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The Blue Coat Schools


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The story of Blue-coat Schools centres round one great school, namely Christ's Hospital, which with remarkable traditions takes us back to the Middle Ages. The school is now at West Horsham, but was formerly in London, close to Newgate. Since its establishment it has always commanded attention wherever the boys have been, by the costume which they were required to wear, both in and out of the school.

The dress, says Dr. E. H. Pearce, recalls the Tudors. The buildings, the fare, the recreations, the educational system, have all been transformed. The coats-or shall we say robes?-were of blue, and were made in 1684 and after, at Lichfield. From 1758 onwards they had buttonholes overcast, and the coats were to be always " buttoned by the Taylor with White Metal Buttons with the Head of King Edward the Sixth Founder of this Hospital." The lining of the coat was a brilliant yellow, and in 1636 it was ordered that "all the Welsh cottons which shall hereafter be brought into this House for the use of the children either for petticoates or otherwise shall be dyed with a yallowe couller," and the reason is stated in a later record, that yellow was supposed to avoid vermin, whilst the "white cottons is held to breed the same."

The blue coat reached to the ankles and was girt about the waist with a leather strap. The yellow cassock or petticoat, later in the school history, was a special provision for winter. The stockings were also yellow. At one time they had a very small black cap, but afterwards this was discarded and the Christ's Hospital boys went bareheaded. The boys have had the tradition that their old-world gown was once made of blue velvet, fastened with silver buttons, and an exact reproduction of the ordinary habit of their Royal Founder, King Edward VI.

If the Christ's Hospital boy's costume was picturesque, the history of his school traced back to an older world still, and was still more picturesque. The buildings of Christ's Hospital were the old Grey Friary, which formerly belonged to the Warden and Friars of the house of Saint Francis in London. All the Friaries were suppressed and confiscated in 1538, and these fell into the hands of the King, Henry VIII; the Grey Friary of London, "the House, with all lawns, tenements, gardens, meadows, waters, pond-yards, feedings, pastures, commons, rents, reversions, and all other rights or titles." Included with the "House" were the Grey Friars Church, with all its edifices and grounds, the friary, the library, the dorter, the chapter house, the great cloister, and the lesser tenements, gardens, and vacant grounds, lead, stone, iron, etc." All this property of the old Grey Friars was handed over by King Henry VIII to the mayor and commonalty of London as Governors of the House of the Poor, the institution called S. Bartholomew's Hospital.

Progress was not made till 1552, when Edward VI, while still a boy, had ascended the throne. Bishop Ridley preached a noble sermon on "Charity." The result is said to have been that the full appropriation of property was made for the relief of the destitution in London. Bridewell, an ancient palace of the Crown was set apart for the treatment of the thriftless poor, who had been reduced to indigence and want; S. Thomas's Hospital was allotted to the poor by casualty - the maimed, the sick and the diseased. Thirdly, Christ's Hospital took over the Grey Friars' buildings as a home chiefly for destitute children. The medieval hospital was essentially a refuge for the poor, an almshouse. Often it served the purpose of an inn for long-distance travellers on their journey, and especially for pilgrims; thus hospitals were literally guesthouses, separate from monasteries, which, however, had the hospitium in which the wayfarer was received.

The hospital proper exercised various functions in various places. It was sometimes a guest-house or a religious house, an infirmary, an almshouse, a poor school, or a construction of two or more of these functions. Where women were admitted the care of infants necessarily developed, and some form of schools for infants and children grew up. Thus Hospital Schools are heard of at Exeter, Higham Ferrers, Lichfield and other places. At the Hospital of St. John at Banbury one of the schoolmasters devised a system of teaching Latin grammar, which spread to a number of grammar schools. Hence the teaching in some of the hospital schools may be inferred to have been more than merely elementary.

Yet in some of these schools the provision probably was mainly for foundlings. This seems to have been at first the intention with regard to Christ's Hospital School. No doubt the suppression of the old conventional charities led to a restriction of refuges for the extremely poor, and the provision of resources for the various types of poverty-stricken people- foundlings included-was popular, and in acceptable continuity to the work carried on by the older medieval "hospitals."

Let us remember that the London Grey Friary was the headquarters of the Franciscans in England. The magnificent buildings had been erected in the first half of the fourteenth century, "a great, a royal, almost a. national monument." The tombs must have been as famous as those of Westminster Abbey. They included the tombs of four queens and many notable lords and ladies. It is said that from the first foundation of the Friary to its dissolution, six hundred and sixty-three persons of distinction were buried in the church and its precincts.

The traditions of the Franciscans pointed to some of the greatest English medieval scholars, such as Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Then there were separate houses for women-the Minoresses- which show that the Franciscans included women in their organization, just as the Christ's Hospital arranged for girls, first in the Christ's Hospital ' in Newgate and afterwards at Hertford--first proposed in 1776, as stated by E. H. Pearce. This girls' school at Hertford may be regarded as the first public school for girls in England. The Franciscan movement spread itself throughout England. Similarly, it is a mark of Christ's Hospital Blue Coat School that it became as much a national as a metropolitan public school.

The Franciscans or Grey Friars built the splendid church and Friary by Newgate, as Mr. Hutton says, "to the glory of God, in honour of St. Francis, in that loveliest decorated style, the style of the fourteenth century." But the finished glory of their architecture, for one reason or another, has been lost, and Christchurch, Newgate, which was built on the site of part of the old Friary Church, by Sir Christopher Wren, will itself in its turn become a special memorial of the spiritual home of the old Blue Coat School. Behind the pomp and glory of the Grey Friar, our thought goes back to the Founder himself of the Franciscan Order who bound his followers to absolute poverty as the basis of a religious life.

In November, 1552, three hundred and forty fatherless children and other poor men's children were received into Christ's Hospital, into the repaired buildings, for their admission. They were clothed in livery of russet cotton. This "russet" colour is more than mere picturesqueness. It is the continuation of the old Franciscan colour, which was first russet and afterwards grey. The leather girdle round the boy's waist corresponds to the hempen cord of the old wandering friar. We have already seen that the reason for the boys' colour scheme is said to have been "sanitary and not aesthetic." The charter from the King was given to the Corporation in June, 1553, and some of the children were also present, as is seen in the picture preserved in Christ's Hospital "A more interesting spectacle," says Wm. Trollope, a historian of the school, "connected as it was, with the recent change in the national religion, can hardly be conceived. Nothing so heart-stirring in its nature has, probably, occurred either before or since, even in the pleasing exhibitions of the more extended train of children in their annual processions at Easter."

It must be borne in mind that from its foundation onwards, Christ's Hospital has benefited by large gifts for new and alterations of old buildings and for maintenance, and for supplementary buildings at Hertford as a "seminary" and another at Ware in the same county. The original equipment of staff included a teacher of grammar, and of writing and of music and an infants-teacher (teacher of the "petties," i.e. the petits), two surgeons, a matron and twenty-five nurseries. The institution gave medical and other aid to the poor as well as the training of children.

Another Blue-coat school was founded by one, William Blake (not, of course, the poet-artist), a woollen draper of Maiden Lane, Co vent Garden. He had inaugurated the Ladies' Charity School at High-gate before 1685, and had afterwards purchased Dorchester House at a cost of 5,000 for a new school.

The first parish Charity Schools are said to have been those of Aldgate and of S. Margaret, Westminster, about 1693. Mainly through the efforts of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge which began its operations in 1698, local efforts to establish charity schools in the chief towns and districts of England were "stimulated, advised, and aided," until in 1792 Mrs. Trimmer was able to state that there had been no less than 1,631 of these schools established, in which there were some 40,000 children educated annually.

The root-idea of these schools was to combat the growth of vice by teaching poor children to read and write, and to repeat and understand the Church Catechism. To spell and read well meant, in the Bible. More explicitly the duty was laid down for the master to instruct in "the principles of the Christian religion as they are laid down in the Church Catechism, which he shall first teach them to pronounce distinctly and plainly, and then in order to practise, shall explain it to the meanest capacity." In 1709, 75 for a boys' school and 60 for a girls' school provided 50 boys and 50 girls, in exact case, with schoolroom, books and firing, as well as with clothing. One can see that such educational charity would not possibly produce a high standard of culture in the poor people's schools.

In one respect these people's charity schools did noticeably imitate Christ's Hospital, viz. in the matter of clothing the pupils in picturesque colours, and some confusion may have arisen between Blue-coat Schools and" The Blue Coat School." Thus, in Westminster, S. Margaret's Hospital was established and endowed in 1633. The master's house (in 1858) bears a bust of Charles I, and the royal arms, richly carved, coloured and gilt. The boys wore a long green skirt and a red leather girdle.

Hence, S. Margaret's was known as the Green Coat Hospital. The Grace used here, attributed to Bishop Compton, was the same as that said in Christ's Hospital. Then there is the Westminster Blue Coat School, instituted 1688. Next, the Grey Coat Hospital, founded in 1698, and reconstructed in 1706, when the school-house was built. The centre bears the royal arms of Queen Anne, with the motto Semper Eadem, flanked by a male and female figure in the older costume of the children - dark grey dresses, the girls' bodices open in front, and corded. Lastly, there was Edward Palmer's School, the boys of which wore black coats.

There must have been not only a multitudinous array of children in the metropolis when the charity children were gathered together, as at the Public Thanksgiving for the Peace of Utrecht, 1713, but there must have been also a bright profusion of colours of coats, blue, green, yellow, grey, black. So also, in the provinces. For instance, there was a yellow coat school at Cirencester where twenty boys were all taught reading, writing and the art of weaving worsted stockings, and twenty girls to read and spin. Colston's Foundation at Bristol (a.d. 1634) is still known as the Red Maid's School. Chosen girls on leaving school were to be given 10 or 20, for dowries.

These were all of the type of what we call elementary schools, but included, ordinarily, boarding and clothing. The idea of distinctive colours seems to have come down from the picturesque orders, ecclesiastical and secular, of the Middle Ages. Blue was a favourite colour for habits, as we see at Chester, at Witney, and at Birmingham. In the last-named city power was given by the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry to set up a charity school, to subscribers. The design, it was explicitly stated, -was to place poor children seven years and upwards under the protection of the subscribers, "in loco parentum," to be clothed, maintained, and bound apprentices. Bequest followed bequest and showed what a recognized need was being met. An interesting point at Birmingham was that a Mr. Fentham, in 1690, bequeathed land for four poor boys and one girl, stipulating that his beneficiaries in the Blue Coat School should wear distinctive coats and gowns of coarse green cloth.

But blue was the prevailing colour. At Lincoln, in 1602, Richard Smith, a college doctor, left land for a Blue-coat School for twelve boys, who wore dress similar to the London School, and in certain ways imitated that great example-as, for instance, in the procession, on S. Thomas' Day, to S. Mark's Church, parallel to the processions of the Christ's Hospital boys at Easter at the Spital Sermons, and on S. Matthew's Day to the City.

But with its great, historical traditions and its unique development from (substantially) a paupers' school, Christ's Hospital, "The Blue Coat School," stands altogether apart from all the other elementary or semi-secondary schools framed on it as model, notwithstanding all the superficial resemblance. The liberal provision of exhibitions to the old Universities has paved the way to high academic successes.

The early provision of the Writing School, the Drawing School, together with the establishment of the Royal Mathematical School, which brought in the interest of Isaac Newton, Flamstead, etc., gave a unique impetus to a modern education, helpful to those going into commercial and naval pursuits. Christ's Hospital, therefore, has evolved a two-fold reputation as a Public School, viz. the usual classical tradition and pioneership in modern subjects. Like others of the great Public Schools, Christ's Hospital has its own terminology. Thus the Upper Grammar School has its Grecians, Deputy Grecians, its Great Erasmus and its Little Erasmus. The latter names refer to the larger and the smaller books containing the colloquies of Erasmus, the famous Renaissance scholar.

There is to be noted at Christ's Hospital a sort of Golden Age. Charles Lamb has immortalised the schoolmaster of his day, at Christ's Hospital, the Rev. James Boyer. "He has a heavy hand. I have known him double his knotty fist at a poor trembling child (the maternal milk hardly dry upon its lips) with a 'Sirrah, do you presume to set your wits at me?' In his gentler moods, when the 'rabidus furor' was assuaged, he had resort to an ingenious method, peculiar from what I have heard to himself, of whipping the boy and reading the Debates at the same time; a paragraph and a lash between." It has been said that though the traditions of his severity carry us back to the period of the Monastic Schools, Boyer was one of the ablest masters the school ever had. Coleridge mentions that Boyer early moulded his taste to sound preferences in classical authors.

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Pictures for The Blue Coat Schools

Blue Coat Boys in the Cloisters of Christs Hospital, West Horsham
Blue Coat Boys in the Cloisters of Christs Hospital, West Horsham >>>>
Entrance to Old Christs Hospital
Entrance to Old Christs Hospital >>>>
The Blue Coat School at Westminster
The Blue Coat School at Westminster >>>>
Entrance to the Quadrangle of Christ's Hospital at Horsham
Entrance to the Quadrangle of Christ's Hospital at Horsham >>>>
Big School and Speech Day: the new Dinning Hall and its old Furnishings
Big School and Speech Day: the new Dinning Hall and its old Furnishings >>>>
The School chapel, and the Library, Which also a Museum
The School chapel, and the Library, Which also a Museum >>>>
Girl Blue Coats at Heretford, and the Blue Coat Schools at Birmingham and Chester
Girl Blue Coats at Heretford, and the Blue Coat Schools at Birmingham and Chester >>>>
Lord Mayor's gift of a Guinea to the Head Boy of Christs Hospital
Lord Mayor's gift of a Guinea to the Head Boy of Christs Hospital >>>>
Nottingham's Blue Coat School
Nottingham's Blue Coat School >>>>

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