Described as a “genuine and beguiling one-off” by The Good Schools Guide, Monkton Combe School is currently celebrating its 150th year. Historian Catherine Pitt visits the school to find out more about its past

What connects MI6, the Victorian explorer David Livingstone, and the 1953 Ealing Comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt? Answer: Monkton Combe School.

Nestled in the luscious Midford Valley a few miles outside Bath, Monkton Combe School is a boarding school with a difference. It may be celebrating its 150th anniversary, but it isn’t the austere and intimidating Victorian establishment that you may imagine.

The senior school was established in 1868 by Reverend Francis Pocock, who had been a missionary in Africa, a curate to the Bishop of Sierra Leone. While he was abroad he had met the explorer David Livingstone (1813–1873), and it was Pocock who, in 1874, was called upon to identify Livingstone’s badly decomposed body when it was returned to England after being carried 1000 miles through Africa.

In May 1858, due to his growing ill health, Pocock and his wife returned to England. Their ship, the Candace, collided with a Dutch ship in the middle of the night, sinking with the loss of seven lives. If Pocock hadn’t survived, Monkton may never have been founded.

1920, First VIII, with coach on horseback

In 1863 Reverend Pocock moved to Bath in the hope that the waters would help his health. He became Vicar of Monkton Combe and in 1867 purchased the first few buildings and some land in the village, which would become the basis of his school. It is said that the social worker and religious author Maria Charlesworth encouraged Pocock to establish a school, just as she had done in London, to educate the children of clergy and missionaries.

Despite an inauspicious start with the death of his first pupil in January 1868 due to illness, the next intake of boys in the summer proved more successful, and gradually more pupils joined. Further land and buildings were purchased in 1869 to accommodate the pupils and to create classrooms. In 1874 however, Pocock came close to closing the school due to a number of staff departures.

The Reverend Reginald Bryan, who was teaching boys near Marlborough, heard of Monkton’s plight and came to the rescue, becoming principal in 1875. He was affectionately known as The Governor and in 1888 during his tenure, he established the junior school in nearby Combe Down.

Senior school dining hall, 1899

From its modest beginnings the Monkton school community now boasts more than 700 pupils, with around 400 in the senior school (over 260 of which are boarders). In 1971 the school welcomed its first two female pupils into the sixth form, and in 1992 the school merged with Clarendon School to become fully co-educational. Alongside the senior and prep schools there is also a pre-prep school, which was established in 1937.

Pupils come from as far afield as Hong Kong, Russia and Africa. There are now six boarding houses that pupils are allocated to, where they are cared for by live-in-staff known as house parents. From its missionary leanings in the 1860s to today, the school has encouraged connections with educational establishments around the world.

Looking through A Delightful Inheritance, the new book about the school, which has been published in time for the 150th anniversary, you get a sense that many of those who led the school, along with supporting and teaching staff, were inspirational and fondly remembered.

After the Second World War, Derek Wigram (headmaster from 1946–68) is remembered for introducing the tutor system while his successor Dick Knight (1968–1978) met the challenge of the more liberal youth of the 1970s with more flexible and open-minded policies. Today’s principal Chris Wheeler is equally enthusiastic in his role, abseiling down Bath Abbey in full academic gown for charity this year.

Not all staff were popular however. In March 1900 there was a rebellion by the boys against the school bursar (who remains nameless in the records). The pupils felt he had manipulated the school fees and was unfairly influencing the vice principal. The students “rose in revolt and…took (the bursar) to the pump, and pumped upon him until…he was very wet.” The bursar was then shut into the local lock-up. Further hijacks were attempted that month but the boys were finally quelled by April 1900.

­­­­­Whole school photograph, early 1900s

Pupils and teachers killed during the First and Second World Wars as well as conflicts since are commemorated in the school chapel, which was built in 1925. Monkton also boasts a Victoria Cross holder as a past pupil – Lt Col Richard Annesley West who died in September 1918. During the First World War 60 pupils and teachers died and in the Second World War the death toll was 77.

During the Baedecker Raids on Bath in April 1942 a number of bombs fell nearby in Brassknocker Woods. There was some residual damage to the school but luckily the raids were during the school holidays. The pupils had enthusiastically taken up roles in the Local Defence Volunteers from 1938 onwards, digging trenches around the valley and manning posts, including on the biology lab roof.

One evening in 1938 the pupils’ enthusiasm as volunteers almost went too far when a boy on night exercises, dressed in women’s clothing (the ‘damsel in distress’ if you like), was discovered by two local youths. The youths made advances to the damsel, and the boy was forced to explain, “But I’m from the college.” What happened next is not recorded, but one presumes that the damsel was left alone.

The school rules have changed somewhat over the past 150 years. Long gone is the ban on reading novels in the boarding houses, corporal punishment for misdemeanours, and the partaking of “intoxicating liquor at meal times,” which was permitted in the 19th century, according to the 1883 school rules.

The school has always been a pioneer in education. In 1968 Monkton fostered an interest in computing, joining with the University of Bath, which allowed pupils access to the university computers. In 1978 the school installed its first computer and by the 1980s Monkton had become the national centre for inputting and analysing data from 1,300 independent schools in the country. Today the school has well-equipped art and design blocks and a brand new music centre with a recording studio on site.

Sports have had a significant profile at Monkton, and 13 Olympians have been nurtured here including double Olympic gold rowing medallist Steve Williams OBE. The River Avon in the valley below the school has enabled rowing to flourish.

Cricket is played on the grounds known as Longmead at the bottom of the valley. This has been described in Wisden, the cricket almanac, as one of the top three most picturesque cricket grounds in the country. The school today has links with nearby Team Bath at the University of Bath and the school courts and playing fields have been used by sports stars such as English international netball player Ama Agbeze.

Present-day pupils in the grounds

Monkton has even been captured in film. In 1952 Ealing Studios came to Midford Valley to film their comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt, about a group of villagers trying to prevent their branch line from closing. The studios chose Monkton Combe railway halt (ironically itself closed in the 1960s) to be the fictional Titfield Station, and Monkton pupils were drafted in as enthusiastic extras.

A few pupils over the past 150 years have tested teachers’ resolve. Old Monktonians (known as OMs) have recalled their japes with relish online and at annual reunions. These range from releasing a live bat into the chapel during a service to removing every item of furniture from a classroom and recreating its setting at the bottom of the school pool. Many OMs also recall fondly the landlord of the now closed Viaduct Inn who would ring a bell in the back bar where pupils were drinking, warning them of the impending arrival of a teacher.

For a small school the list of OMs’ achievements is vast. Included is Eric Marshall, doctor on the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, Sharpe author Bernard Cornwell, TED talk founder Chris Anderson, TV presenter and journalist Seyi Rhodes; and Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 (from 1999–2004), a role popularised as ‘M’ in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Reflecting on the school’s anniversary, principal Chris Wheeler said, “In this our 150th anniversary year Monkton Combe School continues to stand out as a place which thinks differently. Aside from the stunning views, academic results and the passionate teachers, Monkton focuses on the journey of each individual in a way that is tangibly different.

“The thing I am most proud of is the difference you feel whenever you meet a Monktonian; at all ages our young people show a confident humility which is very special. I think our predecessors would see a school of which they would be immensely proud.”

The school fosters a family atmosphere, teachers remain at the school for decades, and many pupils come from a long line of OMs. As the school looks ahead, it is certain that Monkton will continue to nurture its pupils and adhere to its vision of inspiring young people to become confident, kind and ambitious adults who lead fulfilling lives.

• A Delightful Inheritance: 150 Years of Monkton Combe School by Peter Leroy is available via the school shop: monktoncombeschool.com/om-club/memorabilia.html

Featured image: Tennis court in quad outside the school, 1898