doubtless, be in the first Feoffees' book, but that has disappeared, and with it much of vital interest.

(Acknowledgement must be made to Mr. J. B. Browning, assistant History teacher at Soham Grammar School 1947-51, now Headmaster of Heartsease School, Norwich, from whose history of the School this extract has been taken.)


British History Online: Soham Education

last updated 6 Oct 16