Poignant reunion is a fitting farewell to Duke’s school

Thomas Collinson was headmaster between 1851 and 1898.
Thomas Collinson was headmaster between 1851 and 1898.

It was the most poignant of school reunions.

Long-time friends from the former Duke’s Grammar School, in Alnwick, came from far and wide for an old boys’ get-together on Saturday.

Staff pictured in 1962.

Staff pictured in 1962.

But last weekend’s meet up was extra-special, given that the school – now the Duke’s Middle School – will be closing its doors for good this summer.

The final bell will sound in July, as a result of a switch to a two-tier system in Alnwick and surrounding areas.

It will bring an end to a fine tradition of schooling, with The Duke’s playing a key part in the town for more than 200 years.

And the significance of this particular reunion was not lost on the ex-Grammar School pupils, who turned out in their numbers to mark the occasion.

The school football team.

The school football team.

The event was the latest in a long line of fairly regular meet-ups between the old boys, but for many, this was the last chance to visit their old school.

One described its pending closure as an end of an era, while another remarked that it is a sad casualty of the area’s educational shake-up.

Yet, for all the emotion that came with saying goodbye, the old boys spoke fondly of their time at the school and agreed that it had helped shape them.

One of these was Alnwick county councillor Gordon Castle, who attended The Duke’s Grammar School from 1964 to 1968, having transferred from the secondary modern.

The Duke's old boys at The Alnwick Garden. Picture by George Skipper

The Duke's old boys at The Alnwick Garden. Picture by George Skipper

Gordon, who was head boy in 1967, said: “It has been a fine school with a great tradition and I felt privileged to be here. I have some great memories of the school and my days there helped to teach me self-reliance.

“It is a sad casualty of the switch to a two-tier system, but it doesn’t mean that education will be compromised.”

It wasn’t just locals that attended the reunion, with old boys coming from around the United Kingdom and further afield.

Donald Middlebrook made the journey from Windsor.

The 64-year-old was at the school from 1965 to 1971. He was a day boy for two years, before becoming a boarder from 1967 to 1971.

He said: “The boarding house was a really unique experience and you had to ask permission for everything that you did.

“It is an end of an era, but I understand why it is being done.”

Dr Ian Mackay, 69, was a boarder at the school from 1960 to 1967.

Currently living north of Carlisle, he said: “The time I was at The Duke’s helped to make my life what it was.”

The first part of the reunion was held at the school itself, where the Bailiffgate Museum mounted an exhibition of photographs, registers and documents about the history of the school.

Organisers recorded memories and stories from former pupils about their time at The Duke’s as part of an archive of local oral history.

In the evening, more socialising and reminiscing took place at The Alnwick Garden, where a formal dinner was staged and attended by more than 80 old boys.

It was a fitting celebration to a school which has played a key role in the town since the early 1800s.

The story began way back in 1810. To celebrate the Golden Jubilee of King George III, Hugh, 2nd Duke of Northumberland, founded a free school in the town to provide education for 200 poor boys.

The school represented an important educational opportunity for the people of Alnwick.

The single schoolroom, then known as The Jubilee School, along with a school house, was built in Green Batt and opened in August 1811.

During the early years, reading, writing, arithmetic and English grammar were taught. There was also a strong emphasis on religious instruction and there was no fixed age for boys to start or leave school.

As a reward for success, pupils were given merit cards. When 40 of these had been acquired, the pupil could exchange them for a red vest, 50 a pair of cord trousers and 60 a grey jacket. A cap was then added to these to complete a suit.

Improvements to the building were carried out over the years and by the time it celebrated its 75th anniversary, the school was teaching a wider range of subjects, indicating that it offered more than elementary education.

On completion of his school career, each boy was given a certificate of character and ability, plus a bible and a prayer book by the then Duke of Northumberland.

Pupils who had remained at the school for seven years were also given a writing desk.

An educational dispute took place in Alnwick at the latter part of the 19th century, which showed the confusion over secondary education in the town.

A prolonged wrangle over which of the Alnwick schools should be awarded secondary-school status ensued and it was during this time, in an attempt to secure the status for his school, that the Duke of Northumberland put forward a proposal to provide a ‘technical school on a new site’.

He would ‘provide staff, equipment and be financially responsible for its maintenance’.

After many meetings and applications, the Duke’s School was, in 1901, finally awarded secondary-school status and, as promised, the Duke of Northumberland provided the present splendid building.

It was designed by James Wightman Douglas, an old scholar of the school, and officially opened by Eleanor, Dowager Duchess of Northumberland, on July 27, 1904.

Following the death of the Dowager Duchess in 1911, the 7th Duke initiated the installation of a window in the hall of the Duke’s School in her memory.

The result was a magnificent stained-glass window, installed in 1913, showing heraldic symbols of both the Percy and Grosvenor families.

Later, plaques were installed in the hall to pay tribute to the school’s old boys who had not survived the two World Wars.

The plaque in memory of those who had lost their lives in the First World War was unveiled in 1921 and contains 69 names; the Second World War plaque contains 58 names and was unveiled in 1949.

The school continued to provide secondary education to the students of Alnwick and District until the late 1970s when a three-tier system of education was introduced and it became a middle school, which it remains until July this year.

To mark the end of an era, the school is holding a garden party on the field on Saturday, July 1, from 2pm to 6pm, which is due to be opened by the Duke of Northumberland.

The event has an action-packed programme, with a bouncy castle, craft stalls, live music, fairground rides, refreshments and food such as candy floss and a hog roast.