Steyning Grammar School’s 400-year history

This year marks the 400th year anniversary of the founding of Steyning Grammar School.

Brotherhood Hall
Brotherhood Hall

Since its humble beginning, the school has developed to become the largest state comprehensive school in West Sussex, with a successful and growing sixth-form college and impressive international boarding house.

The history of the school is fascinating and began in 1614, when William Holland, a wealthy merchant from Steyning, left funds in his will for the founding and maintenance of a free Grammar School.

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William Holland grew up in Steyning before moving to Chichester, where he became a wealthy merchant.

The lower school site in Church Street, Steyning

In 1580, he became the mayor of Chichester, a title he held on three occasions.

He purchased Brotherhood Hall, in Church Street, Steyning, while in his late 70s and then, on January 25, 1614, purchased all the lands connected with the Church Street site from Sir Edward Bellingham, of Newtimber, Sussex, for £760.

Two weeks before his death, he made a will in which he left sufficient property to found and maintain a grammar school.

The school was known as ‘The Free School’ and its first schoolmaster, in 1614, was the Reverend John Jeffrey.

Old boys dormatories

It was laid down that no ‘child or youth’ of Steyning should be refused admission if he was ‘meet and able’, which meant they needed to read English distinctly and be able to pay a shilling to join the register.

In the early days, there was only one master and no more than 50 boys, with six boarders, and all lessons took place in one room within Brotherhood Hall.

Brotherhood Hall was originally a merchant guild hall related to the cloth industry, and was probably an open hall on one floor.

The timbers of this marvellous building are currently being tree-ring dated, but probably date back to around 1461.

Steyning Grammar School boys in old-style uniform

The building housing the original grammar school was formally the Guild Hall of the Fraternity of the Holy Trinity.

After a period of decline, a north country man called George Airey transformed the fortunes of the school in 1839, by bringing a nucleus of promising students from other areas and the younger sons of titled gentry and civil servants.

He was thoroughly involved in local affairs and was much loved and respected by the people of Steyning.

Following Airey’s 38 successful years as school master, there were 77 applications to fill his position, and the Reverend A. Harre was chosen.

Steyning Grammar Schools new boarding house

During this time, the boys wore mortarboard caps and short Eton jackets for church on Sundays.

The fees at the time were £8 per year and many leading families in the neighbourhood sent their sons to the school.

In 1908, while Reverend E. Lea was headmaster, the Brewer’s Arms was acquired and became the school library.

The first new school buildings were completed in 1910, which included a woodwork room, and, in 1913, Dormer House and gardens were purchased.

By 1921, with the advent of the railway making access easy from the surrounding area, the number of students had risen to 133.

By the time Reverend Attenborough succeeded as headmaster, in 1924, there was a much more relaxed attitude to education, allowing a greater variety of subjects.

Woodwork lesson in the early 1940s

Holland Cottage and Chatfields were both purchased in 1935, and by the outbreak of the Second World War there were 150 boys in the school.

In 1944, John Scragg was appointed headmaster and shortly after, all tuition fees were discontinued, although it was still a selective grammar school for boys who passed the 11-plus.

In 1952, for the first time, there were more than 300 boys, with 42 sixth formers.

Edwin Crawford was headmaster when the Shooting Field Secondary Modern School was officially opened in 1953, by The Duke of Wellington, providing education for nearly 400 boys and girls.

In 1964, a new boarding house was opened and is now named after its first and much loved housemaster, E. F. Bennett.

With John Evans at the helm, in 1968 the comprehensive school we have today was formed, when the grammar school amalgamated with the secondary modern school to form one large school.

A major programme of building works also began, to give the Shooting Field site the drama hall, humanities block, creative arts block and the octagonal buildings.

During the 11 years Peter Bolton was headmaster, the school briefly became one of the largest comprehensive schools in the country.

Steyning Grammar School has been responsible for the education of hundreds of thousands of students over the years, preparing them for their careers and life within an ever-changing world.

The school is now the largest state school in West Sussex, covering two sites with more than 2,000 students, 500 sixth-form students and with one of the most modern boarding facilities in the country, accommodating 120 students from all over the world.

The current headteacher, Nick Wergan, said: “Studying our own history this year has been fascinating for staff and students, and as a school we continue to believe in maintaining the highest standards of work ethic 
and learning.

“We are equally a happy and vibrant school, with a deeply held belief in our ‘Steyning family’ of students, staff and parents and carers.

“It is great to enjoy looking into the past and acknowledging our heritage, but we are a forward-looking school, with a teaching pedagogy founded in the latest research about how students learn.

“Through this combination, we are convinced that the next generation of Steyning Grammar School alumni will leave with the skills to be highly successful, confident and resilient young adults, to be highly employable and to have best possible qualifications needed to reach their full potential. I am so confident of a world in our students’ hands.”