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Rise and fall of Norfolk’s lost County School

PUBLISHED: 07:24 18 November 2017

The now-vanished Watts Naval School at North Elmham.

 Picture: Archant library

The now-vanished Watts Naval School at North Elmham. Picture: Archant library

Archant

It was once as big as Sandringham House but has now vanished from the Norfolk landscape. Local historian Chris Weston tells the story of a lost public school turned naval college.

Norfolk’s County School, based a little way on the Fakenham side of North Elmham, was the brainchild of Joseph Lloyd Brereton.

The Rev Brereton was also Rector of Little Massingham and persuaded many well-to-do people both in and outside Norfolk to back his venture, including the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) who not only laid the foundation stone on March 17 1873, but became its first patron.

The aim of the school was to provide education for the sons of farmers, tradesmen and the like – the ‘middling sort’ of the county.

When completed, the 58-acre County School site was described as being similar in size to Sandringham House and was almost self-sufficient, with its own bakery, generating plant, infirmary, laundry, stables and training block. A huge water tower in the grounds adequately provided the school’s requirements.

Its 87 rooms included a galleried Central Assembly Hall measuring 70 x 40ft and adjacent to the Mess Hall was a room that was eventually used as a cinema.

St Luke’s Chapel, big enough for up to 240 worshippers at a sitting, was built and consecrated in 1883, before enlargement with transepts in 1926. Two stained glass windows were later added in memory of Frederick Humby, a former pupil who lost his life as a ship’s Steward in the Titanic disaster of 1912.

Elsewhere were a gardener’s cottage and an open-air 70ft by 30ft swimming pool next to the river. A boathouse stood on the river bank and a cricket ground lay east of the main building. The kitchen, offices and dining-hall were on the top floor of the three-storey building whose central block extended to four floors and there was also a school choir.

Sleeping accommodation wasn’t in dormitories, but rooms of up to 13 beds, though several only had only six or seven. The building’s exterior was made of flint with red brick dressings, large dormers and weather tiling at intervals. The roof was covered with red and black banded tiles and internal and external timberwork was stained and varnished.

The school – for boys only - opened in July 1874. Numbers swelled to more than 100 in 1881, by which time pupils came not only from around Norfolk but from beyond and even abroad. Annual fees were 40 guineas and such was its importance that in 1884, the school gained its own railway station, ‘County School’. From here, the ‘main’ line led either to Dereham or Fakenham while a separate platform served Aylsham and Wroxham.

But the school was short-lived due to falling numbers. A roll of 84 boys in 1883 had dropped to 70 the following year, and this trend continuing until its inevitable closure in 1895. The building then remained empty for two years before the arrival of Edmund Hannay Watts, a wealthy London ship owner and admirer of Dr Barnardo’s. He reopened the premises as the Watts Naval Training School, where up to 300 future seagoing boys could live while training, enjoying good board and education. But for some, the school (in its various incarnations) had tragic links.

Ascending away from the station and level crossing, the roadway passes a small cemetery now mostly hidden by trees. It contains the headstones of 16 boys aged between 11 and 14. Some died while clinging to the underside of departing trains while trying to run away.

Watts closed in 1949, with the site converted into a ‘standard’ Barnardo’s Home until final closure in July 1953. The station closed in 1964 but still remains as the northernmost part of the Mid-Norfolk Railway, with plans to link it to Dereham southwards and, eventually, northwards to Fakenham too.

As for the once-magnificent County School complex itself, that has long vanished into dust and rubble. The Bugle Boys message of achievement has also vanished but memories of the School’s three phases are displayed at the station.

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