Hethel Prep School

A school for the ambitious in Hethel Hall

The following extracts comes from the Autobiography of William B Warren V Vernon 'a Dante scholar' who married his childhood sweetheart Agnes Lucy, 3rd daughter of Sir John Boileau, Bt. of Ketteringham Hall: Recollections of Seventy-Two Years (pub. 1917). [Small additions in brackets.]

The Boileaus had as tutor for the sons Mr. Frederick Askew Bickmore, and as governess for the daughters Miss Parman. These two were now married, and had set up a preparatory school for boys at Hethel Hall, belonging to Sir John Boileau, not more than half a mile from the lodge gate of Ketteringham Park, his country place near Wymondham in Norfolk. Two of the Boileau boys were there, and my cousin, Frederick Lambton. One morning, after break- fast, I was called aside for a private conversation with my mother, and informed that the time had now arrived when, like other boys of my own age, I must go to school. She then asked me, as a sort of leading question, if there was any particular school I should like to go to. I replied without the slightest hesitation : " Oh, mamma, I should like to go to Mr. Bickmore's." My mother told me that she had expected that answer, and that, as a matter of fact, she and I should return shortly to England [from Italy], and she would take me there for the autumn half.

Some time in September, I went back to London with my mother, and thence by the Eastern Counties Railway from Shoreditch to Colchester, where we slept. The next day we travelled in a chaise and pair to Sir John Boileau's country-house in Norfolk, Ketteringham Park, near the town of Wymondham. We arrived there in time for luncheon, and I passed the rest of the day with my future wife, Agnes..... Sir John and Lady Catherine Boileau, and their daughters, received us most kindly, and from that day, sixty-five years ago, dear Ketteringham became to me a second home where I have always been made one of the family, and where my welcome has been constant. The next day, after luncheon, my mother walked through the park with me, and out by the [East] Carlton Lodge, to Hethel Hall. A long bit of straight road led to the entrance gate, and in the far distance we could see my future school-fellows grouped upon it, waving their caps, not so much, I fear, by way of giving me an ovation, but rather in sign of exultation at the prospect of a new victim upon whom to play their practical jokes. Mr. and Mrs. Bickmore received us with the greatest kindness, and remained dear friends of mine for many a long day since, until they died. And now came the time for my dear mother to part from me, which she did with many tears. I accompanied her to the gate ; from there she sent me back, and my life as a schoolboy had begun.

Hethel Hall in 1879 probably looked much the same as in the mid 1840s

As far as my schoolmaster and schoolmistress were concerned, as well as their house, their living, and their teaching, all was well, in fact all was of the best, but I cannot honestly say that my three years at Hethel were happy ones. In a very small school of nine boys, all pretty much of the same age, there is a great lack of that control by elder boys which makes public-school life so valuable to the youth of England. Very young boys are great tyrants, and were, I found, totally regardless of hurting each other's feelings, about their relations at home, or anything that they could do to vex or annoy....  At a private school, small as ours was, a big boy of good feeling was much needed, and yet I can perfectly give the names of my school- fellows, most of whom were intimate friends of mine in after life. There were two Boileaus, of whom I have already spoken [Edmund and Charles]. Peter Godfrey, son of the Dowager Countess of Morton (by her second marriage).... Cavendish, son of Lord Charles Fitzroy.... Andrew Barnard, whose father, General Sir Henry Barnard, was Commander-in-Chief during the Indian Mutiny.... Another of the nine was Robert Baring (Colonel), an elder brother of Lord Cromer, who was himself at our school some years after I had left. My three cousins, Frederick, Francis, and Arthur Lambton, were with me at Hethel during my three years there and, afterwards, all the time I was at Eton, and were beloved friends as well as cousins. Frederick Cox, afterwards with me at Eton and Christ Church.... Among others, who came later, was William Amhurst D. Tyssen, afterwards Tyssen-Amherst, M.P., and finally Lord Amherst of Hackney, a dear and much-lamented friend. The Honourable James Home, brother of the Earl of Home, who died in 1909, only came to Hethel just before I left it to go to Eton. They are all dead now (December 1909), except Francis Lambton and myself ! 

I have said that Mr. Bickmore's teaching was very good. Nearly all his boys were highly placed when they went to public schools. We were thoroughly well grounded in Latin and Greek, and a certain amount of English grammar. But what was so essentially good was the teaching of geography and history. There were good maps round the schoolroom, and we were constantly called upon to take a stick and point out important places on the surface of the globe, and, when I went to Eton, I had a very fair know- ledge of modern geography.... As regards history, both Mr. Bickmore and his two brothers, who kept large private schools elsewhere, had a system of their own which greatly facilitated their pupils' memory of what they learned. Mr. William Bickmore, who kept a school at Mergate Hall [in Bracon Ash!] near Norwich, had written a book called Historical Combinations. In each century some leading historical event was chosen that combined two or three identical figures. To elucidate my meaning, I will give an instance. Alexander the Great's principal battle was the battle of Issus, 333 B.C. Therefore in the list of Combinations we had " The Age of Alexander the Great, 333 B.C.," while, after Christ, we had " The Age of Constantine, A.D. 333." We all left Hethel having a very fair approximate knowledge of the dates of the principal periods of history. Furthermore, on the evenings of our Wednesday and Saturday half-holidays, we used to sit round the dining-room table, and good Mrs. Bickmore used to read aloud to us well-selected works of fiction, connected with some period of history.

During the three years I was at Hethel, we had read to us nearly all the Waverley Novels, and we never learned to snuff the air, as do the youth of the present day, when Sir Walter Scott's name is mentioned. I have not mentioned any mathematics, nor was our school as good for them as for its other branches of teaching. For modern languages we had an old Dutchman, Herr Vlieland, 1 from the island of that ilk, who used to come over from Norwich, and teach us French, Italian, and German. I got the French prize one year, and my Italian was very fairly kept up, preparatory to Eton.

William Warren Vernon in 1874 

When I got back to Hethel for the spring term (or " half " as we used to call it), I heard that it was to be my last, and that I should go up to Eton for the summer half. I was at once put on to work hard, so as to get placed "Remove" when I should enter at Eton. I remember in one of our walks we were passing a pond near a farm about a mile from Ketteringham, and we began to shy stones at the ducks, when the farmer, a big burly man, rushed after us with a stick. We fled in laughing terror, but we were totally ignorant of who our pursuer was. It was James Blomfield Rush, who, in the spring of 1849, was hanged for the murder of Messrs. Jermy, senior and junior, father and son, at Stanfield Hall. When some of the boys went home for a short holiday at Easter, Francis and Arthur Lambton, as well as I myself, remained at school. In fact, I left school one morning, and entered at Eton twenty-four hours afterwards. During this short holiday, Mrs. Bickmore took Francis Lambton and me to call upon Mrs. Jermy at Stanfield Hall. This lady was the wife of Mr. Jermy junior....

And now in April, 1847, came the time for leaving my kind schoolmaster and mistress, Mr. and Mrs. Bickmore. I went up to London by train to Shoreditch, slept at ii Whitehall Place, Sir Walter James's house, and the following day my grandfather, Mr. Ellison, took me to Eton.... During the afternoon, and the next forenoon, I was summoned to my tutor's study, and was put through an examination, in which, though my Latin versification was weak, the excellent grounding I had received from Mr. Bickmore stood me in good stead, and soon afterwards my tutor returned from a short interview with the Head Master, Dr. Hawtrey, and informed me that I was placed in "Lower Remove." "Remove" at Eton and "Shell" at Harrow were equivalent terms. As this was the highest place to which I could attain as a new boy, I need not say that I was pleased. Life seemed very bright to me that day. I knew how happy my father and mother would be at the good place I had taken at the outset of my Eton career, and I knew the credit it would do to my school at Hethel, which was wonderfully fortunate in placing its boys in "Remove"....  

[With thanks to Mary Parker for the links.]