10 July 2023

The Old Grammar School
in Coventry began life
as a chapel and hospital

The Old Grammar School in Coventry was once the Church and Hospital of Saint John the Baptist (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The Collegiate and Parish Church of Saint John the Baptist in Spon Street, which I described in a posting yesterday, was one of the highlights of my most recent visit to Coventry. But there is another, older mediaeval foundation in the city centre that was also dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.

The old Grammar School in Coventry stands on the corner of Bishop Street and Hales Street in Coventry, diagonally opposite the pub that has been named the Philip Larkin after Coventry’s most famous poet and writer.

The Old Grammar School began almost 900 years ago as the Church and Hospital of Saint John the Baptist. Saint John’s was founded by Prior Lawrence of Saint Mary’s Benedictine Priory, then the main religious institution in Coventry, with the support of Edmund, Archdeacon of Coventry. It was built between 1154 and 1176 and had a warden and a number of secular brothers or sisters.

The charter of foundation was confirmed by the Archdeacon of Coventry and by Archbishop Richard of Canterbury (1174-1184). Like many similar hospitals, such as Saint John’s in Lichfield, it was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was ‘to provide a small permanent staff to supervise the house and maintain the chapel services, to afford temporary relief and lodgement for poor wayfarers, and to give more permanent relief to certain of the local poor who were sick or aged.’

The warden was subject to the Prior of Saint Mary’s Priory, and the hospital was run by the warden and a college of priests, brothers and sisters. The surviving building dates from the 1340s, and was built using beautiful local sandstone. It had its own chapel and was maintained by gifts and endowments from local benefactors. It could be said the hospital provided care for the body, while the chapel provided care for the soul.

At the dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation, the hospital was surrendered to King Henry VIII on 4 March 1545. John Hales, a wealthy businessman who was also a clerk in the Court of the Chancery and one of the King’s Commissioners appointed to dissolve the Coventry monasteries, bought the building for £400, on condition that he would set up a free school bearing the king’s name.

King Henry VIII School was established in the nave of the former Whitefriars Church on 23 July, 1545. It remained there until 1558, when it moved to the site of Saint John’s Hospital. Freemen of the Coventry Guilds could send their sons to the school for the sum of 12 pence per year.

A year earlier, in 1557, Hales had 49 carved oak choir stalls moved from Whitefriars Monastery to the school, to be used as desks. The stalls, originally made in 1342, remain in the Old Grammar School to this day, bearing the names of generations of schoolboys, and the marble runs they carved into them.

During her one and only visit to Coventry on 17 August 1565, Queen Elizabeth I was shown the Grammar School which was ‘set up by her late father’ and she made a gift of money for its upkeep.

When he died, Hales left property and land to pay for ‘the maintenance of one perpetual free school within the City of Coventry’.

King Henry VIII Grammar School moved from the former hospital and chapel in 1885 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Warwickshire historian and genealogist Sir William Dugdale was a pupil in the school in 1615-1620.

The Revd Thomas Sheepshanks (1796-1875), who was the rector of Saint John the Baptist for 50 years, was also the headmaster of the Grammar School. His son John Sheepshanks (1834-1912), who was one of his pupils, later became Bishop of Norwich (1893-1910).

Other former pupils included Richard Allestry who was Provost of Eton College for 15 years; Dean Ralph Bathurst, President of Trinity College Oxford, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Chaplain to the King and Dean of Wells; Samuel Clark, one of the Commissioners at the Savoy Conference appointed to revise the Book of Common Prayer in 1661; Thomas Holyoake, author of a Latin and English dictionary in 1677; the Revd Charles Evans, headmaster of King Edward School, Birmingham; Thomas Sharp, author of The Antiquities of Coventry; Dr AS Peake, author of Peake’s Concordance; Richard Bailey who was President of Saint John’s College Oxford during the Civil War; and John Fisher who became Admiral of the Fleet.

When the Burges, the street outside of the Old Grammar School, was widened in 1794, the half-timbered part of the building used as the library wing was demolished. That same year, the west end of the church and the bell tower were also demolished. A new west front was built with an embattled gable flanked by turrets and pinnacles that met with much criticism.

When Hales Street was built in 1848, further changes were introduced to the Hospital buildings, including the demolition of the Ushers’ house and garden, and the south transept.

The west front was rebuilt in 1852 in a more orthodox Gothic style that remains today.

King Henry VIII Grammar School moved in 1885 to new, much larger premises on a 13-acre site on Warwick Road, leaving behind the beautiful mediaeval building. The City Fathers wanted to pull it down, while an American entrepreneur offered a four figure sum to take it apart block by block and transport it across the Atlantic. But a successful public appeal saved the building and it came to be vested in the trustees of the Church of Holy Trinity. The man behind the move was Canon Beaumont, who said at the time: ‘If it is worth that to the Americans it is worth more to the people of Coventry.’

The parish used the chancel as a Sunday School. But as church use diminished other organisations used the building, including Trinity Guild Football Club, the Church Lads’ Brigade and the Welsh Presbyterian Church when they had to leave Ford Street as their building was demolished when the Ring Road was being built.

The Old Grammar School was struck by a bomb during the Coventry Blitz in April 1941 in World War II.

Once again the building came under threat in 1952 when the council wanted to widen Bishop Street. Fortunately the Ministry of Works refused the request for demolition. Proper repairs were delayed until the 1960s.

The old school was neglected for some years, and gradually decayed until it was estimated that over £1 million would be needed to restore it and make the structure safe.

After standing empty for over 20 years, planning permission was granted in 2013 to restore the Old Grammar School for use as an exhibition, education and event space. The restoration was part of a £8.5 million redevelopment of the Coventry Transport Museum and the Old Grammar School reopened to the public on 4 July 2015.

In recent years, the building has been revitalised by Culture Coventry as a unique part of the city’s heritage. The Grade 1 listed building is now available to hire for conferences, dinners, weddings and networking events.

The building has been revitalised by Culture Coventry as a unique part of the city’s heritage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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