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Bembridge School

Coordinates: 50°41′06″N 1°04′19″W / 50.685°N 1.072°W / 50.685; -1.072

Bembridge School was an independent school in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight founded in 1919 by social reformer and Liberal MP John Howard Whitehouse. Set in over 100 acres (0.40 km2) on the easternmost tip of the Isle of Wight Bembridge was a public school intended to challenge the traditional concept of education. Many of the radical ideas first employed by Whitehouse, such as teaching of woodwork, American history and modern languages, were not to become mainstream for half a century.[citation needed]

Bembridge School
Bembridge School Crest.png
Motto To-day
Established 1919
Closed 1997
Type Independent school
Location Hillway
Isle of Wight
Staff 40 (approx.)
Students 400
Gender co-ed
Ages 13–18
Houses 6
Colours Light blue/dark blue
Former pupils Old Bembridgians

From 5 boys sited in what is now known as Old House the school rapidly grew, New House and the Ruskin Galleries and the chapel being built in the 1930s as well as the refectory and library and teaching blocks. By the end of Whitehouse's life there were 264 boys and the school continued to grow and to flourish.

During the Second World War the site was used as a military base by the Army and the school moved to The Waterhead Hotel in Coniston, close to Brantwood, the former home of John Ruskin and owned by the school. The school returned to Bembridge in 1945.

The school was noted for its collection of art, books and memorabilia relating to John Ruskin, the largest of its kind. This included many notable manuscripts and the school was founded on the teachings of Ruskin. This collection is now housed in the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster.

The school continued to grow and thrive into the 1990s, over the decades building and acquiring many new buildings including Kilgerran House, the music block, squash courts, the Stedman Sports Hall and additions to the preparatory school and the formation of a popular pre-prep. Bembridge School greatly considered the importance of sports in its students' lives and the grounds contained three cricket pitches including the centre pitch, the largest and perhaps the best fast-bowling wicket in the county, a nine-hole golf course, two football/rugby pitches, tennis courts and a hockey pitch. Pupils also had the opportunity to go swimming in the sea, shooting and climb the cliffs at Whitecliff Bay.

Shortly after celebrating the school's 75th anniversary the Education Trust, a hereditary committee with few links to the school, announced their intention to dispose of the school, whilst retaining possession of the valuable Ruskin collection.



John Ruskin, art critic and writer

Throughout its history two men drove the school's philosophy, founder John Howard Whitehouse and 19th-century art critic and writer John Ruskin. The school's development, particularly during the early years, was visibly shaped by their ideas and even in later years the school never let go of their principles. The school's history spans seven decades and the boys and girls who attended the school seldom fail in later life to retain a sense of the school, or of the philosophy behind it.[citation needed]

Camp Beaumont, Kingswood Centre, Bembridge Boarding Campus is now run at Bembridge School site.

Early yearsEdit

The Warden and boys on a visit to Nansen

Bembridge opened its doors to five pupils in 1919. The school grew quickly and by summer 1920 there were 42, increasing to over 100 by 1924.[1]

John Howard Whitehouse, known as the Warden, left Parliament at the height of his career and as such was able to attract a high calibre of pupil from a number of influential parents. This coupled with his radical approach to education brought much interest from many society figures of the day with whom the Warden was acquainted, many of whom were to be involved in the school. Early visitors to the school included John Masefield, Walter de la Mare,[2] Henry Nevinson and Isaac Foot amongst others.[1]

As the school grew in stature and numbers so it also began to expand out of its initial base in Old House at the bottom of the long drive. This began in 1920 with the building of Culver Cottage, at the Hillway end of the drive and the Gymnasium (later known as The Little Theatre) in 1924. The school entered a phase of rapid building work between 1927 and 1939.

New House was the first to be constructed, the Warden's House and New House being finished in 1927 to which was added the Ruskin Galleries in 1930. Junior House (the "Big Room" and Nansen Dorm) was built in 1929. In 1933 work began on the chapel and the first service was held in Spring 1934. The refectory and library was completed in 1938. By the outbreak of war the school looked similar to how it now appears.

During the early years of the school the boys' were encouraged to join the "School Journeys". These were trips made annually to Europe, starting in 1924 with a trip to Venice. Most interesting of these trips, usually to cultural events such as the Passion Play at Oberammagau, were two trips. The first of which being a visit to meet Fridtjof Nansen in Oslo. Nansen was a leading explorer and The Warden was involved in the restoration of his ship, the Fram. Second was a trip to Rome to meet Mussolini. The Warden had a great respect for the dictator, though he was later to realise his mistake. The boys presented the Italian with paintings by John Ruskin.


Bembridge boys by Brantwood, Ruskin's house and wartime home of the school

As war engulfed Europe life at Bembridge continued, albeit with slight changes; each house had an air-raid shelter and The Royal Artillery were present on Culver Down. The school beach was laid with barbed wire. By summer of 1940 it was decided to move the boys and the school to the Lake District. The Warden had earlier purchased Brantwood, Ruskin's former home, and The Waterhead Hotel was also bought, to boost capacity. Everything at the school, including the large printing presses, moved to the North where the boys quickly settled into their familiar routine.

Life continued at Coniston for several years, the boys being actively involved in "Digging for Victory" and following the course of the war via their radios. An athletics track was constructed, flag poles flew the various house and school flags and the boys started the tradition of regularly climbing the "Old Man", a tradition that generations of Bembridgians would continue to enjoy on what became annual visits to Brantwood in peace time.

In Spring of 1945, the war clearly at its climax in Europe, the school was derequisitioned by the military, who had been stationed there, and handed back to The Warden. The boys returned in the Christmas term and life at Bembridge continued.

Bembridge Old Boys' War MemorialsEdit

The School Chapel has two versions of the War Memorial to Old Bembridgians who died in the Second World War. On the exterior of the building is a stone plaque set into the brickwork, while in the Chapel itself is a wooden plaque. Over the Chapel door is a sculpture representing St George and the dragon.




More details of the Boys whose names are inscribed may be found at Bembridge School War Memorials

Post WarEdit

View alongside the school drive

The Story of Bembridge School was completed in time for the seventy-fifth Anniversary Celebrations in 1994.

Nine months later, just before the summer term, 1995, staff gathered together for their usual meetings. Plans for the year ahead – excursions, new rules, curriculum changes, examination time tables, boarding duties lists – were suddenly forgotten as the Headmaster made a surprise announcement that the school's owners had decided to sell the school.

Once the parents had been informed, there was an energetic response. A committee was established, under the chairmanship of Dr Peter Randall, to investigate various ways of saving Bembridge School. Meetings were held with a representative of the Trustees and the committee believed it could raise the money to take over the school. However, it was announced that an agreement had already been made to sell the whole establishment to Ryde School.

It was announced that Ryde School would continue to run Bembridge as a separate unit, although the successful Dyslexia Department and the Pre-Prep School would cease to function, and the Junior school would no longer operate as a separate entity. By the end of the term, many parents had withdrawn their children.

Some teaching staff remained and, with dedication, led first by Jeremy High and then by Alan Doe, kept something of the old Bembridge School spirit, but for others there was no place. A few were eligible for early retirement. Others had to move from the Island to find employment.

The Ruskin collection that once made Bembridge School unique is now housed at Lancaster University.


Old HouseEdit

Old House is the only building to predate the school on the current site. Originally called The Old School House it came into The Warden's possession in 1914 and formed the centre of the development of the early school.

The building was extended in 1921 to allow for the dining facilities of the house and balconies constructed in 1932 and 1934.

As the school spread across the site the house was used as a school 'hub' and administrative centre. The large room to the right of the entrance hall becoming the Headmaster's Study with the room to the right becoming the Masters' Common Room.

In 1928 courtyard house was built alongside Old House in the courtyard as a home for various Housemasters (and later Housemistresses). It was first occupied by Edward Dawes, Sub-Warden of the school and most recently by Matron Anne Sutton.

New HouseEdit

New House was accorded Listed Building Grade II status in 1994. Ryde School, the new owners of Bembridge School, have continued to use this building with its leaded light windows and sea views.


Nansen House was unusual in that it was did not fall within the Bembridge School grounds and was one of the few buildings that make up the school not to be built by the school. Nansen House, on Howgate Lane, was originally a large family home called Southcliffe. It was acquired by the school in 1958 as accommodation for 20 boys under the first Housemaster, Henry Warren and changed its name to Nansen, in honour of the explorer who was linked to the school, in 1961. It rapidly developed into a larger house with a number of extensions and served generations of boys.


Kilgerran House was formally opened by Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, president of the school, in 1981. The first boys occupied it in the Christmas term. Set at the bottom of the drive Kilgerran is the newest house at Bembridge and overlooks the junior cricket pitches on its northern side and McIver's house to the South. It is set over three floors and built in the school's trademark red brick.

The house and dormitories were refurbished in 1989 and the Nansen Wing (or Sixth Form centre) was added at the East end of the house and looking across the Junior School quadrangle (which was added at the same time) and the refectory.

Kilgerran Housemasters were Richard Warren-Betts, Martin Cooke, Richard Curtis, Anthony Adlam and, most recently, William Leach.

President of the SchoolEdit

Dean Inge (front left) with John Masefield, John Howard Whitehouse and others

President of the School was an honorary position created by the Warden at the foundation of the school and filled by four incumbents since 1919. The President of the School acted both as an ambassador for the school, as well as a regular visitor and participant in the philosophy of the school and direction of the curriculum.

The first President, later to be named Poet Laureate, was John Masefield. Masefield was followed by writer and academic Dean Inge, known as "The Gloomy Dean". Upon Inge's death economist and social reformer Lord Beveridge was given the position. Beveridge had known the Warden from their time in Government together and had alike political views. He authored the influential Beveridge report which put in place much of framework behind the welfare state, particularly the National Health Service. He took the position in 1954 and served until his death in 1963. He was followed by Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.

Old BembridgiansEdit

Old Bembridgians include Ian Mosby (model), Darsie Rawlins (sculptor), Sir Dingle Foot MP (former Solicitor General), Paul Gregory (guitarist), Lord Foot (Parliamentarian), Richard Studt (violinist and conductor), John Brandon-Jones (architect), Sir Robin Day (broadcaster), Dr James S. Dearden (Ruskin expert), Michael Relph (film maker), Barry Field (former MP for the Isle of Wight), Adrian Beach (painter), General Sir Peter Whiteley (former Royal Marine and Governor of Jersey), John Heath-Stubbs (poet), Patrick Gosling (soap star), Sir Richard Parsons (ambassador and novelist), Laurence Broderick (sculptor) and Andrew Morris (conductor and organist).

The Old Bembridgian Association, founded in 1923, has its president, Sandy Rogers, and the honorary secretary, Christopher Holder, deals with all day-to-day matters.


  1. ^ a b Bembridge School Records, 1935, Yellowsands Press
  2. ^ Some Thoughts on Reading, Address by Walter de la Mare, Yellowsands Press, 1923