In the entrance hall to Taunton School, at the base of its neo-Gothic clock tower, is the school’s foundation stone, laid at a ceremony in 1867, three years before the new buildings were completed.
No one knows exactly which stone it is, as it is not marked, but what we do know is that buried in a cavity beneath the stone lies a scroll in a sealed glass jar detailing the school’s history.
In 1867 the school was just 20 years old and had been operating in nearby cramped accommodation until then. This coming year will mark its 175th anniversary.
Even the ambitious Reverend W H Griffith, the then headmaster who prepared the scroll, could not have foreseen how Taunton School would become the thriving international community that it is today.
“Taunton broke the mould by placing emphasis on practical subjects, rather than just classical lessons.”
However, it is fair to say that the innovative, pioneering spirit of the school’s founders is still alive and well. While Taunton School is proud of its long history and traditions, perhaps its defining characteristic through the generations has been its willingness to adapt and meet the changing educational needs of each generation — and to look forwards, not back.
Set up by a group of nonconformists for local boys, the school — even in its earliest days as the Dissenters’ Proprietary School — broke the mould by placing emphasis on practical subjects, rather than just classical lessons. By the late 1800s Taunton School had become one of the first in the country to put science on the curriculum, and by 1900 laboratories had been built.
In the 1930s, Old Tauntonian Albert Haverlock Case, the chief engineer of Beachy Head lighthouse, paid for raw materials to build engineering workshops — work which the boys did themselves. Car maintenance was on the timetable followed by an aeronautical division, the first to be set up by a public school.
In recognition of this, the Air Ministry presented the school with a biplane in 1937 which arrived in kit form for the boys to assemble. The hangar was built for it in the south east corner of the playing fields. It is still there today although the plane is long gone.
Taunton has long enjoyed strong ties with military families and has the largest Combined Cadet Force of any school in the South West. Those links date back to 1913 when a group of boys wrote to Lord Kitchener asking for an Officer Training Corps to be established at Taunton School. It was the last OTC (a precursor to the CCF) to be set up before the outbreak of World War l.
“The Air Ministry presented the school with a biplane in 1937 which arrived in kit form for the boys to assemble.”
During the Second World War, Taunton School became largely self-sufficient, with pupils turning playing fields into vegetable plots and they also reared poultry, rabbits and pigeons for the kitchens.
However, school life was disrupted by at least two air raids a week by 1941. “Generally, air raid warnings during an afternoon’s double chemistry lesson were popular, but night alerts, as most of them were, were hailed with less delight,” writes our school archivist John Brown in Independent Witness, his 1997 history of the school.
Extensive global links have been a particular feature of Taunton’s history. We were the first UK independent school to appoint a black head boy in 1962 – Peter Thomas from Nigeria.
And one of our earliest international students was the Jamaican cricketer, J. H. Cameron, who was at Taunton between 1927 and 1933. He was a member of every First 11 team during that time, before playing for Somerset and the West Indies. He heralded a cricketing tradition which continues to this day. Marcus Trescothick, the former England and Somerset cricketer, and now the elite batting coach for England, has been a cricket coach at Taunton since 2015.
“We were the first UK independent school to appoint a black head boy in 1962.”
Taunton’s international reputation was cemented in 1996 with the opening of Taunton School International on site – a UK first. Today, with more than 40 different nationalities here on our rural campus we enjoy being part of a co-educational family of schools with a truly global feel.
To mark TSI’s 25th anniversary last year we introduced a new alternative pathway to higher education, in recognition of the demand for places at English-speaking universities.
As well as the IB, A-levels and BTECs, we now offer the NCUK International Foundation Year, preceded by Taunton’s own Pre Foundation qualification, to those international sixth-form students whose English skills for academic study need improvement.
“In the 1800s the school dealt with deadly outbreaks of scarlet fever, cholera and diptheria.”
Like all schools, Covid presented unforeseen challenges for Taunton, but nothing like those faced by earlier generations. In the 1800s the school dealt with deadly outbreaks of scarlet fever, cholera and diptheria. And during the Asian flu pandemic of 1957, it is reported that while most of the school was floored by the virus, only the bursar remained calm, “procuring beds and helpers out of a hat”.
Our pupils, of course, now have the benefit of a 24/7 health centre. We were even ready with our own Nightingale wing. During lockdowns students benefited from a full timetable of lessons and extra-curricular activities, thanks to technology.
We even managed to complete our new dining hall against the odds and Princess Anne opened the £3.6 million facility in December 2019.
“We were even ready with our own Nightingale wing.”
Taunton School has always been at the heart of the local community. Those Dissenters of the 19th century did, after all, set out to improve the lot of local boys and those local boys, in turn, improved the lot of Taunton with the school becoming the town’s biggest private sector employer.
Support of community initiatives is a priority for us today as is increasing the number of assisted places, bursaries and scholarships for local students. We believe that affordability should not be a barrier to entering our school.
In the sixth-form, 23 students’ fees have been fully funded by our foundation – students who could not otherwise afford an independent education.
Just like our founders, who were determined to provide skills that empowered a generation, our priority now is to educate young people, whatever their background and whatever their nationality, to allow them to thrive in today’s global marketplace.