COLCHESTER Royal Grammar School is the oldest school in Colchester, both in terms of how far it can trace its roots – nearly 500 years – and also that the first buildings built when the school moved to Lexden Road in 1852 are decades older than any other in the town.
It was not, however, always known as Royal.
A plaque on a wall in Culver Street East, a few yards beyond the corner of Long Wyre Street, says: “Here stood the Colchester Free Grammar School 1585-1852”.
There is no mention of Royal in the title – and the start year could be said to be 65 years earlier.
A grammar school in All Saints’ Parish was founded and endowed in 1520 in the will of Mr Thomas Christmas, to teach grammar to 24 Colchester children.
It was located at his house (“Westons”) in Culver Street, and this became the “Free Grammar School” in 1539 when “the Bailiffs and commonalty” took it over.
The Borough bought “Westons” in 1583 and the “Free Grammar School” remained there until it moved to Lexden Road.
Therefore the start date of Colchester’s grammar school is not 1585 – it is 1520.
The first mention of “royal” I have seen is in Goody’s 1876 Colchester Almanac where it is called “Royal Grammar School of Colchester” – and said it had been “Founded by King Henry VIII 1539, Endowed by Queen Elizabeth 1585”…..but is that over-stating the case to justify the Royal accolade?
“Founded” by Henry VIII does not tally with the factual heritage I have given above, and in the next paragraphs.
The claim to “Royal” in its title stems from the fact that King Henry VIII, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries (between 1536 and 1541), ensured that revenues were granted to Colchester on condition that the town’s leaders founded a school, a decision which Queen Elizabeth I enacted in 1585.
But there was already a Colchester grammar school, so there was no need for one to be “founded”.
Nor was the school’s name changed, for the title Colchester Free Grammar School remained.
It was to be 350 years or more before full recognition of “royal” replacing “free”.
Official records at the time of The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act refer to “the town grammar school”.
How and precisely when the word “royal” became part of the school’s name is something of a mystery, for (despite the 1876 reference above) at different times in the closing years of the 19th century and into the 20th century the words “royal” and “free” were being used as alternatives.
Council committee minutes of January 10 1899 mention a meeting with “members of the Free Grammar School Committee” about “establishing a large and official school for secondary education for boys…….”
However, minutes of November 28 the same year give the description “Colchester Royal Grammar School”.
Advertisements placed by the school in the Essex County Standard in 1912 refer to “Royal Grammar School, Colchester” with that of February 3 modestly stating: “An ancient and honourable Foundation – in the opinion of Staff and Scholars The Best School in the World”.
This was quite a turnaround under Headmaster Mr J. Shaw Jeffrey, for when he was appointed in 1899 the School was floundering with only 29 pupils.
He transformed it, as demonstrated with an advertisement on March 16 1912 describing it as “a successful public school on modern lines”.
Shaw Jeffrey had introduced “traditions” such as the purple blazer, annual speech day and school song (with chorus in Latin) in a re-branding exercise which set CRGS on a path where today.
SIR BOB RUSSELL