Hard Terms

One millisecond after midnight on the first day of September 1978 death, fusion, reincarnation, resurrection and birth all occurred at the same instant. At that moment three hundred and thirty-three cumulative years of education concluded and continued. Three colleges ceased to exist and lived on.

That was the precise moment when three historic Preston Catholic grammar schools folded and a new one – Newman College – was born.[1] This foundation brought about a remarkable transition from three highly traditional and selective schools into a more inclusive, completely co-educational, unified college.  It was formed after over a decade of planning following the publication of a proposal for redesigning the nature of education in Preston.


Why it happened

In April 1964 W.R. Tuson, the Chief Education Officer for Preston, published A Reappraisal of the Organisation of Secondary Education in Preston. His report suggested an end to the system then in place in which young people had to pass entrance exams or pay fees to attend one of the half a dozen grammar schools in the area, or progress in the more usual way from their primary school to a “Secondary Modern” school.  Tuson suggested that Preston should move away from that style of education and set up a system of comprehensive high schools and separate sixth form colleges. At various stages through the planning process the Catholic diocese were consulted and it was with their approval and co-operation that the ideas eventually come to fruition with respect to the many Catholic schools in the town. In 1967 the reorganisation plan was finalised and the fate of the three Catholic grammar schools was sealed.

stained glass triptich
The three grammar schools are commemorated in stained glass windows of the chapel of Cardinal Newman College. L to R: Lark Hill, The Catholic College, Winckley Square Convent

History Lessons

Lark Hill in the 1920s

The three schools had very long histories. The Lark Hill site dates back to 1797 and for many years was the residence of the Horrocks family of cotton manufacturers, but on 7th January 1861 it became the convent home of five nuns of the Faithful Companions of Jesus order and precisely two weeks later on 21st January they opened the door to four pupils each paying one pound and five shillings (£1.25) per quarter. This was just seven years after Charles Dickens had visited the town and been inspired to write his novelised critique of education Hard Times. The first boarding pupil was admitted in April of 1861, her fee being twenty-five pounds per annum.[2] 

Winckley Square convent
A postcard depicting Winckley Square Convent School.  Date unknown.

Four years on, in 1865, the Jesuit order of priests established the school that became Preston Catholic College[3]. Ten years after that the Holy Child order of nuns founded Winckley Square Convent School.  The Catholic College educated boys while the other two schools were for Catholic girls.  The boys’ school eventually grew to occupy several sites on the western terrace of the square along with substantial property on Mount Street, while the Holy Child school had a similar block of premises overlooking the south west corner of the square.  Blue plaques can be seen marking the sites of the schools today.

Entrance to the Catholic College built 1898 photographed in the 1970s

With such long heritages the dissolution of the schools was not without pain, and some former pupils and staff were greatly saddened by their demise while others saw it as a necessary development and something that was in keeping with a progressive Catholic mission.  Father Richard Wren, who was the last Head of the Catholic College, took a positive view.  In the final edition of the Catholic College Magazine in June 1978 he wrote:

We must not see this as the end of an age of cherished traditions but rather the eventual flowering of 110 years of dedication and devotion. We must look ahead to this final achievement that could be the crown of all that has gone before.

Terms and conditions

When Newman College was formed there were 860 sixth formers and 1200 pupils under 16 on three sites.  This was because each of the three grammar schools had lower school pupils who had to work their way through to the end of the fifth form over the following years.  It is not generally remembered that for those first four years Newman College was both a sixth form and a high school. It has to be said, however, that few of those youngsters would regard themselves as anything other than alumni of the grammar schools into which they had been enrolled.

From 1978 onwards a mixed sixth form operated on all three sites with students and staff often having to commute between Winckley Square and Lark Hill for their lessons. One of the initial problems was that the staff structure was somewhat top-heavy, with each subject having three heads for example, and there was considerable replication of other roles and responsibilities.  In addition, there was the inevitable year on year reduction in lower school pupil numbers and there were all the difficulties associated with reorganisation whilst also establishing and nurturing a new sixth form . Restructuring is never easy and three into one won’t go without fracturing.

Winckley Square Convent School closed in 1981 when the final lower school pupils finished but the majority of teaching at the college remained on two sites until the St. Mary Building was opened at Lark Hill in 1986 to accommodate all the science and technology classes. Long suffering sports staff and students continued to bear the agonies of Preston’s tortuous one-way system however, as the Catholic College gymnasium (built 1970) was used until the St. Augustine’s Sports Centre opened in 2005[4]. Then at last, almost twenty years after it had been founded, the whole college was on one site.

Personal Reports

My own association with the colleges is long. For reasons best known to himself, my father took me as a babe in arms to show the nuns at Lark Hill. One of them, for reasons best known to herself, promptly took me from his arms and laid me on the altar of the chapel; a fact not disclosed to me until over half a century later when I was well into my fourth decade as an employee of the college and based at the Lark Hill site.  Make of that what you will.

Two of my sisters were educated at Lark Hill, my wife attended the sixth form of Winckley Square, and my A levels were joyously endured at the sixth form of the Catholic College.  All of these experiences were under the original school regimes.  All three of those ‘gals’ report robust rules – much more so for my sisters whose mid-century experiences included punishments for not wearing gloves on the way to college. Not talking to boys on public transport was a sub-clause of the seventh commandment. Two decades later and half way across town The Colditz Story was required reading for sixth form girls wanting to slip out of Winckley Square Convent school at non-prescribed times.

My memories of the Catholic College sixth form are happy ones, though as a comprehensive boy one always felt slightly inferior. There was no blatant prejudice exercised by the staff and little overt expression of superiority by the incumbent boys, but we were the outsiders and hence unfamiliar with the traditions and idiosyncratic particulars of the college.  Also, understandably, the syllabuses of the subjects taught in the lower school dovetailed into their sixth-form counterparts much more smoothly than the versions some of us had experienced in our comprehensives.  Working practices across the board were more rigorous than those we had previously undergone.  Adjusting took time.

The ambience was superb.  It felt like one was on day release to a pseudo public school – a poor man’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays theme park, today perhaps better explained as Hogwarts World.  Stone exteriors and timber-clad interiors abounded with creaky corridors and squeaky staircases leading to strange rooms entitled The Wright Room, 33 Ground, and Attica. Some of the masters still elected to wear academic gowns. Gothic Fiction aficionados might liken it to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or the dusty academic emporia of Charles Dickens’ novels. Discipline was Victorian too.  Sixth formers were exempt from corporal punishment but lower school boys who crossed one line too many could receive strikes of the ferula administered by – believe it or not – Father Birch.

Downsides aside, the essence of the college was one of promoting ambition but never forgetting good fortune and the obligations that brought with respect to the service of others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. Sport, societies, educational outings and musical, theatrical and artistic expression were all celebrated to a much higher degree than is prevalent in many of today’s league table driven institutions.

There were faults and flaws, a certain slightly unpleasant smugness and some blinkered thinking was perceived, but one could not deny the essential learned intent. It was, however, difficult to overlook the privileges that underpinned the grammar school ethos.  The only ways to access the lower schools was by good fortune educationally or financially.  The former opportunity was denied to half of my contemporaries.  Our junior school straddled the boundary of the Deepdale and Fulwood districts, one of which was urban, the other rural. Those of us residing in Deepdale were not permitted to take the eleven-plus entrance examination.


Great expectations of mutual friends

The metamorphosis came at the right time.  The era when religious belief was the primary consideration in selecting a school was starting to fade. Newman continued to fly the faith flag but did so in a more morally generic manner, and the old school legacies slowly shuffled off their mortar board mentalities and made way for late millennium egalitarian modernity.

Throughout my association with the three-in-one college there have been numerous occasions when visitors or newcomers commented on some indecipherable but immediately perceptible atmosphere to the place. This is one of the abiding legacies of its predecessor institutions. All three old schools had a common purpose that was primarily pastoral and that, above all, appears to have survived the amalgamation and the many tests and trials encountered over the years. It is its finest asset and has thrived in a true collegiate sense due to the collective endeavours of very many individuals.

Newman todayThe cumulative score mentioned at the start of this account is, of course, derived by combining the active ages of the three grammar schools prior to their convergence.  On Saturday 1st September 2018 Newman College will be forty years old.  It is fitting that the college now resides on the longest serving of the three sites. Lark Hill has seen 157 years of continuous teaching.

Felix natalis alma mater.



The Catholic College and its successor Cardinal Newman College have played such a monumental role in my adolescent and adult lives that they have inevitably sent fictional fronds into a great deal of my creative output. Most blatantly they surface in aspects of The Grammar School in Christmas Present  and one or two characters in Ice & Lemon and Will at the Tower . A great deal of the non-fictional ideas shared in Drama: What it is and how to do it were formulated there.


[1] the “Cardinal” was added to its title much later, in 1990 in anticipation of the centenary of the eponymous cleric the following year.

[2] Burscough, The History of Lark Hill, Preston,1989, p41 (ISBN 0 948789 47 6)

[3] Hindle, A Centenary History of the Catholic College Preston, 1971, p1

[4] St Augustine’s New Avenham Centre was officially opened by the Duke of Kent in March 2006, but it had been in operation from the previous September.

7 thoughts on “Hard Terms

  1. What a great post – I started at Lark Hill in 1976 so was part of the last 3 form cohort (a single class from the Prep followed us). It is testament to the staff that all the changes barely impinged on our consciousness even though now I think we probably missed something by never being the ‘older girls’ – forever bringing up the rear. The first year of Newman 6th form was quite difficult for staff and students though I think and I suspect everybody was happier when 1986 arrived. Thanks v much for such an interesting read.


  2. I followed 2 older sisters to Larkhill, one as a border and the other as a daygirl. The border hated it in and often spoke of the cruelty of the nuns. The day girl loved it as much as I did. She left the 6th form in 1959 as I started in the 1st form and inevitably I was compared to her for the years that followed – not favourably I must add! My grandson joined the ‘tradition’ as it was Newman College by then and also loved his time there although our collective experiences were very different.
    I wanted to explore the idea of the ‘Catholic Community ‘ in my PhD by examining the educational experience of the 3 schools but I found that although the SJs kept and preserved records, the girls schools were not as diligent. I had reports that the nuns at Larkhill threw their school records into a skip when they left, keeping only those of the FCJ Community which were all in French!
    I loved reading this account and it brought back some happy memories.


    1. Thanks Mary, this is very interesting on several levels. I have older sisters who were day pupils in the 1950s and they too have some enlightening recollections! Glad you enjoyed the post.


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