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News > Heritage > The history of Big School

The history of Big School

and how it looks today
26 Jan 2023
Heritage
The 'new' big School in 1954
The 'new' big School in 1954

In 2023 Big School is used as a Drama Studio with blacked out walls and blackout curtains.

It was originally built as a school hall, but curtains have often featured in the décor. In Feb 1954 the Bradfield Chronicle reported an upgrade of Big School with new windows, panelling, heating, lighting and floor. The article commented ‘it is the same old building, with the same pillars and arches; it is still too small for our needs.’ However, builders, joiners and decorators changed and improved the space practically and aesthetically to create a new Big School. See photographs in the gallery below.

The original building

The history of Big School began when the old building was finished in 1872. It was the first work undertaken by Bradfieldian John Oldrid Scott who was the son of Sir Gilbert who designed Dining Hall and son-in-law of the College Founder. When first built, Big School stood alone, for that side of the quadrangle had not then been completed and ended where E House or the SCR now begins. “It was built mostly of chalk, faced with carefully packed, graded and knapped flints and roofed with local tiles. Its stone-mullioned Gothic windows were filled with small leaded panes, as are most of the Beaumont Library windows above admitting a little light and even less fresh air. The floor was of ordinary deal boards. The square pillars supporting the arches of the colonnades were “enriched” with red marble columns, the gift of the Aclands [John Acland (G 56-61) and his family before him] and other OBs from Devonshire. Two handsome wrought iron birds stood sentry on each side of the fireplace. [Today these are located in the fireplace in the main Dining Hall.] Originally its ceiling was relieved by a plaster pattern, but this disintegrated and was never replaced. The lighting consisted of solitary gas jets, protruding on either side of each arch, just above the capitals.”

Two years after Big School was built, the north side of the quadrangle was completed and a passage, between studies, led in a direct line from Dining Hall to Big School. The rose window which had originally been placed in the east wall at the top of the Library stairs and opposite the door to the Beaumont Library was moved to light the recess to the upper singles passage at the top of the new connecting building. The space left by its removal is now a recess with a picture of Tony Hancock (G 38-39) which can be seen in the photographs below. Today the rose window remains a prominent, though unexplained, feature of this face of the quadrangle and looks lovely at night when lit from within. The Bradfield Chronicle feature also adds: “those interested in architecture have doubtless noticed that Big School was not quite accurately sited. The roof is not in true alignment with the main building.”

From 1880 to 1940

The Bradfield Chronicle reports that during Gray’s Wardenship there were “Honours Boards” over the windows and round the arches and on both sides of the fireplace, gradually covering all the available wall space in Big School. These boards were made of plaster and painted brown; the names were inscribed in dull gold. By the 1920s there was no more space and the boards spread out into E House passage. The stage was enlarged, gradually engulfing the westernmost pillars. The gas jets were replaced by pendant electric lights hanging opposite the opening of the arches.

By 1930 the whole place had become the essence of dreariness. The floor was worn and bumpy and drab. The “Honours Boards” were cracking and flaking and could not easily be restored. There were cries for a new Big School and plans were drawn for a new building on the Masters’ Tennis Courts. However, the cost was prohibitive, even in 1935. By 1940 the war had consigned the whole project to an impossibly distant future. So, something had to be done with the existing building.

In 1944 the Warden Mr A T Loyd presented five pictures from his art collection at Lockinge, Berkshire. They were two famous Burne Jones ‘Virtues’, a Mason (which is still in the SCR), a Briton Riviere and a lovely landscape by John Linnell which also resides in the SCR today and is pictured on the wall in Big School in the photograph below. They were specifically chosen as period pieces of the same vintage as the building, all being painted in the 1860s. It was almost his last connection with Bradfield as he died suddenly during the Autumn of 1944 leaving in his will a further £2000.

After the War

After the War the dark green, black-out curtains in Big School were bleached by a parent Mr J R Allen who dyed them scarlet. Big School took on a new look. The Bursar removed the few surviving desks and filled the room with steel nesting chairs, an un-Victorian, but inevitable consequence of the rapidly increasing pupil numbers. The Friends of Bradfield enabled the Headmaster to replace the pendant lights with heavy wrought-iron brackets and sconces, made by Frank Ford the Blacksmith and fitted where the old gas brackets had projected from the walls. The Council, unwilling to spend money on the building were compelled to sanction a second entrance in case of fire and agreed at the same time to replace the old Gothic windows with wide wooden-framed lights which lightened the room.

The Bursar at that time reported that the room was due to be redecorated. The Headmaster asked Council to allow use of the Loyd bequest for a new hardwood floor, for panelling, a dais and for new heating on a separate system with the Beaumont Library. The Council was adamant it had no hope for Big School. As a last resort the Headmaster appealed to Lord Iliffe, already a generous benefactor and asked for his help. He saw the floor and was convinced and consented to supplement the Loyd bequest with another generous gift and above all, he gave his support to the scheme. It is this floor in dark red gurjan and panelling that we see today. Down both sides of the room run a light oak seat, backed by panelling to the level of the windowsills, behind which a new and efficient heating system was installed in the 1950s.

In the windows themselves the old square panes were replaced by some fine new glass. The three coats-of-arms in the west wall dedicated to STEVENS, flanked by LOYD and ILIFFE can still be seen today. These three armorial windows were designed by Miss de Purron, working in the studio of Miss Howson who has been responsible for the new glass in Westminster Chapter House and in the Queen’s Chapel at the Savoy. They show the Founder, who built and our two Benefactors who made this building more beautiful. The windows, like the blacksmith’s light brackets, have been given by those Friends of Bradfield who contributed to the fund which bears their name.

Having felt like an unloved space during much of its life, Big School still supports the College today. Its history places it at the centre of College life from the foundation of the school until it was no longer used as a school hall, but for drama teaching as has been the case in recent years.

Any memories of Big School from anyone would be very welcome too.

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