Centuries of learning and study
Stoke College, situated in a rural yet easily accessible location on the border of Cambridgeshire/ Essex and Suffolk, is a site of national historic importance, according to new evidence unearthed by Suffolk architectural historian Leigh Alston.
The College, now an independent school, traces its name back to 1415, when a college for priests was founded on the site and buried within the 17th century brick exterior Mr Alston has recently uncovered the substantially intact late medieval Dean’s Lodging.
The College served as a pleasant rural retreat and an extra source of income for senior churchmen, who usually held livings elsewhere or were fellows of Cambridge colleges.
In 1534 Dr Walter Haddon, writing in a letter from Cambridge, says of the College “how that place seemed in a manner to be made on purpose for scholars, both to learn themselves, and to teach others: and that its situation was such that above all others it is best suited for honest and ingenious pleasures.”
The last Dean was Matthew Parker, future Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I, and effectively the founder of the Anglican church. For Parker, his College at Stoke-by-Clare was his favourite residence for 12 years.
Stoke College “can lay claim to a place of honour in British history,” says Mr Alston in his new study. “For it was here that Parker developed the ideas that allowed him, as one of the major figures of the 16th century . . . to create a stable Church of England from the chaos of the Reformation.”
Until Mr Alston’s investigation, the Dean’s Lodging, 70 feet long, two stories high and built of stone, had lain unsuspected for centuries inside this large country house. Nikolaus Pevsner, for example, the leading architectural historian of the post-war period, paid a flying visit here in the 1950’s but failed to recognise the college remains under the paint and panelling of later periods.
Stoke College, set in tranquil parkland overlooking the upper reaches of the river Stour, also has a 15th-century dovecote “that preserves some of the finest decorative medieval brickwork in Britain,” according to Mr Alston. The park wall may be one of the earliest brick walls in the country, dating back to the 1460’s.
The medieval College had been founded on the earlier site of a Benedictine priory, originally located in Clare Castle, but moved to Stoke-by-Clare in 1124. Under the patronage of the powerful de Clare family, it was one of the wealthiest monastic houses in Norman England, until a disastrous fire in the 1390’s.
The buildings were abandoned from the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540’s until the site was bought by the Elwes family around 1660, who created the surviving main house and stables. The Elwes did not always keep the premises in fine style – one member of the family was so mean that he served as Dickens’ model for Scrooge in The Christmas Carol.
In 1897 the estate was bought by Lord Loch, a Victorian colonial administrator. He brought in his wife’s nephew, the noted architect Edwin Lutyens, to add a wing in his distinctive Arts and Crafts style, as well as gardens in the style of his friend and co-designer Gertrude Jekyll. The Lochs struggled to keep up the estate during and after World War Two, abandoning the house in 1950.
In 1954 it became a small independent school, reviving the historic name “Stoke College” a few years later. Now flourishing with about 200 pupils, it aims to provide the best possible individual nurture for children of all abilities in small classes set in its attractive 29 acre park.
‘Grenville’ was the name chosen for the small school which was founded in Clare a little over 50 years ago. It existed in the building known as ‘The Norfolks’ for a while before being acquired by Miss Elliot and Miss McLoad, who had previously been senior lecturers, training teachers at Bingley College in Yorkshire, in 1951. They became joint Principals.
This school was so successful that it quickly grew in size and new premises had to be found. The house recently vacated by the Loch family proved ideal and the school moved in 1954. Miss Elliot and Miss Mcload lived in the school and it continued to grow and flourish.
There were teas in the front study with cucumbers from the garden, music appreciation with Miss Elliot, horses in the paddock and plenty of ghosts in the building to keep pupils on their toes.
In 1969, Miss Elliot retired and Martin Gedney became the first Headmaster of Stoke College. This was a time of great change and in 1973 it was decided that the name of the school should be changed to Stoke College.
A board of Governors was constituted made up of local people having a strong interest in the school. It has flourished as a co-educational, day and weekly boarding school since then, proudly bearing the name of the original Monastic College, founded in 1415.
The brick dovecote at Stoke by Clare is among the finest medieval examples in the country and survives exceptionally complete. It was originally one of a pair flanking the entrance to Stoke College. The decorative brickwork can be precisely dated to 1485–1493.
Repairs were carried out in 2010–2011 with the aid of an English Heritage grant. Roof timbers were repaired, new sprockets added and the roof was re-tiled. Repairs to the brickwork included rebuilding some nest boxes at the upper level. The plywood covering on the first floor was replaced with oak floorboards.