A light forged in fire
‘Clarior ex Ignibus’. For most students at Silcoates this Latin inscription is simply the motto that can be read beneath the School’s badge, a central feature of which is a phoenix. The legendary phoenix was a bird which was said to burst into flame only to be reborn from its own ashes. The Silcoates’ motto is a reminder of the rebirth of the present school after its predecessor had been destroyed by fire in 1904 – and to the indomitable spirit of the founders in rebuilding from the ashes.
The first school was founded in 1820 by a handful of Congregationalists who, with the example before them of a Lewisham school for non-conformists, decided there was a place for a similar school in the north. Silcoates Hall was bought from the Lumb family and The Yorkshire Dissenters’ Grammar School opened its doors. The next few years, however, saw only struggle and frustration: although in theory the Congregationalists wanted their school they were slow to support it and in the short space of ten years it was forced to close. Its successor, a grammar school and commercial academy, also failed through lack of support. Though some of the promoters had suffered heavy monetary losses they nevertheless were determined to try again. A third venture was promoted, this time for the sons of non-conformist ministers in the York and Lancaster dioceses. By the end of the first year there were only twenty two pupils, though the numbers rose to thirty six when the sons of ministers were admitted from other counties, and also the sons of missionaries.
At Silcoates Hall, now leased to the School, the Headmaster and his one assistant taught the boys in a schoolroom above the coachman’s house, an old building which is still in existence. But only when the sons of laymen were also permitted to attend in 1842 did Silcoates begin to pay its way. Despite a few uncertain years, with the appointment of Dr Bewglass as Headmaster the School began to develop, though financially its future continued to be precarious. More trouble lay in store. The lease of Silcoates Hall was almost at an end and the owner decided to sell. The Governors were faced with three possible decisions – to close the School, acquire another site, or buy the estate. After much deliberation they decided to buy; a bold step, for the price was £15,000. However, with little difficulty the purchase money was raised and in 1871 a new and enlarged Silcoates was opened with fifty pupils. It seemed as if at last prosperity was within sight.
But troubles had not been left behind and the greatest disaster of all came in 1904. Silcoates was almost wholly destroyed by fire during the Easter holidays. Yet out of tragedy was produced the nucleus of today’s splendid school. The Committee, the Trustees and, most of all, the Headmaster, Mr John Arthur Yonge, refused to give up. In spite of everything Silcoates went on; at first in a small hotel in Harrogate and afterwards in a house in Saltburn. No school, however, could flourish for long in temporary quarters. To rebuild would cost at least £10,000 if, as was envisaged, Silcoates was to remain independent. Three foundation stones were laid on 2nd November, 1907; one for Yorkshire, one for Lancashire, and one on behalf of the Trustees. In October, 1908 Silcoates began life once more, this time with dormitory accommodation for a hundred boys. It was a brand new school except for the original Silcoates Hall which, the only part to survive the fire, became the Headmaster’s house. The new school had laboratories and music rooms, a gymnasium, assembly hall and large covered playground, besides the usual form rooms, dining room and kitchen. Later, a swimming bath was given by the Old Boys.
However, a school is about more than just buildings. Mr Sydney Moore became Headmaster in 1918. His twenty five years of outstanding leadership added immeasurably to the academic and spiritual progress of the school. Mr Frank A Spencer, who succeeded Mr Moore in 1943, devoted the seventeen years of his headmastership to developing the School and winning recognition for its status. A milestone in its history was reached when, in 1957, Mr Spencer was elected to the Headmasters’ Conference. By the time he retired in 1960 the number of boys had been doubled, whilst friends, Old Boys and parents had banded together with a will to raise money for a new wing with five additional form rooms, a specialist geography room and library for the seniors (the existing library being handed over to the juniors). There were new tennis courts, too, and a new cricket field where Wilfred Rhodes, then seventy-one years old, bowled the first over to Brian Sellars. In Wrenthorpe a nearby house was bought to accommodate another twenty boarders, and in 1958 a substantial grant from the Industrial Fund helped to modernise existing science laboratories and build new ones. Mr Spencer and his wife worked unceasingly to keep alive, even with the increased numbers, the intimate family atmosphere which had been born so long ago in the years of exile at Saltburn.
Raymond J M Evans, M.A. (Oxon), Ph.D. (London), an Old Silcoatian himself, followed Mr Spencer as Headmaster, and he and his wife also succeeded in preserving that family spirit. Despite her home duties (which included looking after three young children), Mrs Evans, an Oxford Graduate, found time to teach Classics and also to supervise the School’s domestic staff. Helping to foster that family atmosphere the Silcoates fag system operated in reverse of the usual order: seniors looked after the smaller boys, waiting on them at meal times and helping them, like older brothers. Dr Evans was in turn succeeded by John Baggaley in 1978, Baggaley was Headmaster for 13 years before retirement in 1991. He was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield and Keble College, Oxford where he gained an Oxford Blue in Rugby. His wife Sara was also an Oxford graduate and former teacher. In 1991 Paul Spillane, formerly a housemaster at Wellington College and latterly Deputy Head of Trent College, became Headmaster. At the very early stage of his headship the controversial but necessary decision was made to end boarding after 170 years. At the same time the decision was also made to become fully coeducational. Mr Spillane retired in 2008 after 17 years at the helm and the school gave a warm welcome to Darryl Wideman, M.A. (Oxon), previously Deputy Headmaster at Ratcliffe College in Leicestershire. Our current Acting Head, Mr Dan Coll, took charge in January 2017.
Despite that long ago fire the School still stands on the outskirts of the villages of Alverthorpe and Wrenthorpe high above the surrounding country and in the midst of 55 acres of lawns and playing fields. Wakefield is conveniently near, yet far enough away for the School to be out of the bustle and noise inevitable in a busy West Riding city. Today there are 665 pupils on the school roll, with an almost equal mix of boys and girls. There are high academic standards, coupled with an appreciation that the development of the all-round character of each child is just as important. Extra-curricular activities flourish, with music, sport, drama and outdoor pursuits featuring strongly. The School has its own Multi Use Games Area (MUGA) and a dedicated astroturf pitch complete with floodlights, both of which were opened in 2013.
The School retains its links with what is now the United Reformed Church, though pupils of all denominations and faiths are welcomed and worship is ecumenical in character. Silcoatians, by and large, turn out to be well-rounded individuals who often possess entrepreneurial flare, a willingness to get involved and a common sense approach to life not often found in independent schools. Perhaps it is the awareness of the School’s challenging past that helps its young people today to develop their awareness of how it is possible to achieve success in the face of adversity.
The School has certainly lived up to its motto, Clarior Ex Ignibus – brilliance still flows from the flames.