500 years of cane and brain

Rouser 2013
Rouser 2013

Not many local institutions can boast spanning five centuries. Lewes Old Grammar School has just celebrated that distinction.

As David Arscott puts it in his recently published Floreat Lewys (Pomegranate Press) it all began in May, 1512, when a wealthy, childless widow bequeathed land and money for the establishement of a ‘free school’ in Southover.

The master of her new foundation was to be a priest, but one free of any distracting ecclesiastical responsibilities. Under him would be an usher, and both would be appointed by the Prior of the great monastery of St Pancras next door.

Its premises were a house and garden ‘lying next to the mylle called Watergate’. There the school remained for the next 200 years.

David explains: The day started early (6am in the summer) and it was long, finishing 5.30pm. Those hours were tough because they were filled with drilling and repetition ... and with the ever-present encouragement of the birch.

The teaching technique demanded strictness, not charisma or originality, and those who entered the teaching profession were expected to make their mark on the backsides of their pupils.

A candidate for the final examination in grammar at Cambridge University was expected to prove he was up to teaching by flogging a boy - under exam conditions, as it were.

Two centuries later the ‘creaking legs’ of headmaster, old Thomas Peirce, appears to be the main reason why the school moved to a new home - its present one - just outside the old west gate of Lewes.

The size of the building allowed Peirce and future masters to take in large numbers of fee-paying boarders.

Another century later and there were complaints that the distance and difficulty of reaching the school from Southover in winter induced many parents from that locality to discontinue sending their children there.

It’s still a tough job to to make the journey on foot through the snow today!

Pictured, Southover site of the original ‘free school’.