Transcribed from – YORKSHIRE LIFE November 1973, pp82-85.
[Scanned illustrations on-line here.]
Prior Pursglove College, Guisborough.
A “little Free school” of Tudor times becomes a pioneer of modern education.
by A. L. Laishley
The Prior Pursglove Sixth Form College stands in a quiet corner of the busy Cleveland town of Guisborough, set apart in its own lovely grounds. Almost within the shadow of the ancient church and the ruins of the great priory, it still stands on the original site of its humble little ancestor “the Free School of Jesus”. Together with a hospital for the elderly, this was founded by the last Prior, Robert Pursglove, in the days of the first Elizabeth.
During the four hundred years which spanned the reigns of the two Elizabeths, Robert Pursglove’s school had a somewhat chequered career, and by the 19th century one record speaks of a ”desolate classroom in which the venerable instructor sat at a table with three little dirty ragged urchins . . . who were declining hic, haec, hoc felix” surrounded by empty forms and benches. This pathetic state of affairs would no doubt have ended in closure and the loss of the school for ever had not government help been forthcoming. Instead, a member of the Royal Commission set up to Inquire into the condition of Endowed Schools was able to report in 1864 that the boys (how many is not stated) were by then being given a ”sound education” and that ”a little further development would enable the school to fulfill the purpose of its foundation . . .”
As a result, Pursglove’s Statutes were scrapped in order to bring the school up to “modern” standards, an entirely new scheme was drawn up, and the grammar school was faced with a major re-organisation. The last surviving Old Scholar who witnessed the change-over was Mr. Arden Barker, of Saltburn, who was a Pursglove boy in the 1870s and as an old man would recall how, in his youth, the boys lived side by side with the pensioners of the Hospital, the men in frock coats and the women in long blue petticoats. In 1887 the school was entirely rebuilt to a design by the eminent architect Alfred Waterhouse, R.A.
The long low building, however, which forms the school frontage is reminiscent of its Tudor predecessor, and above the central arch an inscription records the date of the original foundation and that of the rebuilding in Victorian days. Today, its red brick outlines are softened by virginia creeper, the lawns are green in front of it, and by the gate are two old sycamore trees and a Turkish oak. Links with the past include a few Tudor stones which are incorporated into the school garden, and a stone tablet let into the outside wall of the library in 1961, the year of the 400th birthday celebrations.
More precious still, there is an old oak chest inside the library which belonged to the founder himself, and displayed in a nearby case, the original Charter and Deeds of Lands and Properties that were part of the 1561 Endowment. The chest is scored with the initials of many former scholars and several 19th-century desk tops are let into the wall to form panels behind It. Two modern reminders of the school’s long life, gifts acquired at the last Assembly of the 400th year, are a ”Mouse-man” table inscribed with the dates 1561 – 1961 (presented by Major – now Colonel – R. J. L. Jackson on behalf of the Governors) and the Deeds of a cottage in Swaledale which was paid for with the money raised from activities under- taken by boys and Old Boys, friends and parents. This cottage serves as a centre for outdoor pursuits.
Some fees were payable at Guisborough, until the Education Act of 1944 abolished all fee-paying, when it became once more the Free School its founder always intended it to be. There were considerable developments as the numbers rose, and it seemed as if its future as a grammar school catering for boys from a wide area of Cleveland was assured. However, with the recent introduction of Comprehensive education it found itself fulfilling and entirely new role as a sixth form college, one of the first two to be established in the North Riding (the other being Scarborough). The change-over has already begun, but of necessity some time must elapse before the fourth and fifth forms disappear. At present there are less than a hundred girls among the students, but when the Girls Grammar School at Redcar becomes a middle-school for eleven- to sixteen-year-olds the Prior Pursglove College will be fully co-educational.
As a sixth form college the school no longer has a selective intake but is fed automatically from five Comprehensive schools, the choice of leaving school or entering the college being left to the pupils.
The grammar school was originally built for about three hundred and fifty boys. With girls as well as boys to be catered for in future, together with students who incline towards the practical subjects, in addition to the academically clever, major extensions have been started and when they are completed they will include six laboratories (both science and language labs.), a library twice the size of the present one, and a somewhat complex block comprising subjects which are inter-dependent one upon another – art, needlework, photography, housecraft, weaving, ceramics, fabric printing, wood- and metal-work.
Outside activities include golf and sailing, canoe-ing and rock climbing. Forms, as such are “out”; instead, there are tutorial groups, with facilities for private study, and leisure and social activities, in order to bridge the gap between school and university.
If Robert Pursglove could return, one wonders what he would think of his so- changed “little Free school”. Would he find it strange, or would he accept it as the modern concept of education ? One thing is certain – he would be pleased to find he is still remembered and honoured. For, as near as possible to Ascension Day, there is an Annual Founder’s Service in the parish church.