A Short History of St Aubyn’s and Blundell’s Prep School

St Aubyn's VillasUnlike its parent school which has had just two locations in more than 400 years, Blundell’s Preparatory School, despite being less than 100 years old, has existed on three different sites. It began its life on Canal Hill at no. 6 St Aubyn’s Villas, hence its original and long-enduring name of St Aubyn’s School.

Private discussions about a new school turned into public announcement in the Tiverton Gazette of February 5th 1929 under the headline of Preparatory School for Tiverton. The newspaper had been informed that a Mr Stephen-Evans, son of the Vicar of Halberton, was about to open an up-to-date school which would ‘take and prepare boys for the Common Entrance Scholarships of the Public Schools.’ Although only in his late twenties, his previous experience had already included teaching at ‘some of the best Preparatory Schools in the country’ – Malvern, Taverham Hall, and Shewsbury.

AdvertIn the following months the Gazette carried advertisements of the imminent opening of the School, with the date being fixed at May 6th, 1929. It is likely that co-education was initially intended as one advertisement stated ‘Music a speciality – Boys and Girls Taught’, but a subsequent issue replaced that line with ‘Preparatory for the Royal Naval College (Dartmouth).’

Harold Stephen-Evans and his wife of just a few weeks, Gwladys, opened the School on the appointed date to 15 boys. Whether or not she had realised the enormity of the tasks involved is not known, but within a month a request was placed in the Gazette for a Cook-General at the School – ‘wanted at once.’

St Aubyn’s first Sports Day was held in July 1930. However, as there was insufficient space at the School the venue was Horsdon Field in Blundell’s Avenue. The races, including such novelties as a wheelbarrow race, bunny hop race, and blind horse race, were keenly contested, and of the two house teams, the Hawks beat the Crows. The lack of space at the School also applied to accommodation; such was the growth in numbers that the tenancy of the adjoining property, no. 5, was also obtained. By the mid-1930s both houses were actually purchased by the School from their owner, Mr Blake.

Harold Stephen-Evans remained as Headmaster through the 1930s until 1943, having sent more than 50 boys on to Blundell’s, among them Commander Joe Blake (a son of the original owner of the St Aubyn’s houses), the man who was given the responsibility of restoring the S.S. Great Britain, and John Nelder, the internationally-renowned statistician. The new Headmaster was Percy Tatton-Tatton, a man more at home in the Royal Fusiliers. His stay was not long: by 1947 Desmond Harmar-Smith was listed as the Headmaster, and in that year the school moved to Howden Court, just off the Tiverton-to-Exeter road.

Howden CourtHowden Court, a large 18th century house set in 21 acres of landscaped grounds, had just come through part of the Second World War as a base for American army officers. Legend has it that the visitors there included such luminaries as Generals Patton and Eisenhower and Joe Louis, the boxer – on safer ground, J.D. Salinger, the author of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is securely documented as being in Tiverton.

Life seemed idyllic for the dayboys and 20 boarders in the spacious surroundings of Howden Court. Sports Days saw keen competition between the three houses of Howden, School, and Ashley, and an innovation was introduced in 1952 when the main sport in the Autumn and Spring terms changed from football to rugby. Also at about this time, the music master, Mr. Read, composed the School Hymn ‘Life Is Before Me’, still sung to this day.

Desmond Harmar-Smith was succeeded in the late 1950s by James Ison, who had been Senior Master. In 1963, for whatever reason, Ison wrote to the Governors of Blundell’s School to see if they had any wish to take over St Aubyn’s, but they replied that they had ‘too much on their plate without taking on further liabilities.’ This line of thought was abandoned, and St Aubyn’s continued to prosper through the turbulent 60s and 70s.

The HernimansAndrew and Susan Herniman purchased Howden Court from James Ison and another master, Gerald Wigram (known to the boys as ‘Wiggy’) in 1978. At that time the School contained 48 boys aged between 8 and 13, about half of whom were boarders. As in other schools, financial reasons and alterations in lifestyles and expectations made changes necessary: after half a century the boys-only regime gave way in 1980 to the admission of girls, initially only as day pupils. Just three years later the Hernimans purchased the Redvers House Pre-Prep School, which catered for children from 4 to 8 years of age, and re-opened it at Howden. Girls were taken as boarders from 1987.

Tiverton schools were re-organised at the end of 1990 – ‘middle schools’ taking 9 to 13 year-old children were abandoned in favour of all those over 11 going to Tiverton High School. This upheaval, however, led to St Aubyn’s flourishing as never before, unlike Ravenswood at nearby Stoodleigh which closed in 1993, providing a massive influx of 40 pupils to St Aubyn’s. The team of Andrew and Sue Herniman, who also acted as Bursar, and, by this time, Brian McDowell as Director of Studies and Headmaster, continued with their innovations: at the same time as Blundell’s began taking pupils from 11 years of age.

Nick Folland and pupilsSt Aubyn’s and Blundell’s had for many years taken decisions separately, but always considered each other’s well-being – after all, Blundell’s had admitted more than 500 Old Aubynians over the years – so it came as no great surprise when it was announced that in 2000 St Aubyn’s was to move to the Blundell’s campus. Its new home was centred on Milestones, formerly the Blundell’s Hospital and a Day-Boys house, which was enlarged and new buildings erected on Mayfield. In the following year, Brian McDowell was succeeded as Headmaster by Nick Folland, who had taught P.E. and Geography at Blundell’s since 1989.

In 2004 with help from the Friend’s Association, the Drama and Music Studio was opened. This Studio allowed for rehearsals and practices to take place in their own dedicated space. It was also designed to accommodate storage for the enormous amount of costumes and props which have carefully been made and collected over the years.

In 2006, after 77 years, St Aubyn’s Preparatory School as a name ceased to exist; changing to Blundell’s Preparatory School. This year also saw the construction of a Wildlife Area and Pond which added immensely to Science and other lessons as well as Conservation Club. In Autumn 2006 the new refurbished Pre-Prep was opened providing increased space and purpose built classrooms for our three to seven year olds.

Autumn 2008 saw an extension to the Prep Building increasing the building by a third. Dedicated Food Technology, Design Technology, Art and a larger Hall were among some of the major changes.

A change in Head Master came in Autumn 2011 with the arrival of Andy Southgate who moved with his family from South Oxfordshire. Among many new innovations came the emphasis on Outdoor Learning. ‘The Hub’ was constructed in 2013 creating a focal point for lessons outside.

Through all the changes, the old school’s ethos still remains – Non Sibi (Not for Ourselves) still holds true.