The hidden corners of Winchester College

John Thorn, by June Mendoza. Image: Winchester College

John Thorn, by June Mendoza. Image: Winchester College


Author: Dr Barry Shurlock

Bio: Barry is an active local history researcher who writes for the Hampshire Chronicle and other newspapers and contributes to a variety of history journals.


This piece was first published in the Hampshire Chronicle on 17th February 2022.


The headmaster of a school that has for centuries been kept behind its walls is determined to make it serve the community, writes Barry Shurlock …

Dr Tim Hands. Image: Winchester

IT is no small feat to lead an institution with centuries of influence in every corner of the kingdom, and even a language of its own. And changing it is even harder. But the headmaster of Winchester College since 2016, Dr Tim Hands, is making changes to the ‘town and gown’ model that has served it for so long.

He is inspired to do this by, amongst other things, the example of his father, R. K. Hands, who in 1968 became the headmaster of a pioneering comprehensive school in Chiswick. It was one of the largest in the country and he is remembered as a popular founding head. He had wide interests – in sport, the arts and sciences – and was even prepared to perform in a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Winchester’s head is following his father’s dictum that “schools are there for their community”. But there could scarcely be a more marked contrast between, on the one hand, a school with more than 650 years of history – known and beloved by the rich and the powerful – and one made by welding together secondary modern and grammar schools in a national experiment in London.

However, Tim, who was himself state educated has a huge amount of experience at various levels of education. He studied violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, is a Thomas Hardy scholar, a former lecturer in English at Oriel College, Oxford, and a serial master and headmaster – at the King’s School Canterbury, Whitgift School Croydon, Portsmouth Grammar School and Magdalen College School Oxford, where he was its 61st Master.

In 2016 he came to Winchester after nine years as chairman of the University Committee of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference – the professional association of the world’s leading independent schools – and its overall chairman 2013-14.

One way he has sought help for the new challenge, and cleared a path for the future, has been to research and write a profusely illustrated book, A Winchester A-Z. It aims “to extend, explore and enjoy the complexities of the College’s heritage, providing an impression of its character and history”, according to the November 2021 issue of the school’s magazine, The Trusty Servant.

Many may think that a fresh look at Winchester College is appropriate at a time when questions are often raised about the future of public schools in general. Some argue that they should all mentor other schools – as some already do – or even be integrated into the state system, whilst their charitable status is often represented as a ‘fiscal fudge’.

For ‘WinColl-watchers’, A Winchester A-Z, romps through some pastures that are familiar, but also probes hidden corners that have rarely been explored by other chroniclers of this extraordinary institution.

How many people know that the school actually owns Broadhalfpenny Down, the cradle of English cricket? The land came to the school from the efforts of Edward Whalley-Tooker, a slow underarm bowler who played for Hampshire and had family links with the Hambledon Club. In 1925 the gift was marked by a match between school and club on the hallowed ground – the first since 1908 – which the school lost.

The game gets a good airing in the new book, with quotes by former headmasters: George Moberly, who said: “An idle boy is a boy who loves cricket”, whilst George Ridding’s view was: “Give me a boy who is a cricketer, and I can make something of him.”

Cricketers display ‘ekker’, the ‘notions’ word for exercise. Image: Winchester College

Throughout the book headmasters of all kinds make appearances, including John Thorn, 1968-1985, author of The Road to Winchester, and James Sabben-Clare, 1985-2000, remembered by the Winchester College Society as “classical scholar, author, actor, sportsman, carpenter and cabaret artiste”.


James Sabben-Clare, by Andrew Festing. Image: Winchester College

Tim commented: “I admire all my predecessors – of these Moberley [1836-1867] was someone who wanted to reform but was held back, Rendall [1911-1924] was probably not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey (whose great-grandson he taught), an extraordinary man who had built War Cloister by 1924 – and knew all the 513 men that died and their families.

“He was also a governor of the BBC and wrote its motto, but wouldn’t have a radio on an open shelf! Then there was Walter Oakeshott [1946-1954] who made the remarkable discovery of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur [in 1934] and went on to be vice-chancellor at Oxford.

“What I’ve discovered about the school is that the whole is much greater than its parts – writing the book has helped me to work out the spirit of the place, to find the bits we don’t want to lose and those we can laugh at or treat with tongue in cheek! Overall, I am very keen on opening up the heritage of the school and sharing it more widely.”

The school’s Treasury is free to view every afternoon and there are arrangements for group visits and school workshops. There are also heritage open days when some of the more extraordinary things owned by the school may on view, including a medieval cheese scale, probably the only one in the country.

For an institution with more than 100 listed buildings a visit is a feast for any architecture buff. Which is perhaps hardly surprising, since the school’s founder, William of Wykeham, who was Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, was first and foremost an extraordinary architect. The new headmaster admits that he only discovered this by researching A Winchester A-Z.

Those strange poles and ropes that the casual walker sees strung out on the playing fields of Winchester (but not Eton) also get a mention. They define ‘a canvas’, which is the name for the pitch on which Winchester Football is played. It apparently has elements of conventional soccer, and rugby, as well as some similarities with the later games of Gaelic soccer and hurling. Nowhere else in the world has, however, taken it up, with the reputed exception of a school in South Africa, that once made a visit and beat the home side hollow!

Winchester Football. Image: Winchester College

There is no doubt that the school has changed immensely. At one time all its headmasters were classicists, and although the school still publishes its own books on Latin and Greek for use by pupils, it offers a huge range of subjects. Tim said: “We must not only produce literati, but also digerati”, which means people with an IT expertise.

Educated at Winchester, theoretical physicist Professor Freeman Dyson FRS. Image: Ken Levy

A huge draw for parents looking for the best school for their sons (and from 2023 their daughters) is ‘Div’ (a word taken from Winchester’s own language, ‘notions’). It involves small numbers of pupils in all year groups discussing and debating a huge range of subjects in a way not constrained by syllabus or examination. Challenging issues are tackled in a critical fashion, both orally and on paper. In the words of the school’s website, the topics might be “artistic, literary, philosophical, political, sociological, art-historical, ethical, religious or musical”.

Some regard Div as Winchester’s unique selling point – one group even worked up their debate into a paper, which has been published in the scientific literature. They charted the Ebola crisis and by means of calculus developed a population dynamics model that represented the growth and spread of the infection.

A Winchester A-Z condenses a huge amount of information into a small compass. Tim acknowledges the help from many others that he has had, but retains credit for discovering that, whilst the eleven houses of the school for commoners are identified in all matters by the the letters ‘A’ to ‘K’, scholars, who resided in ‘College’, were given ‘X’ – perhaps originally intended as a laundry mark.

Unlike most historical research, which depends on documents and the like, in this case the clinching evidence was a steeplechase jersey of a former scholar which displays ‘X’ in a Slab Serif type pioneered in the early 1800s. Q.E.D.

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