A History of Newent Community School
By an Old Newentian
‘There does, in fact, appear to be an irreducible ideological component in every historical account of reality.’
Hayden White (1983)
Newent Community School was first founded c. 1435, by the minor nobleman Sir Edward de Newent. De Newent endowed the school with the intention of educating the sons of the Gloucestershire baronetcy, including the Marquis Otis Ferry (attended c.1492-98), whose name can still be found engraved on the school lectern.
Newent Academy, as it was then known, instructed its scholars in the disciplines thought suitable for the children of nobles; Theology, Rhetorique, Astrologie and Special Physical Education. Newent Academy also had a strong emphasis on farming, reflecting the need for agricultural revival in the wake of the Black Death. This symbiosis of the arts and agrarian skills remains a constant in the life of Newent (today’s students still proudly sporting the crest of stars and wheat sheaves.) Newentians have an unbroken tradition of chivalry, perhaps expressed most clearly in their motto, ‘Fidem Praesto’, which surely means as much to today’s Newentians as it did in the 15th Century.
Newent: from Feudal to Capitalist modes of production.
The next few centuries were turbulent times for Newent. With the declining fortunes of the de Newent dynasty, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the demographic of Newent students changed significantly. Newent students now tended to be the children of local gentry farmers and industrialists; the establishment of scholarships such as the coveted Budgens prize led to a more diverse mix.
The emphasis on curriculum also changed. Newentians were now trained for a life of industry. The infamous Gorsley salt mine was the destination for many Newentians in the 18th and 19th century, with notoriously bad working conditions, while others had to eke a wage in the ice cream and chicken factories. Thomas Babington Macaulay, reviewing the Gloucestershire education system in 1830 called for Newent to provide ‘a class of persons, Newentian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.’ Those who excelled at such pursuits as Special P. E. were to provide the core of the Gloucestershire ruling class, those ‘interpreters’ between the government and the teeming masses in the Walls factory.
With the rise of nationalism, sport began to play an increasingly large part in English school life. Houses were created in order to foster healthy competition. Few images portray Newent in the 20’s and 30’s better than the black and white footage of Mountbatten’s triumph in the inter-house cross country, shot by a young Leni Riefenstahl. The thirties mark a dark patch in Newent’s history, when a young Oswald Mosley joined Nelson house as a Home Economics teacher. However, former pupils remember Mosley not for his subsequent foray into fascism, but rather for his famous recipes, ‘Blackshirt Pudding’, ‘Rum Putsch’ and ‘Chilli Alf Garnett.’
Oral History: Rethinking the meta-narrative.
Today, Newent’s students have very different lives and backgrounds from their predecessors some 500 years ago. A recent survey showed that 67% of Newent’s pupils described themselves as ‘obnoxious middle class cokeheads’, with 21% describing themselves as ‘hanging out in the SPCK car park.’ Furthermore, a startling 78% are related to each other, with 34% of these admitting that ‘she’s my sister AND my daughter.’
Yet in spite of these great changes, perhaps it is not too fanciful to seek an unbroken history of Newent in the rich oral tradition of the school. Surely, in these archives, we can hear the authentic voice of the Newentian, echoing down through the ages. The following accounts, taken from the Friends Reunited website offer a unique insight into the character of the school.
Many memories pay tribute to the rich sporting tradition of Newent, such as Chris Spry’s fine tale of ‘The Last Cross Country Run’
’Early 1965 approx, was the time that I discovered the only subject that took me into the top 10% was running. When Mr Millers gun finaly went off on the third, or was it the fourth attempt, about 450 of us, some willing and some not, charged up the field. It was an amazing experience.… What a fantastic memmory to store away & how great you felt collecting a bit of coloured ribbon during house assembley.’
Former pupils also have fond memories of former staff, and express their gratitude to them for inculcating them with the quintessential Newent values, respect, discipline, and a love of corporal punishment, as one Peter Clarke (who graduated from Newent in 1975) writes:
J . Miller and Nodder Simms , were a product of their times, I was caned by both of them, the thin and thick stick, I remember standing outside both of their offices in the hallway waiting for sentence to be passed.I also remember sentence being passed, on many an occasion. But I took it, and so did my Peers. That was Then, This is Now, We have come Forward, we do not beat our children at school, the same way as we do not send men over the top to certain death against machine guns.as in WW1. Sometimes you have to do something for history, Thank God I was born after D.Day.. Jack wasn't that bad, give the guy some credit, after all, we got here , Did'nt we?’
Yet as in any great institution, there is always the dissenting voice. Not everyone at Newent shared a love of sporting prowess and regular beatings, as this posting on the Friends Reunited message board by former pupil ‘JP’ Sartre (1935) shows:
‘Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped on to the bench, I no longer even knew where I was; I saw the colours slowly spinning around me, I wanted to vomit.’ JP however, remains in the minority, and stands as testament to the rich diversity of Newent, rather than as a criticism.
Thomas Arnold, later to become Rugby’s famous headmaster, briefly came to Newent on placement during his teacher training (1823-24). Though Arnold was only at Newent for a short time, his principles of muscular Christianity left an indelible mark on Newent’s consciousness. Pupils would cram into the small classrooms to hear Arnold’s seminal P. S. E. lectures, where he castigated girls wearing anklets for looking like prostitutes, and exhorted boys with long hair to ‘get a girl into trouble.’ The connection that Arnold made between appearance and morality remains important to Newent today. In 1999, Newent was the only comprehensive school in the country to retain a school uniform for its sixth form, a beacon of morality in a dark and decadent world of secondary education. It is believed that the tradition of the Headmaster conducting the weekly Assembly in an academic gown also dates from the nineteenth century; another feature of Newent life that surely makes it unique among comprehensive schools. Perhaps due to Macaulay’s influence, the life and even the architecture of the school reflect the great public schools- what other comp would refer to a concrete square as a ‘Quadrangle?’
Apart from the Marquis Otis Ferry, there has been a surprising lack of famous faces to graduate from Newent. Yet glancing down the Friends Reunited pages, there seems no lack of former pupils who have become famous in their own way. Karen Phythian remembers Paul Woodward, ‘There wasn't a girl in the school who wasn't in love with him. Who didn't snog him at one of the Highnam discos!’
This is by no means a definitive history of Newent. Surely there must be many rich archival sources hitherto untapped by the historian of Newent. I eagerly await contributions, memories and other clues as to our rich and varied heritage from those of you who, like myself, are proud to call themselves ‘Newentians.’