King Edward VII School Sheffield
- the very earliest years

by Chris Meakin [Nov 2010]

As noted elsewhere here in Don Nicolson’s website about King Edwards, the school is far older than its regal name would suggest. It almost certainly originated from the town school which medieval market towns like Sheffield, Escafeld originally, organised for themselves under the auspices of the church. They were designed to provide more advanced education for clever boys of the town - sadly only boys - seeking to enter university.

Typically the school’s master would himself have been a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge, the only universities in England at the time. The two institutions had been originally established to train clerics for the church and, by extension, schoolmasters of high moral and academic worth.

Oxford was the first university in the English-speaking world, derived from the similar institution in Paris which provided Oxford's first teachers. That in turn evolved from Bologna, the first university in Europe. And Bologna had been modelled on the Islamic centres of high level teaching of Spain and North Africa, which first devised the system of a Chair from which an early version of which a professor taught his pupils.

Oxford traces back to the opening of Merton College in 1264, which has the oldest buildings in the university still in use. Work began on the present Treasury in Mob Quad in 1288. Seven years before that, one Thomas Wood, also known as Boys or de Bosco,  is recorded as having left his school in Sheffield to visit his father at Whiston near Rotherham. It is the earliest evidence that there was a school in medieval Sheffield.

The only way boys could enter Oxford, and shortly Cambridge, was if they had been taught in their home town to the level required for entrance. It was - always has been - a meritocratic system quite in keeping with the school's grammar school era of 1948-1969.

That said, no long-term records were kept, or none have survived, until mention is made of Sir William Swyfte, schoolmaster of Sheffield in 1564. Meantime somewhere along the time line King Henry VI had founded Eton College in 1440.  Which school is the older? Who really knows?  And does it really matter - five hundred years later lifelong friendships between the two brands of OE, certainly from Oxford,  have been many and based on great mutual respect. Far more important.

The first known pupil at Sheffield’s grammar school was Robert Sanderson - a Sheffield surname to echo down the centuries if ever there was - who attended the school in 1564-1570. He went on to Cambridge and became Master of Rotherham Grammar School.

During Robert's  time at the school, the church burgesses paid Mr Yonge, the schoolmaster, two sums of 11/8d and 14/1d, or a fraction over £1.28 in modern money. By 1581 the Earl of Shrewsbury, Lord of Hallamshire, paid the school’s master five marks a quarter, again about £3. 34p in modern money, and this was later raised to £5.

In 1594 there was a prolonged economic boom of the Elizabethan era which grew out of the Dissolution of the monasteries after 1538. In that year the grammar , with 40 boys, was moved to new premises near the junction of Townhead Street and Campo Lane.

Ten years later in 1604 a Royal Charter was granted for the “Free School of King James I’, the result of a legacy of Thomas Smith who had died the previous year. Then in 1648 the school in Townhead Street was rebuilt as a low L-shaped building. The carpenter’s charge for building the roof was £10.65p. Sheffield was still a very small place. In 1615 its population had been just 2,207.
In 1709-10 a headmaster’s house was built next to the school, and then in 1776 a subscription raised £805 to repair the school buildings. By 1801, the town’s population had grown to 45,755.  A further quarter century on, £1,400 was raised in 1824 to build a new school in St George’s Square, in the late Gothic style. The building was eventually demolished in 1912 and the site occupied by the Department of Applied Science at Sheffield University.

In 1836 a different and new school, the Collegiate School, was opened on the edge of Broomhall Park to provide a more modern curriculum than that of the classically-based grammar school. But with growing competition from the Central Higher School - the forerunner of today’s High Storrs and paid for by the town rates - it was decided in 1884 to merge the two independent fee-paying Collegiate and Grammar Schools using the former’s premises in what later became the College of Education.

In so doing they became the Sheffield Royal Grammar School. By 1897 the SRGS averaged 160-180 boys on the roll, and comprised six classrooms, a workshop, a chemistry laboratory and a small physics room in addition to the central hall. Among the alumni was Dr K E Kirk,  who became Bishop of Oxford.

In 1905, the Wesley College in its splendid 1838 buildings on Clarkehouse Road,  ran into financial difficulties. So in 1906 it was amalgamated with the Royal Grammar School of 1884 to form King Edward VII School. With 317 boys it was housed temporarily in Leopold Street before moving into today’s imposing premises in 1906. The rest, as they say, is history.

So exactly how old is King Edward VII School Sheffield? Is it entitled to trace its origins to the thirteenth century and if not, what else became of the school then in the small town of Sheffield? It can undoubtedly trace its origins to the Royal Charter granted by King James 1 in 1604.

Its school prizes,  those for the Wesley College and the Sheffield Royal Grammar School trace back directly to 1838 and 1884 respectively, the earliest days and then the high summer of the Victorian era.  A ‘centenary’  for the school was celebrated five years ago in 2005. Perhaps some time in 2015, ten years later, the school’s more enthusiastic classicists and historians - and anyone else who wishes to join in - might raise a quiet toast to its traceable 740th birthday!