KEVIN GORDON – There’s education in Seaford’s soil as town was thronged with schools

Newlands School
Newlands School

The sad news that Newlands School in Seaford has closed is the end of an era in the town.

It was the last private school in a town that was renowned across the world as a school town, a safe and healthy environment for education.

There were over 100 schools in the town and from the 1800s until the Second World War the schools were the main source of employment; not only teaching staff were needed but laundresses, tailors, builders, electricians, groundskeepers and even chemists to keep the children healthy.

Seaford did not get a train service until 1864 and missed out on the railway boon.

Nearby Eastbourne was an elegant resort for tourists whereas Brighton with its fast train connections to London was more popular. Half way between, Seaford missed out. I believe that the council made it easier for schools to move to Seaford in order to compensate for the lack of tourism.

A 1924 reference book called ‘Choosing a school’ said “Among the points which parents should give attention to when seeking a boarding school for a child are: health (which includes locality, position of school, soil, food and provision for sickness) also social standing and standard of teaching”.

How strange that ‘soil’ comes before ‘standard of teaching’! Seaford was recommended by eminent London doctors such as William Tyler-Smith, Sir Charles Balance and William Arbuthnot-Lane and soon some of the local villas were converted into schools. In 1884, the huge Corsica Hall on the seafront became Seaford College. One of the pupils and later a teach at the college was Anthony Buckeridge who immortalised Seaford school-life in his famous ‘Jennings’ books.

Soon larger purpose-built schools were being established. In 1901 the Downs School for girls was built at Sutton Corner (the building is now part of the Seaford Leisure Centre).

In 1902 Ravenscroft School moved down from Warlingham in Surrey. In 1903 Annecy Catholic School was built and Newlands came to Seaford in 1905. In 1907 Bowden House School moved to Seaford from Harrow and in 1909 Ladycross school moved from Bournemouth. Chesterton School was founded in 1910 and Stoke House School moved down two years later. Two of the largest schools, Kings Mead and St Peter’s were built soon afterwards and the Eastbourne Road, Sutton Avenue and Firle Road were dominated by schools.

Two Seaford schoolgirls were to become internationally acclaimed actresses. Margaret Rutherford and Peggy Ashcroft went to different Seaford schools at the same time. I wonder if they ever met? Another actress, Penelope Keith was an Annecy pupil. Donald Campbell, the speed record holder went to St Peter’s as did Anthony Blunt, the spy and Colonel H Jones VC. Ross and Norris McWhirter were pupils of Chesterton and Richard Branson spent a term here. Even royalty favoured the town. Among the pupils of Kings Mead were the Crown Prince of Thailand and The King of Buganda (a kingdom in Uganda).

Seaford was awash with children, the parish church was unable to accommodate them on a Sunday so most had their own chapels. One Seaford doctor, William Pringle Morgan identified dyslexia while examining local school children.

The downfall of Seaford was the Second World War. Although the town had a healthy bracing air (and good soil), it was too close to the coast and was subject of many air raids.

Schools were evacuated to safer locations. Ladycross school moved to Gloucestershire and Kings Mead to Devon. Seaford College was evacuated to Petworth where it remains today. Many schools did not return after the war and the heyday of Seaford as a school town had ended. Domestic staff were increasingly hard to recruit and the town became less reliant for schools for its economic survival. Several schools merged or closed down.

Stoke House school moved to East Grinstead and Kings Mead closed in 1968 to become a nursing home (it was demolished in 2001) St Peters School closed in 1981 and, like Kings Mead, became a housing estate.

Some schools tried to diversify. St Wilfrid’s opened up to ‘day boys and girls’. Many years ago I asked Mr Chittenden the then owner of Newlands School how it had survived. He told me that although it was built as a prep-school for boys it later took girls and day pupils too, it had opened a nursery school and had catered for foreign students and even adult education. Newlands with over 400 pupils and on a 23 acre site closed on 9th July. The end of an era. Today the majority of Seaford school children are local but the town continues to be an ideal place for education – perhaps there is something in the soil after all!