Tutors ready to print book on history of famous Colchester college

Gazette: Former principal Alan Skinner and senior tutor Joan Gurney Former principal Alan Skinner and senior tutor Joan Gurney

GREY Friars - it was more than just a centre for adult education in Colchester. It was a trademark.

Hundreds of thousands of students benefited from Grey Friars education and when it was closed by Essex County Council in 2007, it left a mighty big hole.

But now, after years of work, former principal Alan Skinner and senior tutor Joan Gurney have compiled a history of the famous college.

It has been a labour of love and one which is tantalisingly close to completion - the first phase at least.

Mr Skinner, who was principal at Grey Friars for 22 years, said: “The project started when Grey Friars was shut. We had to mark it somehow, it was such a significant place.

“We put on guided tours and we were absolutely inundated.

“We had an exhibition in the main hall as well and so many people said ‘You have to publish this’.

“We said we will have to write a book.”

Mr Skinner and Mrs Gurney set to work on Grey Friars, Colchester’s Forgotten Corner - the Seven Lives of a Special Site.

Both have an enduring love of and affiliation with Grey Friars.

Mr Skinner led the college until he was made redundant by County Hall in 2005.

Mrs Gurney had first gone to the college when the building served as the junior section of Colchester County High School for Girls.

She joined the preparatory school in 1938 when she was six years old and left in 1951.

She became a biology teacher at The Gilberd School in Colchester but returned to Grey Friars as a senior tutor in 1974.

Her association continued as she was also a student there studying architecture and history of art.

For the book, Mrs Gurney has focused on the building’s architecture while Mr Skinner is fascinated with the people who lived and studied there.

Their coverage goes back 2,000 years to Roman times including the crucial period when Grey Friars’ central building was completed in 1755.

Mrs Gurney said: “There are some beautiful and unique features.

“The garden room had a big bay window on the ground floor looking out on the garden.

“It was a most magnificent garden and that room is beautiful.

“When we left, I took hundreds of photos of absolutely everything.

“I knew we may not get in again for years.”

Grey Friars was a private family home until 1904 when it was sold to French nuns and Colchester County High School for Girls took over in 1920.

They stayed there until 1957 when they went to their present site in Norman Way, Colchester.

Grey Friars then became a temporary base for students due to go to Monkwick Junior and Philip Morant schools.

Grey Friars became an adult education center almost by default.

Mr Skinner said: “In the mid 1960s, adult education was really taking off.

“Allin Coleman was the principal of the then Evening Institute. He desperately needed more accommodation and was using Grey Friars as an overflow.

“He stayed, sort of under squatters rights.

“It was forward thinking and it just grew and grew into the college.”

For the next four decades, Grey Friars became the watch word for adult education in Colchester.

Hundreds of thousands of students took courses to improve their employment prospects or just their minds.

It came as a hammer blow when the county council decided to close it.

Mr Skinner still feels passionately the council was wrong to close Grey Friars.

“It was a big mistake. We still believe that,” he said.

However, with funding from the Colchester Adult Learning Continuing Access Group and the Sharing Heritage section of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Mr Skinner and Mrs Gurney set about the challenge to ensure Grey Friars’ history would be remembered.

After years of work they are now close to completing the book and grants from the two groups will pay for it to be published next Easter.

Their research has stretched across the globe.

Mr Skinner has been in touch with the descendants of Dr Fenn, the last family to own the building.

Dr Fenn’s grandson now lives in New Zealand and has sent photographs and information from the family archives which will be featured.

Mrs Gurney, for her part, has been in touch with former Colchester County High School students to gather their memories of their days there.

She said: “I have been in touch with people all over the world.”

Mr Skinner said: “I am absolutely delighted about it.

“It is now turning into a community education project, just like we used to do at Grey Friars.

“Grey Friars to us was not just a building. It was a whole feeling.

“Grey Friars became a trademark for adult learning. It was an ethos.”

The work will continue after the ink on the book is dry.

Memories will go on to a website where people can interact and add their stories.

Grey Friars’ next incarnation will be as a boutique hotel. All in all, Mr Skinner is pleased it will still be used by the public and has praised the developers for the care and work which has been undertaken to preserve the building’s unique feature.

And the ethos of Grey Friars, the soul and the learning, that will live on too.

* Alan Skinner and Joan Gurney are still seeking memories for the project.

They are especially looking for a photograph taken in 1958 of children from Monkwick School in Colchester taken from the back of Grey Friars.

Anyone with information is asked to email access.books@btinternet.com.

Comments (6)

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5:44pm Tue 31 Dec 13

Route88 says...

It was a sad day when this place closed down. Over the years many people used it to enhance their qualifications so that they could get a university place. Now there is nowhere left to do this as far as I am aware.
It was a sad day when this place closed down. Over the years many people used it to enhance their qualifications so that they could get a university place. Now there is nowhere left to do this as far as I am aware. Route88

7:22pm Tue 31 Dec 13

Ozzie says...

I started back on the road to a great education at Greyfriars and the staff and tutors there inspired me to progress on to eventually undertake a degree and I also completed a postgraduate degree as well. I feel it was an immense mistake by the 'decision makers' to close such a fantastic educational establishment. I, for one, am eternally grateful for the way the college helped change the course of my life. I look forward to reading the book.
I started back on the road to a great education at Greyfriars and the staff and tutors there inspired me to progress on to eventually undertake a degree and I also completed a postgraduate degree as well. I feel it was an immense mistake by the 'decision makers' to close such a fantastic educational establishment. I, for one, am eternally grateful for the way the college helped change the course of my life. I look forward to reading the book. Ozzie

10:00pm Tue 31 Dec 13

Boris says...

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Mr Skinner and Mrs Gurney about Greyfriars. The history of that building is truly fascinating, and they presented the story very well, with lots of illustrations. The book will surely be a success when it comes out.
A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Mr Skinner and Mrs Gurney about Greyfriars. The history of that building is truly fascinating, and they presented the story very well, with lots of illustrations. The book will surely be a success when it comes out. Boris

10:02pm Tue 31 Dec 13

brooks says...

such a wonderful place x
such a wonderful place x brooks

10:07pm Tue 31 Dec 13

Hamiltonandy says...

Look forward to the book. Hopefully it will be as fascinating as the local books on the history of Essex County Hospital and our engineering hero Paxman.
Look forward to the book. Hopefully it will be as fascinating as the local books on the history of Essex County Hospital and our engineering hero Paxman. Hamiltonandy

6:36pm Sun 5 Jan 14

Alan&Joan says...

Thanks to all for the positive responses by email and through other contacts. These range from school and adult college memories to photos of artefacts dug up in Roman and Castle Road gardens. The influence of this special place can be seen throughout the community. We are also particularly keen to track down a photo taken of pianos being hoisted by crane when the Technical College (now Institute) School of Music was based temporarily at Grey Friars - and indeed any memories of this time. Much more to come later!
Thanks to all for the positive responses by email and through other contacts. These range from school and adult college memories to photos of artefacts dug up in Roman and Castle Road gardens. The influence of this special place can be seen throughout the community. We are also particularly keen to track down a photo taken of pianos being hoisted by crane when the Technical College (now Institute) School of Music was based temporarily at Grey Friars - and indeed any memories of this time. Much more to come later! Alan&Joan

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