Brighton school marks 125 years with visit by Lord Patten

Posted On 20 Oct 2010 at 1:41 am

Statesman, academic and author Lord Patten of Barnes will help Roedean School to celebrate its 125th anniversary.

Lord Patten, who recently co-ordinated the state visit by the Pope, is coming to Brighton for the school’s speech day.

His day job, chancellor of Oxford University, is pertinent given that many of Roedean’s 400 girls may well hope to study for a degree there.

But Chris Patten’s previous jobs are also of interest to a school with a strong international mix.

His past roles include being a Conservative cabinet minister, a European Commissioner and the last Governor of Hong Kong.

About a third of Roedean’s girls are from Hong Kong, China and East Asia.

Another third are from Britain and about a third are from the rest of the world.

So Lord Patten’s visit – on Saturday 13 November – promises to be a high point in the school calendar this year.

Academic pioneer

This month marks exactly 125 years since the first pupils started at the school.

It was founded in 1884 by three sisters, Penelope, Dorothy and Millicent Lawrence. They were known as “the firm” and were part of a family of 14.

Eight of the 14 siblings taught at the school.

The first head, Penelope Lawrence, was something of an academic pioneer, having studied at the newly established women’s college, Newnham, at Cambridge University.

One of the siblings, Sylvia, designed the uniform. It included a smock or dress called a djibbah and was said to be based on a North African tribal outfit.

The youngest sister, Theresa, set up a sister school in Johannesburg, South Africa, also called Roedean. Today it has twice as many pupils as its Brighton parent.

The “mother” school opened in Lewes Crescent in Kemp Town with ten girls, six of whom were fee-paying pupils.

After ten years they were teaching 400 girls, the same number attending the school today.

At one time all the girls were boarders. Today three quarters of the girls are boarders and the rest, the day girls, tend to live within a 45-minute drive of the school.

Boarders’ fees are almost £10,000 a term. Day girls’ fees are jut over £4,500.

The school moved to the current cliff-top site in 1898. It was built on land bought from the Marquess of Abergavenny.

Unseen from the A259 coast road is a cloistered quad of the type associated with Oxbridge colleges.


Zoe Marlow, the school’s director of admissions and communications, said that the quad was the setting for some moving farewells: “We have a tradition of hand-shaking.

“At the end of the year every single girl has to shake hands with every single member of staff.

“It gets very emotional especially among the girls who are leaving us. There are lots of tears.”

She said that the last night before the girls finally leave the school there was a tradition of the Upper VI girls staying up all night and playing pranks.

“It’s a leavers’ privilege. Prank night is a tradition.

“A few years ago the girls stayed up all night and transformed the school into Hogwarts.”

One year they hoisted a huge pair of knickers up the flag pole in front of the school, she said, adding: “This year they put the head’s house up for sale on eBay.”

Torpedo school

During the Second World War the girls were evacuated to Keswick in the Lake District when the Admiralty commandeered the school.

It became HMS Vernon with the Royal Navy housing its Mining and Torpedo School there and using it as a training base for electrical engineers. Wrens – female naval personnel – were also trained there.

Thirty thousand sailors were taught at the site and as a result Roedean has the unusual distinction for a girls’ school of having an old boys’ association.

There were even a few weddings in the chapel, known among many of the girls as “the bathroom” because it contains so much marble.

Despite the school being such a distinctive landmark, it escaped bomb damage during the wartime air raids.

This was a blessing for the chapel with its beautiful stained glass windows.

The great gale – or hurricane – in October 1987 proved more damaging, with one in ten windows being blown out.

The lay observer would be hard-pressed to know thanks to a painstaking restoration.

While plenty of children in Brighton and Hove have had swimming lessons in the school pool, most people know the school only by its formidable-looking frontage as seen from the A259.

They have the Brighton-born architect Sir John Simpson to thank for this.

Secret tunnel

His design includes two towers – an early incorporation of what later became his architectural signature with the twin towers forming a well-known part of his design for Wembley Stadium.

Over the past three years the school’s imposing façade has been given a bright and breezy repainting.

As well as being necessary to protect the building from the salty sea air and the winter rain, it has enabled a return of the exterior to its original colour.

The austere battleship grey was a wartime measure when the building was concreted over to try to make it less visible to enemy bombers, later earning it a Colditz sobriquet.

Perhaps the secret tunnel contributed to the nickname – or as Zoe Marlow described it: “The not-so-secret tunnel.”

She said that it has 140 steps, taking girls down to the undercliff walk and the beach.

“It was used as an air raid shelter during the war. Our girls love it down there.”

The girls and the school’s supporters will be marking the 125th anniversary with a number of events.

One, to be held at the National Portrait Gallery in February, is an exhibition of works by the society photographer Emil Otto Hoppé, who took many pictures of Roedean girls.

Another will be a black tie dinner for Old Roedeanians in April.

There will be a concert in the chapel in May given by Roedean’s sister school from South Africa.

But speech day with Lord Patten will be the first anniversary event and will give the girls a chance to live up to their school motto – honour the worthy.

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