Soham Grammarians - the Opening of Soham Grammar School at Beechurst
Tuesday 22nd February 1927

Opening of New Grammar School Buildings.
New Project for Teachers Forthcoming.

Under ideal conditions the new and palatial buildings of the Soham Grammar School were opened by the Rt Hon Lord Eustace Percy PC MP, on Tuesday afternoon. In the top picture a action of the School Boy Scouts is seen forming a guard of honour to the President of the Board of education, with whom are Major Oliver Papworth, VD, (Chairman of the Governing Body of the School), the Headmaster (Mr J Clement Pratt MSc), and the Scoutmaster (Mr E Parry). In the bottom picture Lord Eustace Percy is opening the School, with the Lord Bishop of Ely seated on his left.
Photo    Starr & Rignall, Ely

Tuesday was a red-letter day in the honoured history of Soham Grammar School, the valuable work of which is no longer carried on in the old surroundings, but in that palatial structure more familiarly known as "Beechurst". Standing in its own picturesque grounds, the School is, perhaps, as attractively situated as any similar institution in the County, and great as have been the educational achievements of the school in the past they should be even greater in the future because the buildings lend themselves in no uncertain manner to the health and happiness of boys, whose good fortune it is to be domiciled there.

That the Rt Hon Lord Eustace Percy, PC, MP, President of the Board of Education, thought fit to honour the occasion by his presence, was not only a well-deserved tribute to the progressive spirit of the Governors, but the Head Master (Mr J Clement Pratt), to whose work in contributing to the lengthening of school life his lordship paid a well-deserved compliment.

Lord Eustace Percy was highly impressed with the general tone of the School, its lofty, spick and span classrooms, and particularly its important aim at imparting knowledge expressly suited to the requirements of the district it serves. The significance the President of the Board of Education attaches to this aspect of school life is, perhaps, well defined in these words: "I hope that in schools like this we are going to test how we can make the secondary schools of this country a real element in the life and livelihood of agricultural areas, and how agricultural science may be made a medium for giving an all-round education, and I am sure that if you devote your minds to that problem you will have a greater success than perhaps, you realise."

Briefly, the events which lead up to the purchase of Beechurst for the Soham Grammar School were the increasing number of the boys in attendance and the overcrowding of the School buildings. Even the laboratory and two rooms in the People's Hall were used as form rooms, and not only were these crowded, but unsuitable in every way. The result was that at the full inspection held in 1920, HM Inspectors suggested definite improvements to the building. The economy campaign, however, prevented any immediate steps being taken, and it was not until 1924 that some concrete proposals were put forward in the shape of extensions to the school buildings. The extensions, which were to cost £2,000 to £3,000, included new classrooms, cloakrooms, and other requirements. Plans had already been prepared and tenders were about to be invited - if that had not already been done - when two other properties were offered the Governors. One of these was "Beechurst", and arrangements were made to inspect the premises.

HM Inspectors, who accompanied the Governors, recommended the purchase in preference to any scheme of building on the old site, and as the Governors were also attracted by the offer the Cambridgeshire County Council was recommended to purchase "Beechurst" for the Soham Grammar School and adapt same. After a considerable discussion, the Cambs. County Council decided to do so, and the scheme is now an accomplished fact.

Beautiful weather favoured the opening of the newly-acquired buildings Tuesday afternoon. Lord Eustace Percy was met on the outside by the Chairman of Governors (Major Oliver Papworth VD), the Head Master, and the School Scouts, under the command of Scoutmaster E. Parry.

Subsequently he entered the School for the opening ceremony, which was performed in the presence of a large gathering. Major Papworth presided, and with him on the platform, in addition to the President of the Board of Education, were: The Lord Bishop of Ely (Rev LJ White-Thompson, the Rev G Porter Chapple (President of the Cambridgeshire Free Church Federation), the Vicar of Soham (the Rev JC Rust MA JP), the Bishop's Chaplain (the Rev VHE Ritson) , the Chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council (Ald MVJ Webber JP), Mr WE Mann (Chairman of Soham Parish Council).

Among others present were Mr HH Dunn (County Architect), Dr F Robinson (County Medical Officer), Mr H Morris (Education Secretary),  Dr JHC Walton, the Rev J Gray, Ald CW Stanley, Ald LH Luddington, Coun Withams, Mr AR Fordham, Mr Chas Morbey, Mr EO Fordham, Mr HF Beales, Mrs Mellish Clark, Miss Cochrane, Mrs Platt, Miss Allen, Miss Fletcher (Headmistress of the Ely High School for Girls), Rev RG Kennedy, Rev Bowen, Rev AJ Marsh, (Soham), Canon GW Evans, Rev TJ Kirkland (Ely), Messrs AE Elsden, F Butcher, A Pettit, J Chapman, B Touch, Cornwell, R Banyard, WJ Gouldstone, E Leonard, J Holden, P Lovering, AJ Randall, AJ Covell, W Unwin, F Howe, GF Fenton, H Ransom, H Palmer, CH Leonard, R Waddington, T Everett, CC Greensmith, J Clark, WJ Dimmock, J Plumb, the Chief Constable of the County (Mr WV Webb), the Deputy Chief Constable (Supt Winter), Messrs N Golding, A Bedford, H Hammond, and W Manning and several ladies.

The proceedings having opened with the tuneful singing of the part-song, “England,” by the School Choir, the  Lord Bishop of Ely led the prayers and dedicated the buildings. The Rev Porter Chapple having read the lesson, prayers were offered for the school and for all places of learning.

The Chairman opened  his address with a cordial welcome to the President of the Board Education, the Bishop of Ely, and the Rev Porter Chapple, and said that the school had been open since the beginning of last term. They appreciated that Lord Eustace Percy was not able to come down then, but they most heartily welcomed him, and, no doubt after seeing the school, he would be able to draw draw his own conclusions as to whether the Education Committee had been unwise, in moving from one building to another.

Soham Grammar School was by no means a new foundation. It was one of the oldest in the County of Cambridgeshire - (applause). The history of the school went far back into the 17th Century. It was owing to the Bedford Level Commissioners that a certain quantity of land was vested in the Lord of the Manor to provide a school to train apprentices. That took them back over 300 years to the question of apprentices, and he was one of those who felt that they had a great many too few apprentices at the present time. Being in an agricultural district, he would like to see more of their boys, when they left the elementary schools, apprenticed to a trade - (applause) - because with a good education and a trade in their hand they would never want for a living. They would be able to learn trades which, to a very large extent, were dying out in many of the agricultural localities. In 1677 the Exchequer vested the foundation in a Body of trustees, including the then Master of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, and also the Vicar of Soham for the time being, and in 1699, the School was erected. They would, therefore, judge that  the school had been erected nearly 300 years.

The school carried on that work throughout the 18th Century until 1878, when a scheme was drawn up under the Endowed Schools Act. At that time the School was known as Soham Moor School. In 1909 a new scheme was drawn up. and provision was made that its endowment should be administered under the name of Soham Grammar School. The school carried on its extremely valuable work for Soham and district until 1916, when, owing to various circumstances, it was thought advisable a change should be made to improve the school. It was then transferred to the County Council and they had a long tradition of secondary education in Soham and one which he hoped would continue for a great many years to come. They were not surprised that the people of Soham were very proud and very jealous of the school - (hear, hear). They had always sought to develop, and if they had lost it, many would have felt that they might almost have lost their lives.

Since 1916 and during the tenure of the present Headmaster, the school had grown in numbers and importance - (applause). Before the new buildings were purchased, it began to distinguish itself in the examinations at the Universities and Training Colleges. In 1924 the Governing body came to the conclusion that the school warranted and absolutely deserved improvements in its buildings, which were found to be inadequate from almost every point of view. The Chairman went on to detail the acquiring of the present buildings, and thanked Mr Dunn, the County Architect for the part he had played in connection with the alterations. The numbers in the school were increasing, and, they hoped, would increase to the extent of 200. He felt sure in years to come whoever carried on the school, would say that they had a school which was providing secondary education such as could not possibly be beaten in East Anglia (Applause).


Lord Eustace Percy, who was cordially received, said: Mr Chairman, my Lord Bishop, Mr Chapple, ladies and gentlemen. Major Papworth has said that perhaps I would be willing to say, having looked at the old school buildings, whether I think you were wise to move. Well, I think there are circumstances which would make it, perhaps, injudicious for  me to say anything depreciatory of your old buildings (laughter). But let me say this that attractive as they are outside. and as good as they think that for education purposes and for school purposes, they obviously leave something to be desired (laughter), and, seriously I think I may at least say this: That I wish,  as President of the Board of Education, that I was more frequently offered new premises for a secondary school which, at the same time improved the accommodation so much for the existing scholars, provided prospects of enlargement take more scholars than at present, and all for the sum of no more, I think, than £50 a place, which is less than half of what I am asked to approve for many new premises for secondary schools - (applause).

I think you may really congratulate yourselves and congratulate the Education Committee and the County Council on having carried out this removal so successfully, and so cheaply, and I need hardly add another thing, which, however I will add. This is an old endowed school, an old foundation, and one which local authorities, or Boards of Education do not create, though apparently, unlike many foundations of the kind you do actually owe something to the Exchequer, and may, perhaps feel more kindly to the Exchequer that educational institutions usually felt - (laughter) - but you are an ancient foundation, and this foundation has a character of its own which ought to be, and I am sure, will always be preserved. There is of course always some danger - - that is a danger of which we are all conscious -- that as our schools fall more and more under the direct management of public bodies that our school system may become too uniform and our schools may be reduced to too much of a dead level, but hitherto, I think, we are bound to say that hitherto we have avoided the dangers in our secondary schools  - (applause) - and our secondary schools which have come under the direct administration of the local authorities have been encouraged and stimulated by the local authorities to preserve their own character under their own governing body, and to develop their own life, for a secondary school is not merely a part of a system; it is an entity of its own and it must preserve its own character if it is to do its own work.

I have been glad to come down here, partly because it is my first visit to this county, and I felt it was high time I came down - (applause) - but, secondly, because this  school does, I think, furnish a very good instance of the most important educational problems which we are facing in this country at the present moment. Take, in the first place, the problem of a lengthening of school life. That is our great task. We none of us believe that it is a good thing for children to cease their education at 14 if it can be helped - (applause). We are all working, local authorities, teachers, administrators of all kinds, are all working towards a progressive lengthening of school life, and there are some people, especially, perhaps, politicians, whose business it is to pass legislation - for that is the object for which members of Parliament are supposed to exist - especially, perhaps, among members of Parliament, there is a tendency to suppose that you can solve that problem by merely passing a law and compelling more children to come into your school, or compelling children in your schools to stay longer at your schools.

I will not enter into the question of compulsion, but I will merely say this: That whether the raising of the school age is desirable or not, and whatever moment it may be desirable, we should consider the raising of the school age, where compulsion does not solve the problem - (applause). Your problem is not to get more children into the school, or to make them stay longer at school. Your problem is to provide them with an education for which it will be worth while to stay longer at school - (applause).   And that is the task in which we are engaged. It is a task in which we are making great progress with tho extension of secondary schools, the founding and developing of central schools and so forth, and in the last few days we have had published a report by the Boards Consultative Committee which sketches a whole programme - true, it sounds tentative and experimental - but it sketches a whole programme for the development of various types of education and I think we are justified in saying that the programme has behind it the great bulk of educational influence among all interested the proper development of our education.

And the great conclusion which I draw from a programme of that kind - a programme which will certainly occupy the attention of all local authorities during the next few years -  the great conclusion I draw from that is that our first task is to make our education more attractive and to attract children voluntarily to stay longer and longer at our schools. I said that this school was an instance of our problem, because that is what you have succeeded in doing here and I think your achievement is really remarkable.

Many other schools had a similar record, but I think your record is in some ways particularly striking. Let me give you figures. In 1918 to 1919, at the end of the war, the average age length of school life of the boys in the school after the age of twelve was only two years and four months. That is to say, on an average boys left this school only a month or two later than they would in any case have left the elementary schools. The length of school life, on the average, was not substantially longer than the length of elementary school life today.

In 1922 to 1923, that was to say, four years later, the average length of school life had increased from two years and four months to three years and seven months - (applause) - and whereas in the earlier date, 1918 to 1919 the average leaving age was 15 years and 5 months, in 1922 to 1923 it was 16 years and 2 months - (applause) - and whereas in 1919 to 1920 only 25 per cent of the boys who left were over 16 years of age, in 1925 to 1926, there were 61 per cent who left over 16 years of age - (applause).

I think I know that that result was being mainly due not to the introduction of any compulsory agreement by which the parent undertook, as they do now undertake, to keep their children at school until 16; it was mainly due to the voluntary action of the parents who wanted to give this school and their children with it a better chance, and a wish to develop this school on to a higher level - (applause). That shows what can be done. That shows the value that the parents attach to such an education as is given in this school.

I need hardly say to an audience like this, never be deceived when you hear ardent and irritable people say that farmers dislike education. It is all nonsense - (applause). If you provide an education that is worth while, the farmer will keep his son just as long at school as anybody else - (applause) - and a success like this is the kind of success which we are having already all over the country, and it is the encouraging thing in education that not only are we herding more and more children into our schools, but that the work of the teacher and the development of our teaching methods is more and more attractive both to the parents and the children, and that is the sign of the the real improvement of education which we have had in the last few years and which we are increasingly going to have in the future.

The second reasons why this school is typical to me is the enterprise in which you are engaged, and that is part of the problem of which I spoke before. The enterprise in which you are engaged, of developing an education that is sometimes called a rural bias just as there are various secondary schools in towns which are developing an education with a so-called technical bias which does not mean we are giving definitely educational and professional training, but it does mean we are trying to make a school like this fulfil a local purpose for the community in which it exists, and as the community in which it exists largely depends upon and is interested in rural pursuits and agriculture, there should be a school like this training in the education adapted to awaken in children rural tests and abilities for rural pursuits and rural professions. That is a great need, and I am sure it is a need which is felt in every rural area in the whole country, and it is a thing which is not particularly easy to do.

We have developed in the last 60 to 70 years quite well recognised teaching methods in the mechanical and physical sciences. It is comparatively easy for us to develop urban schools with a technical bias, but were have not in this country done much towards making agricultural science a medium of education, and that is the point; we are trying to make agricultural science as good a medium of an all-round education as languages or the classics or science - (applause). It is a difficult task because our teaching methods have not been developed hitherto in that direction, and we need experiment, and we need invention and thinking. I hope that this school is going to become a sphere of careful experiment. I hope that in schools like this we are going to test how we can make the secondary schools of this country a real element in the life and livelihood of agricultural areas, and how agricultural science may be made a medium for giving an all-round education, and I am sure that if you devote your mind to that problem, you will have far greater success than perhaps you realise.

It is because I feel that this is so important a part of our education problem that I hope in a day or two to announce the setting up of a committee - don't smile; I know that the setting up of a committee is always laughed at, but this is going to be a committee which will really do some work - (laughter) - and consider the whole question of providing courses of training for teachers who are likely to, or, who desire to teach in elementary schools - (applause).

It is for those reasons that I feel that this school is in some ways typical, not only of past problems in education, but of our future development in education - (applause). One has always got to be developing and adapting one's educational ideas, and the advance made by this school, and the projects for further advance it is making in the future show how live a thing our education is. I should like in view of all I have said about the success of this school in the last few years, and the progress it has made, I should at the same time as I congratulate the Director of Education, the County Education Committee, and the County Council, especially to congratulate the Head Master - (applause) - to whom, I think you will agree, this success, this improvement in the length of school life and so on is so largely due (applause).

I wish him and the school the very greatest success in the future, and I have much pleasure in declaring the school open (applause).


In according a vote of thanks to the President of the Board of Education, Ald VMJ Webber (Chairman of the County Council) remarked that Cambridgeshire, as far as its limited resources would allow, endeavoured to do its duty in its administrative capacity. In their endeavour to blend efficiency with progress they had seriously to consider the problem before them and see that they did not put an undue burden on the shoulders of ratepayers. That school was a very old foundation, and had for centuries past filled a niche in educational progress in the county, and her hoped it would not be long before they would ask the President for final approval for something on the western side of the county (laughter). When the estimate of the cost of the present school came before them, he did not think any member of the Finance Committee had the least hesitation is saying "Let us snap it; we are on to a very good thing."
The Rev JC Rust seconded the vote.

The Lord Bishop of the Diocese moved a hearty vote of thanks to the Chairman, and, in doing so, paid a tribute to the work of the teachers. No one knew, he said, how much service the teachers of our land rendered in present and past years. The Headmaster had already had his measure of praise and approval, and if he spoke he would say it was not through the virtues of his work, but owing to the excellent support of his staff that so much success was achieved. In addition to those factors and the proper housing of the school, the parents contributed to the school's life much more than they thought they did. Still another factor was necessary, and that was the governing body. He wished publicly to thank Major Papworth for his services as Chairman of the Governors and for presiding that day.
The Rev G Porter Chapple (President of the Cambridgeshire Free Church Federation) seconded the vote, which was carried with acclamation.

The ceremony concluded with the singing of a part song "Jerusalem" (words by William Blake and music by CH Parry) by the School Choir.
The guests then inspected the premises.

page created 27 Feb 20
with thanks to Mike Petty