Shrewsbury School was founded by Edward VI in 1552 following the dissolution of two ecclesiastical colleges in the town. In its original incarnation the school was sited not outside the loop of the River Severn as it is today, but within its boundary, where it occupied a number of black and white houses.
Although much of Shrewsbury’s very early history is obscure, we do know that the first pupil to be enrolled at the school hailed not from Shropshire but from Buckinghamshire. This heralded a trend that continued from 1561 to 1583 when, under the headmastership of Thomas Ashton, pupil numbers steadily increased and Shrewsbury rose to national prominence, gaining the description “the largest school in all England”. Drama similarly flourished under Ashton, with school productions of Whitsuntide and mystery plays being performed on regular occasions. Indeed it may have been in one of these productions that a young pupil named Philip Sidney – later to become the renowned Renaissance soldier, statesman, diplomat, poet and earliest famous Salopian – made his first dramatic appearance.
In the latter years of his headmastership Ashton laid down a series of ordinances that provided for the establishment of a school library. The foundation of a chained library by his successor, John Meighen, in 1606, ushered in a further period of school expansion, with Meighen overseeing not only the design and building of the new library but also the construction of a new school building on the site of the original; a building that coincidentally houses the town’s library today.
In marked contrast to this prosperity Shrewsbury’s fortunes were reversed during the civil war period and eighteenth century, with a decrease in pupil numbers giving rise to the somewhat exaggerated description of “a school with scarcely a single boy”. It was not until 1798 and the accession of headmaster Samuel Butler that Shrewsbury’s fortunes were revived. Butler, a renowned classical scholar, founded the classical reputation of the school; although this did not suit a certain pupil named Charles Darwin, who remarked that “nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being taught except a little ancient geography and history”. In addition to his restoration of the school’s academic status, Butler also established the enduring tradition of the annual school Speech Day. “You found it of brick, but you left it of marble” was the observation of his successor, Benjamin Hall Kennedy.
Shrewsbury continued to thrive under Kennedy’s auspices. His broadening of the academic syllabus and addition of recreational activities to the curriculum led to the school’s academic reputation being sealed in 1868 with its inclusion as one of the seven ‘great’ schools in the Public Schools Act. However this prosperity meant that by the latter part of the nineteenth century the school had outgrown its original premises, necessitating a move out of the town to its present position on the spacious Kingsland estate. In 1882 Headmaster Henry Whitehead Moss oversaw the relocation of the main school building to premises that had previously housed Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital and the town’s House of Industry.
Development of the school site continued throughout the twentieth-century with a boathouse, new library and series of boarding houses amongst the many additions. The new 100 acre riverside location spawned new sporting and recreational pursuits such as football and rowing, bearing testimony to Moss’s conviction of the value of “commodious playgrounds”. Indeed the site’s commodious qualities proved to be of exceptional benefit to Cheltenham College during the second world war years when, for two terms in 1939 and 1940, they were evacuated to Shrewsbury and set up camp on the fields.
As we have moved into the twenty-first century there have been further additions to the school site, and Shrewsbury, as under Ashton, flourishes. In 2000 a bronze statue of Charles Darwin as a young man was unveiled by Sir David Attenborough, and stands in front of the main school building, mirroring a statue depicting Darwin in old age that stands in front of the Old Schools in the town. In 2001 a new music school, The Maidment Building, was opened by HRH Prince Charles, a resource that provides a superb teaching and recital area for boys and visiting musicians. A new boarding house and cricket academy opened in 2006, and a new swimming pool opened in 2007. Recent extra-curricular exploits have included trips by Biology students to Honduras, Rovers to the Pyrenees and Sailors to Greece. One feels that, to quote the School magazine, The Salopian Newsletter, “Sir Philip Sidney, archetypal renaissance man, would feel that his torch was still burning strongly at Shrewsbury”.
Dr. B.H. Kennedy and his Staff, c1860