6. 20th Century | The Educational Era

Grey Friars – a seat of learning

We have already seen how Richard Britnell’s research revealed that the ground-breaking Grey Friars adult literacy programme of the 1980s and 1990s was nothing new after all – it had been preceded 550 years earlier, on the same site by the Franciscan friars! Ironically, after a gap of 366 years, it was again the Franciscans who brought education back to the site – but this time it was not friars, but nuns. Their arrival began the site’s significant school and college era, which was to last for just over 100 years.

Grey Friars Convent     In 1903 the Ladies of Nazareth left France to settle in Colchester and eventually purchased Grey Friars and Hillcrest, contracting local builder Robert Beaumont to join the two houses, build extensions and convert the premises to a convent and school. (below left) Advertisement in the 1908 edition of “The Catholic Who’s Who”   (right) Post card sent in 1906 showing Hillcrest, Grey Friars and the completed extensions


Only lay sisters were allowed to leave the building. The only male allowed in was Dr Nicholson from Gate House and nuns instructed builders through an iron grille. A piscine (holy water basin) and confessional space are still evident in a corridor joining Hillcrest and the school’s chapel and assembly hall.

The census of 1911, interestingly, shows occupation of both Grey Friars (including Hillcrest) and All Saints House. It states that there are 57 people in residence across 36 rooms occupied in Grey Friars and 8 rooms in All Saints House. Unfortunately it does not differentiate between types of accommodation. The nuns (described as ‘inmates’) number 25, aged between 27 and 70 years. 15 were French, 5 British, 2 Irish, a Syrian and a Belgian. A further 3 ‘inmates’ are described as teachers and are listed with the schoolchildren. 26 pupils aged 11-18 years were recorded; 12 from France, 11 from England (including three sisters aged 11,13 and 18) and 3 from Ireland. There were 3 visitors, all single women aged 24, 26 and 35.

When the nuns returned to France in 1920, following a rather troublesome and not very lucrative sale of the premises to Essex County Council, their belongings reputedly filled two barges at the Hythe. There are a number of postcards in existence from this period and many were used by girls writing home (some in French) about their time at the convent school.

Colchester County High School for Girls  The CCHS minute book tells why Grey Friars was purchased in order to house the Lower School to free-up space in the North Hill building (now Colchester Sixth Form College). “The staff room was taken over for a form room, there were classes in the corridor, coachings in every corner and even the gallery was used, a wooden trellis being erected to prevent those from above who were more interested in gym than geometry from joining the class below head first! … Great was the relief when the Essex Education Committee took over Grey Friars and it was decided to house the Junior School there, together with Miss Harris and the Preparatory which had hitherto been functioning in St Peter’s rooms.”

Unfortunately, they had a scare in the first term when the roof was discovered to be on fire. The first call on the newly-installed telephone was to the fire brigade. The minute book records: “Imagine our dismay when the hose burst in the top corridor and water poured through the ceilings, down the stairs in a torrent and out the front door. It meant a day’s holiday for us and might have meant much more. Face to face with impending disaster we realised as never before what a precious possession Grey Friars was to us.” (below) CCHS Lower School 1923

The CCHS tenure lasted for 37 years, when the school moved en bloc to new accommodation in Norman Way, where it remains to this day. Grey Friars is remembered with reverence and affection by many who attended during that time. “Coming from a small village as a scholarship entrant I was completely overawed by Grey Friars,” says Mrs Page. “The main staircase was like one in a country house, and we had to change into ‘house shoes’ when we arrived. The grounds at the back were spacious and beautiful. There was a lawn dominated by a very large, spreading holm oak tree, and on a lower level another lawn with the remains of a conservatory. We weren’t allowed in there as it was unsafe. It was covered in wisteria, beautiful when in bloom. Before I finish I must mention a ‘secret’ passage which went from the upper floors, down a winding staircase, and came out of the panelling near the dining room. It was the thing to do it once and appear suddenly in front of those coming out of the dining room. Of course we weren’t supposed to use it!”

Temporary residents     Monkwick School (later re-named Thomas, Lord Audley School) was formed in 1958, when classes from Wilson Marriage School moved temporarily to Grey Friars. Philip Morant School was established in 1963, similarly starting at Grey Friars and moving on in 1965. (below) The beginning of Monkwick School – housed temporarily in Grey Friars in 1958 (photo courtesy of Ron Harvey)

The Technical College also used the premises temporarily. As a music student in the 1960s Sheila Scott remembers when the building housed the music school of the rapidly-growing college. Her husband Don remembers impressive photographs in a local newspaper when pianos were manoeuvred by crane when they decamped to new premises in Sheepen Road. Formerly a High School pupil at Grey Friars, Sheila was also a student during its time as an adult college, then acted as the pianist, latterly tutor, for choral classes.

Originally, adult education also had the status of a temporary resident, existing alongside other occupants in the partially-vacant buildings. It had been identified that spare capacity at Grey Friars presented the ideal opportunity to host daytime classes for adults, as well as providing an administrative base separately identifiable from the schools being used for evening classes. When the other users eventually moved on to their brand-new buildings, adult education was left as the only occupant and it was feared that the premises might be declared redundant, vacated and sold. But with the need for daytime classes increasing, and the overall programme (day, evening and weekend) rapidly expanding, space was urgently required not only to accommodate the courses, but also to provide essential support services such as a crèche, enquiries facilities, offices, catering and common rooms.

Securing the venue, however, was less a matter of strategy on the part of the responsible authority and more a mixture of foresight, good judgement and opportunism in 1965 on the part of Allin Coleman. A local teacher who became the first Grey Friars principal, he was trusted and supported by local education officers. Previously, adult education classes were managed from Alderman Blaxill School and held during the evenings in venues throughout the town. Now, with its own premises, a high-profile building of substance and repute, known by generations of Colchester people, and in a central location, the scene was set for the development of an education institution especially for adults. So from the ‘Senior Evening Institute’ of the 1960s came the seeds of what was to grow into ‘The Adult Community College’ of the 1990s … and securing Grey Friars as the main base was the turning point.

Adult Education        In her foreword to a book about the work of the adult college, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC wrote: “Grey Friars is a special place. It should be on the Grand Tour of every new education minister before wheels are reinvented and new-fangled schemes are cobbled together to deal with skills shortages and social exclusion, anti-social behaviour and civic regeneration.” Having chaired the Government’s ‘Learning Works’ report on the benefits of adult learning, her extensive evidence-gathering gave her a real insight into the social and economic contribution made by adult colleges.

In the years following Kennedy’s 1997 report, there was much debate in education circles about the content, style and mode of delivery of learning in later life. The ethos developed from its first years, the development of support services (common rooms, catering, crèche, study area, library, tutorials, advice and guidance sessions) and community involvement (governors, Members’ Association, a travelling classroom to take the experience throughout the area) meant Colchester ticked all the boxes. Underpinning all of this was the flagship, Grey Friars, within which the careful nurturing of a welcoming, relaxed yet business-like environment set the tone for local adult community learning for decades.

Local people testified to the value of such an environment. “Setting foot in the main entrance I saw the glass case exhibiting the latest achievements of students, and the walls festooned with even more notices suggesting, exhorting, encouraging. People smiled in greeting although many were strangers. The whole place called out, ‘Come on! What are you waiting for?’ ” explained Valerie Elliston. Dorothy Schwarz, a local author and enthusiastic tutor, called it “The Grey Friars Effect. That almost indescribable something that affects students, tutors and others who work here.”

A belief shared by all three principals was that having a venue such as Grey Friars within which to develop the curriculum and support services was crucial for any adult college to fulfil its community-orientated role. (below) 40 years of Grey Friars principals, 1965 to 2005


Allin Coleman (1965-73)      Enid Bishop (1973-83)      Alan Skinner (1983-2005)

Ofsted witnessed this in their 1995 inspection and, although they described it in their own (highly quantitative) terms, still managed to capture that special feel: “Students participate fully in the classes and learn with enthusiasm; they support each other and benefit from well organised and carefully planned sessions. The quality of learning was satisfactory in 21% of classes, good in 66% and very good in 13%. 97% teaching is satisfactory or better; 76% was good or very good. Staff support students in a positive manner and encourage them to extend themselves. Students are confident, serious learners and make good progress. In some areas of the curriculum, such as art and craft, students achieve high standards and produce excellent work. The college has a committed and loyal student body.” It was widely acknowledged that the ambience of Grey Friars as a location contributed greatly to its effectiveness.

Claire Hawkins, who taught English and was a tutor on the scheme giving adults access to university education, once commented that “Grey Friars is actually a humane place,” alluding to its person-centred ethos, but also, along with many others, contrasting its setting to the more common perception of an educational institution – what adult student Roger Moores called “today’s grey, glass-walled exam-factories.” Roger, a retired industrial relations advisor came first to computer classes and then progressed to more creative studies. “Experts may say that Grey Friars is not fit for purpose … it is old, rambling, squeaky … needs a lift … it is just a comfortable, friendly old town house … You are welcome, there’s an atmosphere.” Many maintain that the Grey Friars environment encouraged and contributed to positive learning experiences which changed people’s lives for the better. (below) Showing how much they value their adult college – a group prepares to lobby parliament to prevent drastic changes being made which would destabilise the comprehensive nature of the adult education curriculum at the college.