In November 1877, the foundations for the Big School Room were dug: allegedly half as deep as the building is high.
The work was started under Headmaster H.D. Harper and completed under Headmaster E.M. Young. Harper felt the school needed a suitable place for the assembly of the whole School. Before this, the School’s assembly hall had been in the space now occupied by the Upper Library, but with the increasing number of pupils at the School (from 40 in 1850 to 278 by 1877), a much larger hall was needed. Harper proposed to the School Governors that the former assembly hall could be repurposed as a School library, which was then in the Oak Room of School House, writing ‘You will observe that our books have out-grown our shelves, and, I fear, valuable books are suffering in consequence; but it is obvious that the present insufficient Schoolroom would provide an excellent Library.’
The new assembly hall was designed in the perpendicular style by architects Richard Herbert Carpenter (1841-1893) and Benjamin Ingelow (1835-1926). Carpenter and Ingelow’s work can also be seen in the north aisle of the School chapel and cloister underneath (1877-1879), the West cloister of the Courts (1880), the north chancel aisle of the School chapel (1881), the north-west range of classrooms in the Courts (1883), and the west wing addition to Abbey House (1887).
Louis Napoleon Parker (Director of School Music and Master of the 1905 Sherborne Pageant) tells in his autobiography, Several of My Lives, how in 1877 ‘I was examining these foundations one day, thinking what a fine concert hall the room would have made, when Dr Harper suddenly knocked all the wind out of me with one of his genial and gigantic slaps on the back. ‘Aha,’ he roared, ‘you’re thinking you’ll have that room for your music! But you won’t.’ Luckily, for Parker, Harper left Sherborne at the end of 1877 and his replacement, E.M. Young, was ‘a devotee of the arts, a connoisseur and dilettante’ who, on his first meeting with Parker, instructed him to design an orchestral platform for the new assembly hall. The new hall turned out to have excellent acoustics, although, by 1980, Hugh Bonneville was writing in The Shirburnian complaining that the acoustics were so bad for acting purposes that ‘frustrated youths bellow their heads off in a vain attempt to be heard in all parts of what is in fact just a broad corridor’.
A photograph of the interior of the Big School Room in 1879 shows the hall in its original orientation, with Parker’s platform at the north end, backed by honours boards. A curtain rail across the middle of the room allowed for the room to be divided and the south end, with tilt-backed benches, providing additional teaching space. At the south end was also a shallow gallery, approached by a narrow spiral staircase. It was only following the extension of the hall in 1956 (by Old Shirburnian architects, Oswald Brakspear and Rowland de Winton Aldridge) as a Second World War Memorial, that the stage was moved to the south end of the hall and a new gallery put in the north end. Unfortunately, the original coloured windows were blown out when enemy bombs fell in the Courts and outside the Carrington Buildings on 30 September 1940, although a glimpse of what they would have looked like remains in the only surviving window on the staircase to the north of Big School Room.
Carpenter and Ingelow proposed that the new assembly hall (named ‘School Room’ on the plan below) should be 84 feet long, 28 feet broad, and 18 feet to wall plate. In April 1877, the School Governors approved the plans and accepted Mr Sealy’s tender (£5018 to enlarge the School Chapel and to build the new assembly hall and classrooms). The work was to be completed by Michaelmas 1878. In July 1877, plans were discussed for diverting the town sewer, which ran underneath the land on which the new assembly hall was to be built, and also Abbey Road, which then ran diagonally across the area now occupied by the Courts. In November 1877, the foundations for the new assembly hall were dug.
The new assembly hall was formally opened at Commemoration Day on 3 July 1879. The Headmaster had hoped that Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, the youngest son of Queen Victoria, would attend the ceremony, but due to the weak state of his health (he died on 28 March 1884, aged 30), the Queen had advised against it. The connection may seem unlikely, but Young had been Latin tutor to Prince Leopold during the winter of 1862-1863.
The chair was occupied by Mr G.D.W. Digby (in the place of Earl Shaftesbury who was unable to attend), with the following ladies and gentlemen having accepted invitations: The Bishop of Exeter, Sir W. Medlycott, Sir George Young, Mr and Mrs Baring Young, Rev. T.W. Knipe and Mrs Knipe, Right Hon. Montagu Bernard, Mr J. Floyer, M.P., Colonel Rattray, Rev. R. Roe (Poyntington), Mr Galpin, Captain Carr Glyn, Prebendary, Mrs and Misses Ainslie, Rev. R. Lovett and Mrs Lovett, Rev. Drake, Rev. H.H. Wood, Rev. Lester Lester and Mrs Lester, Rev. Vassall, Mr Newman, Mr A. Mansel, Capt. Biddle, Miss Goodden, Rev. C.R. Tate (Trent), Mr and Mrs Digby (Sherborne Castle), Rev. A. Whitehead, Rev. H. Whitehead, Mrs and Miss Whitehead, Rev. Hewitt, Mr Taunton, Mr H. Whitford, Mrs Collett, Miss Collett, Mr W. Leach, Mr and Mrs T. Ffooks, Mrs J. Ffooks, Mr C.C. Tancock, Rev. J. Tancock, Mr A.M. Curteis, Mrs and Misses Curteis, Mr Littlehales, Mrs Webber, Rev. Woodman, Mr W.C. Perry, Rev. J.C. Hudson, Mr W. Esdaile, Mr W. Bonham Carter, Rev. S. Hawtrey, Rev. M. Hawtrey, Rev. T. H. Took, Rev. W.H. Lyon and Mrs Lyon, Mr and Mrs Douglas Glyn, Rev. G. Thompson, Rev. R. Blathwayt, Mr and Mrs Blathwayt, Mr. Mrs and Miss Ashford, Mr and Mrs Clapin, Major Bogle, V.C., Mrs Bogle, Major and Mrs W. Digby (Chetnole), Mr and Misses Dale, Mr and Mrs Hutchings, Col. And Mrs Chadwick, Rev. T.R. Wright, Captain J.R.P. Goodden, Mrs Goodden, Mr and Mrs W. Shore, Rev. W. P. Goodden, Major and Mrs McAdam, Mr and Mrs Knatchbull, Major J. Warry, Mr Lewis Morris (author of ‘Epic of Hades’), Mr and Mrs Woodman, Mr, Mrs and Miss Bartlett, Rev. C. Onslow, Rev. C.E. Steward, Mr and Mrs Broadmead, Mr and Mrs Bastard, Rev. H. House, Mr Venn, Rev. W.S. Knox Little, Mr, Mrs and Miss Leys, Rev. C.J. Hill, Mr C.W. Spooner, Mr Sherrard, Mr F. Filliter, Mr and Mrs Taunton, Mr and Mrs Galpin, Captain and Mrs Russell, Admiral and Mrs Grenfell, Mrs Harris, Mr and Mrs Forward, Mr Fulford, Mr and Mrs Leggatt, Mr Wildman, Mr and Mrs Luff, Rev. H.J. Poole, Mrs Price, Miss Gibbert, Miss Evans, Mrs Hudson, Rev.A.C. Burnard and Mrs Burnard, Rev. J. Stroud, Rev. J. Wilson, Dr Highmore, Mrs and Miss Highmore, Mr and Miss Turner, Mr and Mrs Longman, Mr, Mrs and Miss Benthall, Mr W. Parsons, Mr and Mrs Ashford, and Mr and Mrs Blennerhassett.
The Head of School, Lester Vallis Lester (later Principal of Victoria College, Jersey), opened the proceedings with an address to the School Governors in Latin. Thankfully, a translation was published in the Western Gazette on 4 July 1879:
‘My Lords and Gentlemen, I am commissioned on behalf of the masters and my schoolfellows, to congratulate you upon our migration today from yonder ancient but over-narrow chamber in which we had barely elbow-room to welcome your annual presence amongst us, to a new chamber more worthy of our School’s increasing reputation, and better suited to its rising numbers. Perhaps there can be no clearer proof of what we owe to your care and judgment than the capacious dimensions of this beautiful building, consecrated to the service of the Muses, which you would seem to have erected less in reliance upon the past prosperity of the School than in the belief that its future will be equally prosperous.
You meet today to inaugurate a new period in the history of our little state. Hitherto it has been our custom upon Prize Day to listen to your kind words of approval and encouragement without attempting any speeches ourselves. But, today, I have to solicit your attention, on my own account and that of my companions, to the most successful of the prize exercises, Greek, Latin, and English, written during the past year, which, with your kind permission, we propose to recite. And perhaps it may not be distasteful if, by way of variation, we endeavour to raise a smile, at any rate upon the faces of the fairer portion of our audience, by enacting an amusing scene or so from the plays of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Moliere. I am well aware, however, that at present we can claim no right to the building in which we are assembled, and that, before we attempt any such innovation as I propose, you, my Lords and Gentlemen, must give us the right to play our several parts upon this stage. Let me ask, then, if it is your will and pleasure that these walls and benches should henceforward be devoted to the use of the School?’
The Chairman, Mr G.D.W. Digby, having complimented Lester on his address, expressed great pleasure at being present at the opening of the new assembly hall and was pleased to declare it formally open. At the end of the proceedings, the Head of School called for three cheers for Mr Digby, the School Governors, Old Shirburnians, for ‘Ourselves’ (the present Shirburnians), for Mr M. Bernard, Canon Farrar, Dr Harper, the present Headmaster, Mr Floyer, the Vicar of Sherborne, the architect, the builder, and the ladies. Afterwards, the guests were entertained by the Headmaster to luncheon in a marquee.
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