Sir William Borlase's Grammar School


The book - The First 400 Years - all about the history of our school was published on December 5th 2023 and is a limited edition publication. It is now available to buy via this link.

At Borlase we are proud of our long history of providing education to the young people of Marlow and surrounding areas since 1624. The school was built on a strong principle: the desire to enable children from all socioeconomic backgrounds to have the opportunity to learn and meet their potential.

If you read through the history of the school it is interesting to see that the challenges the school faced over the last 400 years are not dissimilar to those that schools face now. The History shows how the school has always overcome these challenges with the support of governors, head teachers, parents and friends of the school; it has thrived and grown to become an outstanding place for over a thousand pupils to enjoy the highest standard of academic teaching and learning in excellent facilities.

A Short History of Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School

Sir William Borlase, the founder of the school was a descendant of Taillefer of Angouleme, who fought for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The school coat of arms has developed from that of the Taillefers. Sir William became High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1601, MP for Aylesbury in 1604 and MP for Buckinghamshire in 1614.  He was knighted as part of the wave of elevations that marked the accession of James I in 1603, although he lost the king’s favour in 1610.

Sir William founded the school in 1624, in memory of his son Henry, the MP for Marlow, who had died that year. He bought land to bring in rent of £14 annually to fund the school and, in his will, he instructed his heir to buy further land to the annual value of £20. In Chapel Street, Marlow you can see seven houses which used to be the property of the Borlase Trust.

In the will, Sir William Borlase left instructions that a schoolmaster be paid a yearly salary of £12, “to teach twenty-four poor children to write, read and cast accounts.” Every Easter, some of these boys would receive 40 shillings on becoming apprenticed to a trade. The cottage next to the school was a ‘Workhouse and House of Correction’ where the occupant was paid £6-£8 a year to “teach twenty-four poor women children…to make bone lace (the local trade), to spin and to knit”. The school was also to be managed by twelve Feoffees (governors) from the local area.

Sir William died in 1629, and his son and heir died the following year. The school struggled through the next few decades until commissioners from the Court of Chancery visited in 1721 to examine the administration and finances of the school. They were met with opposition by those responsible for the school and when the secretary finally handed over the keys to the chest that was meant to contain all the records, they found it empty.

In 1735, a new schoolmaster was appointed, the School House was repaired, and an extension was built, which included a brewery for the boys’ midday ale!

In 1814 the salary of the schoolmaster was greatly increased to £50 and the Feoffees appointed William Frances, who apparently had “great talents and literary acquirements, an extraordinary knowledge of Mathematics and exemplary moral character”. In 1830 however, he was given notice to quit, and three years later was imprisoned for assault and libel. He was succeeded by George Gale, and then Charles Wethered in 1844.

Records from 1849 show that in this year there were twenty-four pupils known as Blue Boys who did not have to pay to attend the school (a direct legacy of Sir William’s original bequest) and a further twenty-four who paid a shilling a week and provided their own equipment.  The Blue Boys were noted for their distinctive uniform: “we wore a uniform at church parade on Sundays. It was formed of a piece of very rough, blue cloth with two holes cut in it for the arms to pass through and a piece of red tape to fasten it round the neck. We also wore a round, shallow cap of the same material, with a narrow red tape band. Thus attired, we were the sport of all the other boys in the parish.”  Together, these boys learnt “writing...ciphering...a little spelling, tables and reading, mostly confined to the Psalms.”

In the late 19th century there were a number of government Acts concerning education, including the Elementary Education Act of 1870 which provided schooling for all 5 – 13 year olds. These changes, along with the fact that the apprentice system had become out of date, led the Feoffees to meet with a Charity Commissioner from London in 1879 to discuss the future of the school. It was decided that twelve governors would take over the role of the Feoffees and Reverend Michael Graves was chosen as Headmaster. The school was to become a day school for fifty boys, aged 8-18, with boarders if the governors wished, and a number of new rooms were built including dormitories. Pupils learnt reading, writing, mathematics, geography, history, English grammar, composition and literature, Latin, another European language, natural science, drawing, drill and vocal music.

“The first Borlasian school magazine was written in 1885. It contained a prospectus; a staff list; class lists with the boys’ marks; a syllabus of work; and football and cricket reports.”

Mr Graves retired in 1895, and over the next five years, pupil numbers fell from 144 to 77. Governors and friends of the school had to raise funds of £476 (approximately equivalent to £85,000 today) to stop the school from becoming bankrupt. Not long after this, the County Council subsidised a new science and art block, on the town side of the entrance archway. Another Education Act in 1907 caused the number of pupils to increase again, and the school building needed further extension. The governors submitted plans for an Assembly Hall that could be divided into two classrooms, but these plans were rejected by the Board of Education. The same plans were submitted again, this time labelled as two classrooms that could be opened up into an Assembly Hall, and were passed!  The Cloisters, a defining element of the Borlase site today, were completed in 1911 and the Chapel in 1914.

For around a decade the County Council had become more involved with the running of the school and in 1912, it acquired trusteeship. The First World War saw an increase in the number of boarders, but boarding stopped in 1928, and was reintroduced thirty-nine years later by E.M. Hazleton, who opened boarding houses – Sentry Hill and the Heights, both on the Henley Road. Mr Hazleton was also the first Headmaster not to live on the site as the Headmaster’s rooms were turned into classrooms. The Hall was built in 1957 and in the early 1960s a swimming pool was built on the site of the old Headmaster’s vegetable patch. Biology was introduced as a subject in 1960, but was taught in cupboards and cloakrooms and the back of the Physics lab until 1981, when the current science block (behind the Chapel) was built.

There was uncertainty again about the future of the school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many schools became comprehensive. It was suggested that if Borlase became comprehensive it might have to become part of a larger school as the size of the site restricted the numbers of pupils. A change in government meant this never happened, but the long campaign had taken its toll on the school which was threatened once more with closure in 1986. The County Council preferred schools to have a larger intake than Borlase did at the time and, as a result, girls were admitted to the school for the first time in 1987.

During the Headship of Laurence Smy (1989–1996), the school became fully co-educational and almost doubled in size. To accommodate the enlarged Sixth Form, a new Sixth Form centre was added along West Street, creating a second quadrangle, with the Chapel on the west side. The new building was finished in brick and knapped flint, in keeping with the original buildings, and now houses the Modern Foreign Languages department and the Library. A new Computing laboratory and Gymnasium were also added. The fine sporting tradition of the school now included girls’ teams and within a short time they were matching the outstanding success of the boys on the playing field and the river. The academic results strengthened as pupil numbers increased, and the school was soon listed by A level results as amongst the highest-achieving state co-educational schools in the country.

The school has thrived in the last three decades and now has over a thousand pupils aged 11-18. There was much building work under the Headship of Dr Peter Holding. The gym, the Audrey Moore Building, the Library, the Theatre and Design suite, Mimi’s all day café, and the new Food Technology room have all been built in the last 25 years with developments and improvements constantly being made to the existing facilities. In June 2011 Borlase became an Academy. The school is now a company limited by guarantee and Governors are once again responsible for the school’s affairs and finances. Much government funding has been cut, and the governors face the challenge of how to maintain the highest standards in a challenging economic environment. The school has always been fortunate in its governors who have been ready to help with their advice, guidance and encouragement both in routine matters and in moments of crisis. The current highly-valued incumbents are no exception to this tradition.