St Cyprian's School

St Cyprian's School was an English preparatory school for boys, which operated in the early 20th century in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Like other preparatory schools, its purpose was to train pupils to do well enough in the examinations (usually taken around the age of 13) to gain admission to leading public schools, and to provide an introduction to boarding school life.

St Cyprian's School
St Cyprian's School, Eastbourne, 2017.jpg
Coordinates50°46′07″N 0°15′51″E / 50.7685°N 0.2641°E / 50.7685; 0.2641Coordinates: 50°46′07″N 0°15′51″E / 50.7685°N 0.2641°E / 50.7685; 0.2641
TypePreparatory School
Boarding school
MottoForsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.[a]
FounderL C Vaughan Wilkes
Age4 to 14
Enrolmentc 90
Colour(s)Green, pale blue, black
PublicationSt Cyprian's Chronicle
General Cheylesmore addresses the school's Cadet Corps after they won the Imperial Challenge Shield in 1917[1]


St Cyprian's was founded in 1899 by Lewis Vaughan Wilkes and his wife Cicely Comyn, a newly married couple in their twenties. It originally operated in a large house in Carlisle Road,[2] but by 1906 had grown sufficiently to move into new purpose-built facilities with extensive playing fields behind Summerdown Road. The school ran with the prevailing ethos of Muscular Christianity which had typified private education since the time of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, and placed much emphasis on developing self-reliance and integrity ("Character"). In these and many other respects St Cyprian's was little different from the other leading prep schools of the time. The school submitted itself annually to an independent academic assessment, conducted by Sir Charles Grant Robertson fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. The school uniform was a green shirt with a pale blue collar, corduroy breeches and a cap with a Maltese Cross for a badge.

The high success rate in achieving scholarships to leading public schools including Eton and Harrow attracted ambitious parents. However, the Wilkeses appreciated that public school scholarships were really intended for talented children from less well-off families, and so they provided places at St Cyprian's at significantly reduced fees for deserving cases, in the hope that they would attain these scholarships.[3] Two further features distinguished St Cyprian's. The first was the proximity to South Downs, which was fully exploited to give opportunities to the boys for running wild, studying natural history, walking, picnics, riding and even golf on the adjacent links. The second was the overwhelming impact of Mrs Wilkes (known as "Mum"). She was in total control of the school and in the days before female emancipation this made a great impression on her charges. The resulting ambivalence was exacerbated by a fiery temper and by the way her mood flipped between firm discipline and generous indulgence. Mrs Wilkes was a great believer in history teaching and saw the Harrow History Prize as an opportunity to bring it into the classics-dominated curriculum.[4] Mrs Wilkes also taught English, and stimulated generations of writers with her emphasis on clear, high quality writing. In addition to Mrs Wilkes, a major influence was the second master R. L. Sillar, who joined the school staff soon after it opened and stayed for 30 years. With his interest in natural history, his skill at shooting, his art teaching and his magic lantern shows he broadened the curriculum considerably and is revered in Old Boy's accounts.[5]

The St Cyprian's playing fields, now used by Eastbourne College. The main school building was on the high ground on the left. Only the swimming pool building remains (centre)

In its fortieth year, the school building was gutted by fire on 14 May 1939, and a housemaid died in a fall from an upper window. Emergency accommodation was arranged at Ascham St. Vincent's School, the buildings of a preparatory school in Eastbourne which had recently closed.[6] On 20 July 1939, St Cyprian's moved to Whispers, near Midhurst in West Sussex. It stayed there for 18 months until the building was requisitioned by the army during World War II. As a result of this double blow, numbers dwindled and after a brief combination with Rosehill School in Gloucestershire the remaining boys went with the then-headmaster, W. J. V. Tomlinson (Bill), to join the old rival Summer Fields School, in Oxford.[7] The school playing fields were sold to Eastbourne College.[8][9]

In April 1997, Eastbourne Civic Society (now The Eastbourne Society), in conjunction with the County Borough of Eastbourne, erected a blue plaque at the house in Summerdown Road which was connected with the school and which was Mrs Wilkes's residence in later years.[10]

Former pupilsEdit

The school was attended, among others, by:[11]

Former teachersEdit

Accounts and recollectionsEdit

The school's three most prominent writers included accounts of the school in their works. Connolly recalled his time at St Cyprian's in Enemies of Promise, published in 1938 with the name of the school disguised as "St. Wulfric's". With wry humour, he mocked the Wilkes and the ethos of "Character building", writing "We called the headmistress Flip and the headmaster Sambo. Flip, around whom the whole system revolved, was able, ambitious, temperamental and energetic." Connolly questioned the practice of British parents sending young children to boarding preparatory schools but concluded "Yet St [Cyprian's] where I now went was a well run and vigorous example which did me a world of good."[12]

His friend, George Orwell, disagreed and wrote disparagingly and bitterly of the school in the quasi-autobiographical essay Such, Such Were the Joys, first published in the Partisan Review (Sept.- Oct. 1952). By Orwell's own admission this was too libelous to print and under British libel laws could not be published while the people described in it were still living.[13] It appeared in print in the United States in 1952 with the name of the school changed to "Crossgates", but not in the United Kingdom until after the death of Mrs. Wilkes.[14] The thrust of Orwell's criticism was directed at the system of boarding school education that sent children away from their homes when they were no more than 7 or 8 years old, and at the unreflective elitism and classism of Britain before the First World War. This is evident from one of the closing passages of Orwell's essay.

"How would St Cyprian's appear to me now, if I could go back, at my present age, and see it as it was in 1915? What should I think of Sambo and Flip, those terrible, all-powerful monsters? I should see them as a couple of silly, shallow, ineffectual people, eagerly clambering up a social ladder which any thinking person could see to be on the point of collapse."[15]

Orwell attacked the presence of "nouveaux riches" and aristocrats at the school, who he thought received preferential treatment. In contrast, Gavin Maxwell's parents had chosen the school because it was less elitist and aristocratic than older prep schools. Maxwell found the school tough, but left primarily because he felt he was the target of resentment because of his aristocratic parents with their Scottish estates.[16] Longhurst, who had great admiration for the school and for Mrs. Wilkes, described these authors' accounts of the school as unrecognizable,[17] and would frequently defend "a very fine school" in response to reviewers of Orwell's work.[18] His views were shared by W J L Christie, Indian Civil Service, who wrote a riposte to Orwell in defence of the school in Blackwood's Magazine (owned and edited by Douglas Blackwood).[19] Both were particularly incensed by what in their opinion were totally inaccurate accusations against the Wilkeses.

Cecil Beaton, who was at the school with Orwell, had a different reaction, describing the work as "Hilariously funny – but exaggerated".[20] Orwell's essay has been dissected in detail and its reliability questioned by Pearce.[21]

Nearly all accounts of former pupils declare that the school gave them a good start in life but views of Mrs. Wilkes vary. David Ogilvy[22] is critical, but Alaric Jacob[23] praises her teaching, and Foote,[24] Rivett-Carnac,[25] and Wright[26] refer to her with great affection. It was Connolly who, after reading his parents' papers, wrote apologetically: "The Wilkes were true friends and I had caricatured their mannerisms ... and read mercenary motives into much that was just enthusiasm" and he described Mrs. Wilkes as "a warm-hearted and inspired teacher".[27]

Walter Christie's cap and other items are currently displayed at the Chalk Farm Hotel in Willingdon.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ (Latin) from Virgil, Aeneid: Book 1; Line 203. "Some day, perhaps, remembering even this will be a pleasure" (tr. Robert Fitzgerald)

  1. ^ The Illustrated war news Volume: 8 March 27 1918 pp374-375
  2. ^ UK Census, 1901
  3. ^ W H J Christie. St Cyprian's Days, Blackwood's Magazine, May 1971
  4. ^ C. Vaughan Wilkes, The Teaching of History: I. In Preparatory Schools History: The Journal of the Historical Association Volume 2 Issue 7 pp.144-152, October 1917
  5. ^ Maxwell, Connolly, Orwell as cited
  6. ^ Eastbourne Chronicle, 20 May 1939
  7. ^ Nicholas Aldridge Time to spare?: A History of Summer Fields 1989
  8. ^ Eastbourne Local History Society: Newsletters 37, 39
  9. ^ Eastbourne Society: Newsletter 130
  10. ^ Eastbourne Society: Newsletter 131
  11. ^ St Cyprian's Chronicle 1914–1930
  12. ^ Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938)
  13. ^ George Orwell Letter to F J Warburg, 31 May 1947, The Collected Essays Vol 4 (1968)
  14. ^ The Collected Essays Vol 4, ibid. (1968)
  15. ^ p96 George Orwell, Such, Such Were The Joys, accessed online
  16. ^ Gavin Maxwell, The House at Elrig (1965)
  17. ^ Henry Longhurst, My Life and Soft Times (1971)
  18. ^ Evening Standard Letters: Henry Longhurst: "A grotesque travesty", 4 October 1968
  19. ^ W J L Christie, St Cyprian's Days, Blackwood's Magazine (May 1971)
  20. ^ Cecil Beaton Diary" July 1968
  21. ^ Robert Pearce. "Truth and Falsehood: Orwell's Prep School Woes". The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol 43, No 171 (August 1992)
  22. ^ Ogilvy Blood Brains and Beer (1978)
  23. ^ Alaric Jacob, Scenes from a Bourgeois Life(1949)
  24. ^ Foote's interview with Michael Shelden (1988)
  25. ^ Charles Rivett-Carnac, Pursuit in the wilderness (1965)
  26. ^ Robert Hepburn Wright, Then the wind changed: Nigerian letters (1992)
  27. ^ Cyril Connolly, The Evening Colonnade (1973)

External linksEdit