Imagine; a government deciding that it needed to seriously boost numbers of students in higher education. Linked to a very clear need for staff in an employment area, one that the government was going to decisively extend under its own powers. Needing to move fast, it would be looking for a huge increase in providers and to meet a major proportion of the buildings necessary it would turn to a readily available source. It would put Stately Homes to use.
By common assent, teacher training policy has been a muddle. In 1938 the prospects for colleges were so poor that the Church of England set out to consolidate those it ran, closing three of them. Within five years much had changed. There was a clear consensus in government for a change in the amount of schooling the general population would receive and ahead of the 1944 Education Act the McNair Committee considered the prospects for teacher training. More would be needed and at a higher standard. Part of the Committee’s recommendations addressed the accommodation of the existing colleges:
Quite apart from any extension of premises to provide for a larger number of students, many colleges, if they are to be recognised in the future, will have to undertake substantial building operations in order to make good their deficiencies of accommodation and amenities. … It is intolerable, for instance, that large numbers of students should be sleeping in cubicles, and that many colleges lack even the minimum accommodation and equipment necessary for the proper education and training of their students. One of the things a student should learn at college is the art of private study; and he cannot do this without a room of his own. Nor can students have the kind of social life which is desirable unless there are adequate common rooms and other facilities to enable them to use their leisure in a sensible way. We need not emphasise, on the more professional side, how regrettable it is that the proper development of the various subjects of the curriculum should be hampered by lack of lecture rooms, laboratories, craft rooms and so on. Finally, the irritation caused to students and staff alike from inadequate dining, kitchen and other domestic arrangements is calculated to produce discontent and to damage the reputation of a college.McNair Report (1944) Teachers and Youth Leaders p 75
More colleges would be needed, and fast. Given the state of the nation in 1944, there was no chance of building new sites. It was time for repurposing. The Government set to work on planning this. One site was going to be St Peter’s College, Peterborough, one of the colleges that the Church of England had closed in 1938, but this did not actually come off, despite the government organising staff for it. Other sites came from war uses. Alsager College would take on the living quarters for a munitions factory, the site retaining the layout through its life as a provider. Coventry College of Education was in Nissan huts, Middleton St. George College of Education in an RAF base. The last of the emergency colleges, Bletchley Park, stayed in the former MI5 and Enigma team buildings until moving to Wheatley in 1966.
But, there was another source of buildings surplus to requirements: Stately Homes. There was an established tradition that one use for redundant vast country piles was as schools. Examples include Rossall Hall (1844), Prior Park (1867), Stowe (1921), Tring Park (1939). When a university was mooted for North Staffordshire at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Duke of Sutherland offered Trentham Hall to the county council as a location. Peter Mandler has described how conversion to educational use was seen as one of the ‘friendliest possible uses’ (1997, p325)
The Second World War catalysed the slow decline of the country house, caused by a mixture of social changes, including, of course, the imposition of death duties. Houses were requisitioned for a range of uses, Mandler describing how the payment of death duties turned land sales to public benefit. (1997, p335)
Councils quickly pressed large houses into use. Among the emergency colleges, the following were all based around a house: Balls Park, Bretton Hall, De La Salle College (Hopwood Hall), Eaton Hall College of Education, Retford, Kesteven College of Education, Grantham (Stoke Rochford Hall), Lady Mabel College (Wentworth), Newton Park, Northumberland College of Education,(Kirkley Hall) St. Paul’s College, Rugby (Newbold Revel), Totley Hall, Trent Park, and Wall Hall.
The case had been made for greater proportion of residential students in the 1930s. Expansion plans for training colleges would require additional accommodation in time, but the houses could quickly provide the kind of teaching and residential accommodation that the McNair committee recommended. McNair hadn’t gone as far as recommending only the residential mode, but had sought to bring the same benefits to students in the training colleges as were available in the universities. The report recommended a loosening of regulation of residential life in the colleges, to promote ‘self-reliance and self-discipline which are essential to adult life’.
With the exception of Reading, the modern universities had been founded in the large cities. The UGC now agreed to fund a new college on a residential model. The prospects for North Staffordshire were advanced by A D Lindsay, and the project settled on Keele Hall and its estate. Given the intended scale for the University College was considerably more than a training college, the Hall would be a base while the military huts on the site could give way to the proper buildings. In time, the same approach would see Heslington Hall and Wivenhoe House as the first buildings of universities built on their estates.
Other, public sector, HEIs came to own stately homes too. Councils used them as conference and training centres and at incorporation in 1988 many passed to the polytechnics and colleges in their own right. The Chelmer Institute (now Anglia Ruskin) had Danbury Palace, Luton College (now Bedfordshire) has Putteridge Bury, and Buckinghamshire College acquired Missenden Abbey. Later mergers, particularly with land-based colleges, brought large houses into universities – including the fabulous Brackenhurst campus of NTU.
As splendid as these stately home higher education institutions are, the emergency colleges are over-represented in the list of those that have closed. Many of those which stayed as teacher training providers closed in the 1970s, or were merged into polytechnics who have now moved from those sites. Probably the grandest of these sites is Wentworth Woodhouse – leased to Lady Mabel College, but, after merger, given up by Sheffield City Polytechnic in 1988 due to the high maintenance costs. Nearby, Wentworth Castle College of Education was succeeded in the building by Northern College, a residential further education college.
Some institutions would have seen a boost from the HEFCE historic buildings premium, but the additional maintenance costs of a large historic building, even if balanced by conference and events income will have played a factor in many institutions leaving these houses. There are other continuing educational uses made of some; overseas universities have branches in them (such as Evansville at Harlaxton) or training centres (such as the Prison Service at Newbold Revel). What would be wonderful is to capture the extent to which these stately home colleges were distinctive – what it would been like to be a residential student in these places.
Mandler, P, 1997, The Fall and Rise of the Stately Home, New Haven, Yale University Press
McNair Report, 1944, Report of the Committee appointed by the President of the Board of Education to consider the Supply, Recruitment and Training of Teachers and Youth Leaders, HMSO