I think most people have heard of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, but if you substitute 'Executive Decisions' in place of genetic mutation, the same rules can generally be applied to inanimate objects such as commerce and schools. Everything has an origin, a period of develop-ment where it can wither and die, or prosper and go on to greater things. Such a school is Tavistock College.
Your college can actually trace its ancestry back to the year 981 AD, when it was founded by the Benedictine monks of Tavistock Abbey in an effort to preserve the Saxon language and culture. The Abbey itself was founded for the monks in 961 by Earl Ordgar of Devon (also known as Earl Orgarius) and completed by his son Ordulph some 20 years later under the reign of King Ethelred, who was his uncle. It was a rather remarkable achievement as Cornwall did not actually become part of England until 838 AD when the English overcame the combined strength of the Cornish Druids and Vikings at the battle of Hingston Down (Kit Hill area). Such a struggle would have probably meant the area was somewhat unruly with the two sides regarding each other with vague hostility and distrust - (not much has changed has it!) – and perhaps it was thought that the presence of a major religious institution would help quell the troubled spirits! However, tradition states that the founding of the Abbey was the result of a dream by the founder. The Abbey was endowed with lands in Devon, Dorset and Cornwall (I bet that went down well!) With the arable farmland, temperate climate and local mining, the Abbey flourished, attracting not only other monks but also the local populace who were glad to find the chance of work and shelter, as there was no welfare state in those days. Soon local traders were happy to relieve the monks from the boredom of business, allowing them to devote more of their time to religious duties and no doubt the more astute of the traders realised the old adage 'knowledge is power'.
Your school was originally created to preserve the Saxon language and culture, which was dying out. But the traders, realising the fund of knowledge that lay within the gates of the Abbey eventually persuaded the Abbot, one way or another, to allow his monks to teach their sons other things besides Saxon culture. Obviously this was of little practical value except for true scholars - only a handful of students enrolled and the subject eventually died a death to be replaced by theology, Canon Law and ecclesiastical history, grammar, logic and philosophy. Needless to say, the school was not exactly over-subscribed and although it survived, the numbers were small. But with the wealth created by the farms and mining, the Abbey extended its influence far and wide until it became one of the largest and wealthiest Abbeys in the southwest and well able to fulfil its Benedictine charter of sustaining, supporting, and educating the poor.
The college predates substantial amounts of modern history. For example in 1105, such was the importance of the Abbey and its school that it was granted a Royal Charter by King Henry I to run a 'pannier market' which exists to this day. In 1116, another event that still exists today was the annual three-day celebration of the Feast of Saint Rumon which we now know as Tavistock Goose Fair. By 1185, Tavistock and the Abbey had grown to such importance that it was granted 'borough' status and by 1295 the town had two parliamentary representatives. The area became one of the principal exporters of tin in Europe and in 1305 the town became one of four stannary towns where the tin was weighed and stamped prior to being sold.
And so the school was able to continue for nearly five centuries until King Henry VII died and his son, the rather infamous Henry VIII, came to the throne in 1509 when he was 18 years of age. It was at this point that the development of the school took a sharp deviation from the established norm. Henry VIII had inherited a fortune from his father but spent a large proportion of it within a few years funding his extravagant lifestyle though he did devise a cute way of avoiding the payment of alimony. By the mid 1530s he was in desperate need of more money. There is much conjecture as to whether his decision to dissolve the monasteries was triggered more by his urgent need of money than his quarrel with the Pope. After all, the monasteries owned a lot of land as well as plenty of money and presented an easy target. The dissolution began in 1535, and as the smaller monasteries were closed, many of the displaced monks came to Tavistock. Tavistock Abbey, being the largest in the southwest, was one of the last to fall and succumbed to Henry's demands in March 1539.
Within four months (July 1539), Henry gave the Abbey and its lands to John, Lord Russell, who became the 1st Earl of Bedford. However, it was not all plain sailing. The charter of the Benedictine Order was to provide sustenance and education of the poor and they had been very successful, but their destruction had created a lot of unemployment and resentment was high, particularly in this area. There was considerable social unrest for several years and the authorities were faced with a problem. Who was going to provide an education? The powers that be decided the most politic idea was to continue the schools started by the monasteries/abbeys. It was a combination of government legislation and local initiative, resulting in the formation of the Tudor Grammar Schools and the Elizabethan Poor Law.
Although a schoolmaster was employed by the council and the education was free, the subjects taught had little practical value as far as providing the practical or fundamental aspects of living - the provision of food and housing. The survival of Tavistock Grammar School was, in a way, a tribute to the prosperity of the area for the number of students were few and came from the wealthy families in the area who did not need to labour and therefore had the time and money to pursue more scholastic ambitions. For over 100 years it seemed to have no established building but used to meet in whatever was available – at one time the schoolroom was the loft above a stable. In 1660 a remnant of the Abbey was demolished and the stone used to build a schoolhouse but its location is not really known, though Betsy Grimbals Tower is a popular assumption.
For nearly 200 years, despite the production of many notable persons of historical importance, Francis Drake being perhaps the best known, Tavistock School led a somewhat precarious existence, bordering on bankruptcy and lack of students. This is surprising considering that in 1836 there were 17 private schools operating in the Tavistock area, which had a population of roughly 5,600 people. In 1837, the Duke of Bedford was persuaded to dip into his pocket and build a new school on the corner of Russell Street (the government did not become involved in the financial side of education until 1870). The new school was to house up to 40 pupils and Tavistock Grammar School entered the next phase of its development. The School master was William Beal and he and his assistant set a curriculum approaching that of today, introducing HISTORY, ARITHMETIC, GEOGRAPHY, ENGLISH LITERATURE, FRENCH, SCIENCE and P.E. along with the established subjects such as Latin and Greek. The school day was seven hours, six days a week.
The grammar school in Russell Street was a great success and by the end of the century there was talk of building a new grammar school aimed at those wanting to go into higher education. In 1891 the Duke of Bedford donated £20,000 to this cause. It was decided that the new school would be a fee-paying school, initially fixed at between £3.00 and £5.00 per year, which caused considerable upset in the town. This was eventually adjusted to one pound three shillings (£1.15) per term if the boy was under 12 years of age and £2.00 per term if older. There was an optional charge of one shilling per term for sports. And whilst the fees covered the cost of stationery etc, the pupils were expected to provide their own books. The furore that followed resulted in a promise that scholarships would be available for the children of 'working class' families and indeed, it was promised that 10% of the pupils would be granted exemption from the payment of fees. However, by the time of the revolution it averaged out at 35% though in one year, 60% of the pupil population did not have to pay. The fees would be used to attract better-qualified teachers to fill the three posts, and also used to fund the building of new laboratories (in 1902). Although termed the 'New Grammar School' it is now known as The Alexander Centre after the original headmaster, John J. Alexander, who won the post from 154 applicants. Although designed for 50 pupils, opening in 1895 with only 36 students, the numbers gradually increased and by 1921 the school held 121 students. The playing fields were bought for £500 and were off Green Lane, Tavistock. The curriculum increased to include subjects such as LAND SURVEYING, BOOK KEEPING, MENSURATION, DRILL and VOCAL MUSIC.
The existence of the Suffragettes, combined with the unconventional role of women during the First World War, awakened public interest in the education of girls and their stakes in higher education. The idea of a co-educational school was presented to the Governors of the Grammar School and in 1928 discussions began on a new purpose-built school. Building commenced in 1930 in a ten acre area, four acres of construction and six acres of sporting facilities. This is the building which most of us will remember as the Grammar School and is now the home of Tavistock Primary School. This was completed in 1932 at a cost of £15,300, but the finances were so stretched that fees had to be increased and set at three guineas (£3.15) per term, with a reduction of 10% where two fee-paying family members were in attendance. Though by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, for roughly half of the pupils, the education was free.
For many years there had been two lines of education in the one school, one aimed at higher education and the other aimed at the more practical side that is so essential to conventional living. Where would we be without our builders, carpenters and electricians? In this day and age, we seem to have plenty of doctors, but you try and get a plumber! The school in Dolvin Road was built in 1847 and was actually controlled by a religious organisation, the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor of the Established Church. The school catered not only for boys and girls but also infants. As there were only three teachers to cope with roughly 400 pupils, aged between three and 14 (the official school leaving age at that time), it developed a teacher-pupil 'Monitor' system where selected older and more sensible pupils assisted the original three teachers to perform their duties. However, in 1928, the infants were moved to a purpose built primary school. When the new grammar school was completed in 1932 the facilities of the Old Grammar School were shared between the two, but it was not a comfortable relationship.
The commencement of World War II in 1939 introduced a slight problem in that there was a substantial rise in the number of pupils - young families were relocated away from the cities and the younger teachers went off to fight. By this time the government was taking a much greater interest in education and it was decreed that everyone should have a secondary education. It had been decided to raise the school leaving age to 15, but this was delayed until 1947. It was also in 1939 that the concept of comprehensive schools was first aired to replace the trend of 'three or four schools following a particular bent'. The 10 acre site of the existing Grammar School was expanded to 26 acres and 1957 saw the merging of the Dolvin Road Church School and the Tavistock Grammar School to form one of the first comprehensive schools in the country. After several changes in nomenclature, it is now known as Tavistock College.
The contentment and stability of a nation is dependent on the ability of its government to look after its own people, which, in turn depends on the people themselves contributing in the form of taxes. In the past, this has worked reasonably well with the rich often providing for the poor. In 1355, even the Black Prince, in his role of Duke of Cornwall, when selling a quantity of tin at Lostwithiel added a stipulation that the sale was only to proceed if it did not disadvantage the local people and especially the miners at Kit Hill. There are many well publicised reasons why nationally our economy is in its present poor state. The effect is that the social cement of our society, State funding, is being steadily eroded and an age of self-help seems to be approaching. However, you are not from some small insular school leaving education to enter a world of strangers. You have spent several years in the company of nearly 2,000 other souls. When you leave Tavistock College you will still know each other. After all, you share a common bond for you all went to the same school - a school that has produced many notable personages throughout history, a school that can trace its origin back 1,031 years. I doubt that many schools can make that claim. This is YOUR heritage.
Acknowledgement: Tavistock School – the First One Thousand Years, by Gerry Woodcock.
Google web sites - Tavistock Abbey (various versions), Dissolution of the Monasteries.