A Dissenting Grammar School for Boys - 1818-1839

at Blakesleys (Harpenden Hall)

Extract from Thomas Jones' letter to his aunt, 15 May 1826
LHS collection, courtesy of Susan Pomeroy, great-great-grand-niece

Mr Phillips’ school at Blakesleys

So far the only early school of which we have a pupil’s eye view is the Dissenting Grammar School for Boys, which was opened at Blakesleys (Harpenden Hall) in 1818 by the Reverend Maurice Phillips, Harpenden’s first congregational minister.  A small chapel was attached to the house, attended by the school and some villagers.  Elizabeth Read and her sister, friends of the Phillips family, visited in 1821.  Elizabeth kept a journal, a copy of which was sent to the History Society around 1975 by her grand-daughter Miss Reba Hind-Smith of Bexhill.  Extracts were published in the Society’s Newsletter 8 (1976).

‘Optimi’ and ‘Mali’

Elizabeth explains that boys who excelled were known as ‘Optimi’ and the less able – and therefore bad boys – as ‘Mali’.  She commented: “I much admire Mr Phillips’ way of reproving: he obliged the offender by his questions to confess himself in the wrong. …. Monday 24 (September).  Mr Philipps had fixed this morning to whip six little boys who were the Mali last week.  Mrs Phillips had them all in the housekeeper’s room, showed them the rod and talked to them a long time of the shocking disgrace it would be. And on their expressing their sorrow and good resolutions, promised to intercede with Mr Phillips for their pardon.  Accordingly we all went into the study and found Mr Phillips whom we at last persuaded to suspend their punishment on condition we would do all in our power to secure their good behaviour.”

She describes the Optimi playing cricket on the common, with Mr Cecil and Mr Leonard (who later became headmaster) “joining in their games with great spirit and pleasure”.  She and her sister took a Saturday walk “with five of the Optimi, into Mr Lawes’ park … our companions were employed in gathering nuts and blackberries. … I was struck with their kindness to each other; they are like brothers”.

A pupil’s take on Mr Leonard

We also have in our archives a copy of a letter written on 15 May 1826  from a pupil, Thomas Jones aged 15, to his aunt in Wales, particularly describing the headmaster, Rev Solomon Leonard – and how much he was looking forward to the holidays!

“Mr Leonard has been to Worcester to see his much beloved Emily (for that is the name of his intended wife).  I understand that she has a pretty face of her own and pretty fair in the money way, he is to lead her to Hymen’s sacred altar next holidays.  Mr Leonard was in a very bad humour when he returned.  I am afraid he will be quite lovesick before long and must again go and see her; he favours her brother very much (he is here at school) he gives him a glass of wine every day.  I am sure he wishes the holidays to come with as great eagerness as we do if not a great deal more.   …  Mr Leonard was saying to one of the boys ‘What fun it was the holiday was so near’ so this boy answered ‘Yes, for you sir!’ at which Mr Leonard laughed heartily.”

Comments about this page

  • Mr Phillips’ school offered a meeting place for dissenters who had previously met in private homes.  

    1802 marks first record of Independents / Congregationalists in a chapel (location unknown), licenced to Susan Tomalin – and by 1819 in the house of William Vigis.

    In 1818, with the arrival of Maurice Phillips to establish a School for Dissenting Boys, Blakesley’s (Harpenden Hall) was registered as a meeting place for Protestant Dissenters, first within the house and then in a small building, said to be in the South-West corner of the school grounds – possibly where Arden Grove cut through the grounds on the south side of the house.

    In 1822, following the sudden death of Maurice Phillips, a ‘society for the benefit of Christian Communion and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper’ was formed, with seven founder members (from Childwickbury, Rough Hyde and Bowling Alley). and linked with the Independent Chapel in Spicer Street, St Albans and then supported by the Rev John Smith of Redbourn. 

    By 1839 the congregation had grown large enough to build an Independent Chapel in Amenbury Lane.

    By Rosemary Ross (06/11/2018)
  • I was fascinated to find the information concerning George Barnard who was Curate at St Nicholas in the early 18th Century and lived at Bennets in Leyton Road. George was my 6 times great great grandfather. I am descended by his son Thomas who like his brothers Edward and George were pupils at their Father’s school. Thomas became Fellow at Eton. Do you have any documents in your archives concerning the Barnards.

    Ed. We are sorry, but we have not yet found any further information about the Barnard family in our archives, but you might like to try Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies – http://www.hertsdirect.org/libleisure/heritage1/hals.

    NB – This comment should be attached to the page about Bowers House, where George Barnard had lived when a curate, presumably before moving to Bennetts

    By Janet James (20/01/2013)
  • Fascinating… I am directly descended from Solomon Leonard (through his son Wilberforce). He did marry Emily Self-Page from Worcester. Have you any other records relating to him?

    Ed.  Sorry, we only have the descriptions quoted above – but perhaps someone else researching family history will find these references.

    By Gill Durant (25/04/2012)

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