The School Chapel

Celebrating the Centenary of our School Chapel

A very special and moving service was held on 22 January 2016 to commemorate the opening and dedication of the Chapel which took place a hundred years ago on 23 January 1916. The whole School came together to mark the occasion, not just with hymns, prayers, and appropriate music and readings, but remembering that the building stands as a memorial to those members of the School community who “studied, worked and grew here but whose lives were tragically cut short by the horrors and turmoil of war.” The first poignant reading was from a letter written in 1915 by OG Mark Hill(Howson’s 1906-13), killed in action 14 July 1916 to his widowed mother on the death of his brother Cuthbert(Howson’s 1907-15) who had recently been killed in action. The WWI Roll of Honour of 114 fallen pupils and staff was read out, and for each name a member of the CCF solemnly left the building, the empty seats speaking volumes to those present.  An exhibition was on display telling the story of the Chapel, from the laying of the foundation stone in 1912 to its eventual completion in 1916.

Worship before the Chapel

The School’s earliest statutes, drawn up by Dr Thomas Gale in the late C17th, decreed that scholars would sit together every Sunday in the School pew in the parish Church under the supervision of two masters. After the move to the present site in the early 1900s, attendance in Holt continued, but with the addition of a service held in Big School in the evening taken by a local curate.  An organ was installed, given by parent Mrs Gwyther in memory of her husband who had been a frequent visitor, and collections soon raised money for items such as a cross, vases, and tablecloth. As early as 1906 discussions began over the necessity for a dedicated building and a Chapel committee was formed.

At Speech Day 1907 headmaster Howson expressed his hope to see the realisation of ‘the deep and earnest wish of many of us’ to have a chapel at the very heart of School life. Plans were exhibited in Big School, but not everyone was in agreement, and there was much debate in the pages of The Gresham magazine over whether to convert Big School for the purpose or to construct an entirely new building.  At a meeting in 1908 the governors promised that a site would be made available as soon as £2,500 was raised towards the building. Deputy head J.R. Eccles acted as secretary and treasurer of the newly formed committee and eventually raised over £20,000.

It was Howson’s vision to make a chapel the focus of his expanding School, however, that was the driving force behind the project.  By 1911 the necessary finance had been obtained and the laying of the foundation stone eagerly anticipated.  One magazine correspondent stressed the importance of building a chapel worthy of that name, creating ‘a building round which the deeper interests of the School can centre, and which will always hold the affections of those, who, sooner or later, must take up their life’s work.’ He adds that, in a community where people live for so short a time, it is indeed the ‘hallowed walls’ which remain most in our memory.

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Laying the foundations

A new funding appeal was launched as part of the 350th anniversary in 1912, and on Saturday 8th June the foundation stone was laid with much ceremony by Sir Edward Busk, Chairman of Governors & Prime Warden of the Fishmongers’ Company, and the occasion marked with a grand lunch and stirring speeches.  One speaker, Dr Acland, stressed that the initial £5000 proposed to be spent would only provide a basic shell of a building and urged those present to give their generous support.

The Bishop of Thetford impressed on the assembled crowd the importance of looking forward as well as backwards, at once preserving and handing on the spirit of the founder.  He emphasised the significance of a great school in training the spirit as well as the mind and body, making the new chapel the ‘sacred gymnasium’ in which to prepare for the life chosen by God. Howson also echoed the idea of the building as a tribute to the founder, as well as being ‘a gracious offering to the glory of God’, declaring that “Our foundation stone was trust.”

After submission of several plans, the work was entrusted to architects John Simpson, an associate of Chatfield Clarke who designed Big School and Howson’s, and Maxwell Ayrton who later went on to design Wembley Stadium and the British Empire Exhibition of 1924.  The foundation stone stood alone for some time before sufficient funds were raised, but building work finally began in January 1914 under the direction of Bowman and Sons of Stamford. A meeting took place in Big School in July to discuss whether to build the whole chapel at once or to postpone building the ante-chapel as only £3000 has been raised.  It was decided to go ahead with the entire project despite the outbreak of war a month later.

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The Chapel takes shape

By the end of 1914 the oak roof on the main building was in place, the west end and porch were rising steadily, and the east end was complete.  Hand-made roof tiles had arrived from Loughborough, and the iron work and Latin inscriptions on the main doors were finished. The outside of the building was completed by July 1915 despite a hold up in the delivery of stone.  The interior was put together late in 1915/early 1916; kneelers were given by Gresham’s ladies, other friends donated a beautiful chalice and paten, and a bell cast in Whitechapel was presented by Eccles inscribed with the words ‘Ring in the Christ that is to be.’ The architecture of the Chapel has been described as ‘eclectic’ with its mock-Gothic windows, perpendicular style, unusually large roof, and fanciful turrets.  The building is unified by the use of local knapped flint and Portland stone, the interior is well-proportioned and furnished with the best English oak.

On Sunday 23rd January 1916 the Chapel was finally opened, although work still remained unfinished.  The School assembled on the cricket field opposite the west door while the headmaster, Archdeacon Westcott, and Rev. Field processed across the lawn.  Howson faced the crowd, key in hand, saying, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I open this door.’  The Chapel bell rang the summons to worship and sunlight flooded the interior, producing a wonderful effect, ‘gilding the grand oak roof in a remarkable manner, symbolical of much for those who cared to read it so.’ It was a great day in the history of the School and despite the lack of an organ, later to be moved from Big School, and a borrowed altar, the service would be ‘a richly treasured memory’ for many who attended.

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The Chapel becomes a memorial

Many donations to the building fund were in the form of cheques signed at the front by serving OGs, or given in memory of OGs who had lost their lives in the First World War.  At Speech Day in 1918 Howson announced a war memorial committee to raise funds to complete the stalls, panelling and screen. Howson himself died in 1919, some said broken by the loss of so many of his pupils, and was buried on the south side of the Chapel that became his monument, with the fitting epitaph ‘he being dead yet speaketh’.

One OG, Clive Rouse, writing later of the conditions at School during the War, summed up his feelings, “For a sensitive and unhappy boy, one of the greatest ordeals was to sit through the reading(daily or once a week) in Big School at prayers or in the Chapel on Sundays, of the names of all the Old Boys serving, wounded, missing or killed. For one whose own brother was in the trenches this became almost unbearable.”

During the 2014-18 WWI Centenary the Chapel has become the focus for our commemoration of fallen OGs and staff.  The first of a series of services in their memory was held on 14 October 2014 for John Kempson, the first OG to die in the conflict.  Each of our fallen will be remembered in Chapel on the anniversary of their death and a specially commissioned paper lantern lit as a symbol of Hope and Peace.  In November 2015, 114 ceramic poppies from the Tower of London installation by Paul Cummings were dedicated in memory of our fallen in a special service, and the poppies ‘planted’ in the plasterwork throughout the Chapel. The names of those who donated a poppy through the Prep School Parents’ Association are recorded in a special book of dedication.

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A hundred years of memories

The Chapel has been at the heart of School life since its opening, carrying out many different functions over the years, including weddings, confirmation, concerts, remembrance, funerals, and carol services.  We learn much of its place in the early years from the diaries of OGs such as Gerald Holtom(1924-31) who went on to design the CND peace symbol.  Holtom remembered the layout of the building, where ‘125 pairs of eyes faced 125 pairs of eyes across the aisle‘, which he found somewhat daunting and unconducive to audience participation.  His father claimed the roof was not properly tied into the wall buttresses and warned prophetically of future problems which necessitated further expenditure.

OG Anthony Ryle’s diary provides the following schoolboy impression of School worship in 1940 – “An awful Russian person came and preached, and there was a collection for promoting good relations between Eastern and Western Christians to which I gave 2d.” During wartime exile in Cornwall the School was able to hold services in Newquay parish church when the local congregation was not using it. Communion took place in a café on the Gannel estuary, reached by a steep path from the Pentire Hotel, its glass side affording beautiful views of Crantock.

A new organ, built by Conacher of Huddersfield for the Derby Road Baptist Church, Nottingham, was installed in 1966.  OG Joe Mason gives details of 1960s carol services, taken by the Rev D.C. Argyle, in his online autobiography. As a member of the Junior School choir he recalled practising the opening carol ‘Adam lay ybounden’ all term, and can still remember the tune, although he says, “The mixture of medieval words and the twentieth century composer meant nothing to me aged eleven; both words and music seemed equally ancient.” While it is documented that OGs remember their naive lack of participation and understanding of the Chapel services of their day, it is certainly evident that these ‘hallowed walls’ represent many ‘richly treasured’ memories for many members of the School community.