6. Second Floor

A detailed look around the top floor of the original house and extensions

Before we take the narrow staircase at the eastern end of the first floor corridor a second glance out of one of the sash windows facing north reveals immediately below us the remains of the large archway which was the relocated entrance to part of the original yard and coach house from High Street. The staircase in front of us has nine treads after which a turn to the left and a few more winders takes us to the second floor.

Immediately on the left, a door leads to the attic via another narrow staircase. The attic was always a storage area for books, costumes and gymnasium equipment. Once there, however, even in the dim light it is obvious that the area once had skylights but these were boarded over during refurbishments in the 1980s. These skylights looked out onto the High Street but would have been hidden from view by the parapet which runs the total length of the building front and back. In the attic, plaster casts of various architectural mouldings were found when being cleared ready for sale in 2008. Some appear in the Appendix.

Descending the short flight of steps from the attic, we come again to the extreme east end of the second storey corridor. As we walk along it the windows on the northern side give us again a good view of the second rainwater head bearing the initials of the Rev John Halls and his wife, and the date 1755. This is in an exactly corresponding position to the one on the west wall seen earlier when the garden was being explored.

On the southern side of this corridor a door opens into one large room (later made into two) with six small sash windows. The room is very plain with no important decorative features, but would have made a large workroom for the nuns and an excellent classroom for Colchester County High School.

As we continue westwards along this corridor, we come to the point where we step out of the 1904 east wing extension into the original 1755 house and its servants’ quarters. This point is marked by a sudden change in the direction of the floorboards. Those in the direction of travel along the corridor are parallel with our path, and those in the older part of the house are at right-angles to this. This apparent contradiction occurs also on the western side. There are only small windows in this corridor, which face the High Street, giving little light and no view because they open onto the rear of the parapet.

An apparently insignificant feature, yet highly important, appears in this area. The servants’ staircase, whose position we have traced from the ground floor upwards, emerges here outside the servants’ bedrooms and storage rooms. The white-painted hand rail at the top of the servants’ staircase has been carefully preserved because it was confirmed by English Heritage to be Chinese Chippendale, and could not be moved or altered in any way when a site for a lift was being considered by the college to enable the building to conform to requirements for the disabled. The top exit of the stair well however, has been boarded over for safety reasons.

Opposite the Chippendale handrail on the other side of this corridor the magnificent cast-iron furniture hoist can be seen folded back into its resting position against the glazed doors above the main stairwell, which we noted from the mezzanine floor below. In operation it would have swung round through the open glazed double doors to lift furniture from the inner hall to the first or second floors.

House crane Top of servants’ stairs

The original Garraways sales catalogue of 1813 lists the building as having four servants’ bedrooms. It seems likely that the four small doors on the north side of this corridor (two each side of the furniture hoist) would have been the four box-like servants’ bedrooms. It was here that charred remains of the fire which occurred shortly after the Girls’ High School took residence in 1920 were found in the form of a partially-burned ventilation duct. Each of the rooms has a small dormer window heavily surrounded by lead flashings on the outside and with no view because each one looks out onto the hipped roof of the Rev John Halls’ 1780 extension. This will be seen more clearly from a window further along the west wing.

On the other hand, the north side of this area has two doors (originally three) which lead into a narrow but long space which could originally have been three or four small rooms – it was quite usual for servants to share bedrooms or have dormitories of box-like proportions. There are only three small windows in this space, which look out towards the High Street, but are hidden by the parapet. It is possible that this might have been the alternative servants’ sleeping quarters instead of those on the opposite side of the corridor, but certain features are contradictory to this theory.

Firstly, there is a small fireplace at the eastern end of this space – servants did not usually have the luxury of an open fire in their bedrooms. The fireplace is immediately adjacent to the top of the servants’ staircase (recently described), where fuel would have been brought up from the basement to stoke the fire. This heat was perhaps required for airing the bed-linen rather than for keeping the servants warm. It is therefore more likely that this area adjoining the south side of the upper corridor was a storage area for bed-linen and chamber pots and the other equipment necessary for servicing the bedrooms in the C18th. Another piece of evidence to support this theory is the opposing direction of the floorboards in the corridor outside, which suggests that there perhaps might have been some structural alterations here when the 1780 extension was added.

We continue westwards, leaving the 1755 section of the house and enter the 1904 wing at this second storey level. Another small window on the south side looks out onto the parapet. It is inevitable that the top corridor with its dark, rather gloomy central section should have led to ghost stories through the generations. The ‘Ghost of Grey Friars’ was common knowledge to the girls of Colchester County High School as were stories of imaginative priest holes and secret tunnels. Such was the acceptance that there was a phantom, that compositions were often set in English lessons – sometimes in the manner of an illustrated medieval puzzle book, or even to make it more challenging a written piece in French (see Appendix). One caretaker in the days of the Adult Community College insisted that his dog which always accompanied him on his last security rounds at night had, apparently, fled away howling from the top corridor having felt a threatening presence – the dog would never go with him again.

As we return to the top floor and the western corridor we see two doors on the High Street side, the first of which leads into a small room similar to the one added in the corresponding position in the east wing. The second door leads into a much larger room. Between them they share six small sash windows in total and have no decorative features.

Before entering this final large room we look to the right to see a flight of six steps leading up to a wider corridor at a different level. This is to give the floor below added height and in turn to give the ground floor more height also, in order to house the high ceiling of the nuns’ imposing chapel added in 1904 – this we will explore at the end of our tour.

We now enter the large room which was used as an art room in the days of the Adult Community College. It is light and airy and our instinct tells us that there must be an attic at this western end of the building to correspond with that at the eastern end – but there is no staircase. However, a hatch in the ceiling of this art room reveals a substantial un-floored attic space with supporting beams and a window looking towards Colchester Castle.

This large art room, however, has a more interesting feature. A door at the western end reveals, when opened, a flight of five oak steps leading down to a lower room which is the second floor of the house next door – Hillcrest. The handrails on either side of this stairway reveal that the wall between the two houses is very thick – but in fact it is only partly a wall, the rest being a hollow void. This hollow space represents the original right-of-way between Grey Friars and Hillcrest. When the French nuns arrived in 1904 one of their first tasks was to join the two buildings together. This area was seen when we were in the garden, and more will be explained when we return once more to the ground floor.

Almost in the centre of this Hillcrest room, the top of its original staircase can be seen, now with a balustrade for protection. This may have been an additional staircase – as will be seen later – because this room also has a cast-iron solid fuel kitchen range finished in green enamel circa 1900 which suggests that this might have been a second floor kitchen at one time, or even separate accommodation in the form of a flat.

 Hillcrest top floor 

Colchester County High School used this room as an annexe to the main building, and domestic science was taught to accompany the more academic subjects and to prepare girls for life and marriage. But this was not until the late 1940s when the old-fashioned kitchen range would have been superseded by something more modern, although it still remained in place.

We retrace our steps and exit from Hillcrest and the large art room of Grey Friars until we are at the base of the short flight of steps which takes us to a slightly higher level at right angles to the corridor which we have just left.

If we look out of either of the two sash windows on our right in this short corridor there is a very good view of the hemispherical glass dome, and in the foreground, two of the lead-clad dormer windows of the former servants’ quarters. Once more, there is a view of a rainwater head with date and initials.

Dome Rainwater head

Still walking in a northerly direction we enter the door on our left and discover a very large room, with four sash windows on the west wall looking out again, towards Colchester Castle. The room is high with a vaulted ceiling whose span is supported by a tie-beam and a king post.

This obviously would have made a very substantial work room for the nuns, a secluded classroom a long way from authority for the senior girls of Colchester County High School and a quiet, spacious and peaceful room for yoga classes of the Adult Community College. The space is matched by the room on the first floor immediately below (made into two rooms during the time of the adult college) and by the chapel on the ground floor which is even larger.

We leave this room and turn left along the corridor still walking northwards, passing the smaller adjoining classroom at the top of the wide back staircase which is much more modern-looking than any of the previous stairways encountered in the rest of the building. It is of course part of the 1904 extension. It is built in spiral fashion and at every five or six treads it takes a turn to the left with a small landing. This is repeated five times to reach the ground floor. At each floor and each main landing there is a small room matching the one at the top of the stairs, which has windows looking out to west and north. On the eastward side at each bend small cupboards were converted into toilets at the time of the County High School.

If we descend the staircase to the first floor and glance along the corridor to the right (south) we can register that it is a mirror image of the short corridor above, which we have just left. We can see the short flight of descending steps at the end of this corridor matched by those on the floor above, giving height to the rooms below.

We continue to descend the wide back staircase with its dark oak handrail and plain unturned white-painted balusters, until we reach the ground floor and face the back door. Here we pause and gaze upwards at the impressive stair well which spirals upwards – many others of this period were painted at their apex to depict the heavens.

We take a turn to the left and after passing some storage cupboards under the stairs we come to another external door which leads out to a yard which was originally part of the garden.

There’s much more in the printed book …

The book has a full set of illustrations, plus memories, anecdotes and further information.

See the Resources section of this website for a fully illustrated guided tour downloadable leaflet.