Hillbrow School

John William Joseph Vecqueray, founder of Hillbrow School in 1859.

Hillbrow school was a prep school founded in 1859 by the Modern Languages teacher at Rugby School, John William Joseph Vecqueray (1826-1901), a Prussian from Aachen by birth. In 1922 the school was taken over by my grandfather, William Scarth Dixon. In the autumn of 1940 a landmine (or possibly two) exploded near the school in Overslade and blew out all the windows. The school therefore evacuated to Featherstone Castle, Haltwhistle, Northumberland, but never returned to Rugby. Mr Dixon retired in 1953, and for one year the headmaster was George Ronald Dampier Bennett, after which, in 1954, my father, Daniel Nicholas Clark-Lowes (Nick) took over. The school amalgamated with St Nicholas’ School at Ridley Hall, Bardon Mill, Northumberland, in 1961, becomeing Hillbrow-St Nicholas School, with Mr Clark-Lowes as Head. But due to irreconcilable differences between him and the ex-Head of St Nicholas’ School, he left at the end of the Lent term in 1962, and Hillbrow School ceased to exist. St Nicholas’ continued for a couple more years, before closing down.

A bit more history

Hillbrow Preparatory School had its origins in 1859 when John William Joseph Vecqueray, a Prussian gentleman born in Aachen (also known as Aix-la-Chapelle) in 1826, took up the post of Modern Languages Master at Rugby School. According to the 1861 census he was married to an English woman from Kent, Mary Ann, by whom he had at least five children. He lived initially in Dunchurch Street (now Road).

He started a small school (at this stage probably more a tutorial institution) in a building adjoining his house, which later became The Laurels Girls’ School, and was later still (in 1953) a BTH (British Thomson Houston) hostel. My interpretation of the 1861 census is that Eliza Chippendell, Mary Ann’s sister (I deduce that she was such from the fact that Eliza comes from the same village in Kent as Mary Ann) and other relations, were staying at the nascent school as visitors. There are also six boarder scholars, one ‘BA Oxford & Classical Tutor,’ a governess and five servants listed.

In 1867 Vecqueray moved to Barby Road, and in 1868 the name Hillbrow is first used. In 1870 he built a very substantial purpose-built school where Kilbracken House now stands (not the same building). I suspect that Rugby School helped finance this, and they may also have provided the land. But I’ve not yet been able to find any records to substantiate this hunch.

In the 1871 census Vecqueray is shown with his wife and three children, three assistants, nine servants and six pupils in the Barby Road (presumably in the new building). It seems possible this census was taken during the school holidays, because there would likely have been more boys by then. Perhaps those who were there stayed over the holidays because their parents were in the colonies.

The 1881 census shows the address, for the first time, as Hillbrow Preparatory School, Rugby. Vecqueray is now a widower, living with two of his daughters, three assistant masters, thirty-two boys and seven servants.

In 1889 Vecqueray remarried, and this was the occasion for him to retire as headmaster, though he continued on the staff of Rugby School, and was also a member of the [presumably municipal] Library Committee and President of the Town and Trade Association. He died on 26.12.1901.

Vecqueray handed over to Thomas Bainbridge Eden (b. 27.4.1845), who brought with him his small school, Orwell House, from Clifton upon Dunsmore, Warwickshire. His wife was Horatia Katherine Frances Eden (née Gatty), sister of the famous writer, Horatia Ewing. The 1891 census was undoubtedly taken during the school holidays, as it shows only Horatia Eden and four servants.

The 1901 census shows Eden, his wife, Margaret Mayler, the secretary (mentioned by Hubert Leslie, the silhouettist and old boy of the school, in his autobiographical sketch, Artful Art and Breathless Brainwaves), four tutors, a matron, nine servants, forty boys (including Rupert Brooke) and a visitor. Other famous pupils around this time were James Strachey, brother of Lytton Strachey and the translator of the complete works of Sigmund Freud, and Duncan Grant, the artist and member of the Bloomsbury set.

In 1908 Eden was succeeded by James Eric Armstrong Lush (born c1866 or ?1869 in Co. Sligo Kiglan). I think I can already recognise him in the 1889 school photo, just after Eden took over. Perhaps Eden recruited him – he would then have been around 20 or ?23. Lush is still the headmaster in the 1911 census, with Thomas Frederic Burdett (b. 1884 in Aylestone) his partner; there are also two assistant schoolmasters, thirty boys, nine servants, a matron-domestic and Margaret Mayler now shown as ‘Lady Matron’ (born in Taunton). The Rugby Almanacs show Lush as headmaster up to the 1914 edition (which probably reflected the situation in 1913). After that only Burdett’s name continues, so Burdett must have taken over around that time. Confirmation that this is so comes from the 1913 school photograph, in which Burdett is the headmaster. But Lush continues in all the surviving photographs up to and including 1919 (that is 1913, 1914 and 1919), and only disappears in the 1921 photograph. Why he didn’t continue in the Almanacs is unclear, but it rather looks as if Burdett and Lush exchanged roles around 1913, with Lush continuing as Burdett’s deputy, while possibly living elsewhere, or at least not being reported to the Almanac as being there. Lush died in 1960 in Brighton.

In January 1917 Burdett transferred the school to Overslade, a building which had up until then been used by other preparatory schools, as well as by a couple of private owners, since its construction in the 1850s. In 1921 my grandfather, William Scarth Dixon, negotiated the purchase of the school from Burdett, and in January 1922 he began his long headmastership with only eight boys (he’d been promised a ‘going concern’!)

The school was attended in the twenties and thirties by both my parents (my mother being a rare girl in the school), four uncles and several cousins. The total number of pupils averaged around 40. Click here to see a video clip taken from cine film shot around 1934. At around 6 minutes in my father can be seen pushing Miss de la Chaumiere in a wheelchair and at around 9 minutes 15 seconds in my mother appears beside a bus which is about the take the boys on an outing. There are also a numbers of sequences with my grandfather in them. At the end of the clip there’s a bit of Charlie Chaplin, the kind of film we were still watching when I was at Hillbrow.

On 14th November 1940, as the German planes returned from the raid on Coventry in which the cathedral was destroyed, they dropped two parachute mines on Rugby, one of which exploded a quarter of a mile from Overslade and blew out all the windows. The school struggled on to the end of term with boarded up windows, and then relocated. Overslade went on to be used by the Rootes Group, and later by Tyntesfield School for ‘educationally subnormal’ children. In the nineties it was pulled down and replaced by Westminster Overslade House providing nursing and residential care for old people.

In the late sixties or early seventies I met the headmistress of Tyntesfield at Overslade, Eileen Wilson Smith, and she showed me around. I was amazed to find the initials of three of the masters of Hillbrow still carved on one of the beams – OIS, RGS and JPW (I think they were). In 2001 I visited her again living in retirement in a suburb of Rugby to discuss her autobiography, Never a Dull Moment. She told me a lot about how difficult the building had been to heat and maintain.

In January 1941 the school reopened at Featherstone Castle, Haltwhistle, Northumberland, and here an explanation is needed of how William Scarth Dixon and the Clark family came to know each other, and consequently how Hillbrow and Featherstone Castle became connected.

Around 1910, after teaching for a while at Twyford Prep School, WSD (as my grandfather was commonly referred to) set up a prep school called Seabank in Alnmouth, Northumberland. His partner in this venture was H.B. Kitchin, the grandson of a Dean of Durham. (Some of the Kitchin family lived in Twyford, and had played an important part in the history of Twyford School. It seems likely WSD met one of the family at Cambridge, and that is why he started his teaching career at Twyford. George Bennett, who later took over the headmastership of Hillbrow, was related to H.B. Kitchin.)

My paternal grandmother’s father, Daniel Jackson, who had been the Medical Officer of Health for Hexham, decided to send his son Edward to Seabank, and evidently then encouraged his daughter and son-in-law, to send their children to the same school. Accordingly my uncles John, David and Ken Clark, and my father, Nick Clark (b. 14.12.1911), went to Seabank. During the First World War the German Navy bombarded Scarborough, and there were fears that Seabank, lying as it did in a coastal village, was at risk of being hit. My paternal grandfather, At this time my grandfather, John McClare Clark, managed the Featherstone Estate for its owner, James Hope-Wallace, and he must have told WSD that the castle was unoccupied because of James Hope-Wallace’s absence and then, in 1915, death in the war. WSD himself was at the time also in the army (the Artists Rifles at Catterick Camp), but had been invalided out of active service. Seabank School therefore moved to Featherstone in 1915 under H.B. Kitchin’s headmastership. I’ve found one or two references to it at that time in the local Haltwhistle Echo.

At the end of the First World War the school returned to Alnmouth, but to different premises, namely Foxton Hall, on the top of a cliff. WSD now found the partnership uncomfortable, and therefore decided to branch out on his own. A husband of his sister, Hugh Roberts, of the North British Shipping Company, helped him with finance (this is well documented at Warwickshire Country Record Office), and in 1921 he bought Hillbrow from Burdett. My father and his twin, Ken, followed him to Hillbrow a year later, and their youngest brother, William, came a couple of years after that. The marriage of my father and mother, the final link between the Clark and Dixon families, began to be forged when my father, by then renamed Nick Clark-Lowes, joined the staff at Hillbrow in 1934. He continued to teach at the school until 1938 and in this way a romance was enabled between my parents, which resulted in February 1941 in their marriage.

So back to Featherstone in the Second World War. Featherstone Park POW camp (Camp 18), which was first used for Italian prisoners, and then for German officers, was established almost next door to the castle, and an interesting relationship developed between the school, the camp authorities and the German prisoners. A field-marshal reputedly hoed the garden paths, and the best cook the school ever had was an ex-restaurateur from Germany. The prisoners were, of course, unpaid. In 1947 the POWs put on a performance in English of Hugh von Hofmannstahl’s Everyman. Sadly at a certain point there the camp Commandant changed and this cosy relationship with the school came to an end. In 1948 the last prisoners were repatriated, after an interval in which the camp was retained for possible use in a war with the Soviet Union, it was demolished around 1951.

In the immediate post-war years the school had more success in terms of numbers than ever before. Around 1950 thoughts of returning to Rugby (where the gym had been burgled and many of the possessions which had been stored there had been stolen), or of buying another property were abandoned, and the castle, which had been rented up to that time, was purchased from Mrs Hope-Wallace, the owner.

In January 1953 I became a pupil at the school (coming from Shrewsbury, where my father was a teacher in the public school there), and so for just one term my grandfather was my headmaster. At the end of that term he left, and handed over to George Ronald Dampier Bennett, who had been at the first prep school which my grandfather ran (Seabank in Alnmouth, Northumberland), and was connected with my grandfather in other ways which I’m still working out. These relate especially to Twyford School, near Winchester, where my grandfather taught after leaving Cambridge. Bennett was born in Twyford in 1903.

After only four terms George Bennett was replaced by my father, and departed after marrying the second form mistress, Marjorie Ison. We then moved from a detached suburban home in Shrewsbury to Featherstone Castle, a very strange change in our living environment!

In the summer of 1959 the school held its centenary celebrations, which I attended, travelling back from Shrewsbury, where by then I was at school. You can view many photographs of this event, as well as numerous other photographs of the school at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/76089261@N06/sets/.

The short final chapter of Hillbrow began in 1960 when my father, worn down by the impossible uphill struggle of making ends meet, decided to amalgamate the school with another nearby prep school called St Nicholas’s School. In January 1961 the amalgamation took place, and my father became the headmaster of the joint school at Ridley Hall, Bardon Mill, Northumberland, with a total number of boys of around 80. The ex-headmaster of St Nicholas, The Rev. Eric Evan, became the bursar, and his wife and son were on the staff.

The old and new regimes did not gel, however, and at the end of the Lent term, 1962, my father resigned, took half of the debts with him in order to avoid declaring bankruptcy, and Hillbrow came to an end. St Nicholas’s continued for a couple more years, before closing as well.

My parents restarted their shattered lives in Watford, with my father teaching at the nearby Habberdashers’ Aske school and topping up his income working evenings and weekends at a local petrol filling station. I had meantime left Shrewsbury and had started, and aborted, an engineering apprenticeship in a locomotive works in Manchester. In Watford I went to the local College of Further Education in to do the A levels I hadn’t done at Shrewsbury.

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An article about Hillbrow by Ross Mason, who attended the school from 1936 to 1939, when it was still in Rugby, was published in Rugby’s old boys’ magazine, Floreat, in February 2014. It can be read in a PDF of the whole magazine here. You will have to wait a little while the magazine loads. Scroll down to page 3 and click on the article called ‘Hillbrow Preparatory School.’ This will take you to the correct page. My thanks to both Ross and to Rugby School for permission to provide this link.


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