Local Heritage

Buildings of Cheam – Cheam School/Tabor Court

If you have seen our photo display in the activity room, our Layers of London map (which can be seen here) or our social media, you may have seen photos comparing current buildings in Cheam with their past incarnations. The aim of our new Buildings of Cheam series on our blog is to go into further detail about the history of those buildings, including their original purposes, the famous people who resided in them and what they are used for now.

So without further ado, let’s begin our series of posts!

Cheam School in the 1920s

As you enter Cheam Village from the bypass, you will notice two large buildings, one being Tabor Court and the other being Farnham Court. Today, we will be discussing the history of Tabor Court, which, prior to 1934, was the location of the iconic Cheam School.

The door with Royalist graffiti. “Remember” is thought to be Charles I’s last words before his execution and “DOM” is a Royalist symbol.

The school was originally set up in 1645 by the Reverend George Aldrich, a cleric with Royalist leanings. This was extremely risky back then – it was during the time of the civil war, where the Royalists were persecuted by Oliver Cromwell and Parliament. As a result, lessons had to be hidden out of sight. Local legend says that these lessons were held in the underground vaults beneath Whitehall’s gardens – this makes sense, considering that Aldrich lived at Whitehall and you can still see Royalist graffiti on one of the doors displayed here.

It was in 1719 that the school was moved to its most known location. It appealed to parents of prospective students for many reasons. Most notably, it was in the countryside, away from the pollution and dirt in the cities. Attending school there would allow students to have access to clean fresh air that they wouldn’t be able to access normally.

Things seemed to be going well for the school, particularly under Daniel Sanxay, who had been headteacher when the school was moved to the larger building in 1719 and was described as a “strong headmaster”. Unfortunately, the school “went by degrees of decay” under his son James, who presided over the school from 1739 to 1752. Initially running it with the help of one of his sisters, he then became the Rector of Sutton in 1746 (which could have potentially distracted him from his teaching duties) and, four years later, married Catherine Firmin who was allegedly “averse to the employment”. Whether she can be fairly blamed for the school’s misfortunes is unknown, but in comparison to his father, James was seen as a failure.

The most iconic headmaster was arguably William Gilpin, who presided over the school from 1752 to 1777. Taking over after James Sanxay’s tumultuous period, he greatly improved the school’s fortunes. He wrote a book about his plans for educating the boys there and carried them out with great efficiency. He had no patience for cruel and brash students who exploited other students for their own gains, and took pride in boys who grew up to be active and hardworking members of society. He was also a famed art critic who headed the picturesque movement and even became the basis for the satirical character Dr. Syntax. More information can be found on one of our past blog posts here.

Plate 23: Dr. Syntax Reading His Tour. © British Library

The namesake of the current building comes from the Tabor family, who presided over the school for 65 years. The first of them was Robert Tabor, who became the oldest headmaster since Aldrich when he took on the job in 1856. The reputation of Cheam School seems to have been mixed during this time – though it gained a great deal of fame and prestige, many people spoke negatively of the headmaster, describing him as “cruel” and “snobbish”. In 1891, his son Arthur Tabor took over from him. He also received a negative reputation for being too “terrifying” and “harsh” when dealing out punishment, but many people also said that he had a “kind” heart underneath it all and he won respect and esteem from many of the students as a result.

Harold Taylor took over as headmaster in 1920, becoming the youngest headmaster since James Wilding (presiding over Cheam School between 1805 and 1826) at the age of 30. He was described as having all the qualifications needed to be a headmaster as well as having an admiration for his male students. It was not an easy time to be in charge though. The school had been left in a decrepit state after World War One, so he had to work extra hard to improve conditions there. In 1929, the start of the Great Depression affected the families of those who attended the school. In response, Taylor reduced and even waived some of the fees so that parents could pay for their children to attend, with the assumption being that they could pay the full price on a later date when the economic situation had improved.

The school also had some notable students during this time. One was David, the future Earl of Medina who attended from 1928 to 1932. Most famously of all though was his first cousin Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, who attended from 1930 to 1933 and was reported to have been very academic and interested in sports. He even spent his last term as Head Boy. Philip went on to marry Queen Elizabeth II and become the Duke of Edinburgh, founding the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme in 1956.

Tabor Court 2022. Photo by Imogen Easton.

In 1934, after around 215 years, the school made a major decision to move away from Cheam. It had been in a state of decline at this point, with no new students entering for 1934. One of the reasons for this was because of the recent urbanisation of Cheam – the addition of the bypass and the widening of the high street meant that there was more traffic and pollution, completely going against Cheam’s original purpose of being a school away from the city. In order to preserve this purpose, the school was moved to Headley along with its students, where it remains to this day under the name of Cheam Hawtreys School. The building they left behind would become Tabor Court.

Today, Tabor Court houses several flats for people to live in. The Cheam School chapel is still by the building in Dallas Road – there had been talks of moving it with the school, but it was deemed too costly and impractical. It is currently known as St. Christopher’s Roman Catholic Church.

Written by Imogen Easton, Whitehall Historic House volunteer.

Works Cited:

Peel, Edward. Cheam School: From 1645. The Thornhill Press, 1974.

Taylor, Jimmy. Growing up at Cheam School 1922-34. The Friends of Whitehall, 2008.

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