The house system will be familiar to most readers who attended the school from the late1940s. The house names were plucked from English history and based on the surnames of famous people who had some connection with the county of Kent. As described on our page "House System from the 1940s", this produced four houses that covered the whole school - Becket (colour: blue), Marlowe (colour: red), Caxton (colour: yellow) and Wolfe (colour: green).
That's all very well.... but when did it all start... and was the system always as decribed above?
On this page, we have tried to throw some light on these matters and, with the help of our readers, we have come up with some surprising information. We have also unearthed some mysteries that we hope someone will be able to solve for us!!! Let me explain how our enquiries progressed and how those mysteries arose....
Marlowe House - 1928 to 1931
The earliest evidence of a house system came in the form of a photo of the boys of Marlowe House. It was taken in June 1928....
Further material arrived courtesy of Chris Nutten who forwarded a Marlowe photo snapped just nine months later in March 1929...
Finally, Philip Nutten emailed a picture of Marlowe House of 1931....
At this point, everything seemed simple. The photos suggested that the house system we all enjoyed from the 1940s had a straightforward history extending back to the 1920s.... and we fully expected to find photos of Becket, Caxton and Wolfe from the same or, perhaps, even earlier eras.
But.... that was where our problems began!!!! Rather than finding evidence of Becket, Caxton and Wolfe, we started to discover houses with quite different names. Read on....
Chaucer House - 1932
The next piece of evidence cropped up on page 27 of the school's centenary booklet, Bell Book and Boys (1977). It was here that a former pupil (Mr. R J Hawkins) mentioned a Sports Day held at Whitstable Cricket Ground during the reign of a headmaster called William Henry Metcalfe. He remarked that this was the first time that he had been aware of "houses" and he described one as "Chaucer who wore yellow". The year was 1932.
Could Mr Hawkins have been mistaken after some 45 years? Was that yellow house really Caxton rather than Chaucer? Well, we did wonder... until another photo turned up from the other side of the world.
Dickens House - March 1930
The photo arrived by email from John Wraight (Australia) in December 2008 and it showed the boys of a Dickens House from 1930...
This really started to test the ol' grey matter. Here was irrefutable proof that the house system had, indeed, been different in those earlier years. It also suggested that Mr Hawkins had not been mistaken when he made his reference to a Chaucer house.
So, now, we had three houses (Marlowe, Chaucer and Dickens). Of course, "three" was an unworkable number for the purpose of sporting comeptition and we fully expected to discover further house names. Sure enough, we did.... but we had to wait a further five years for the discovery!!!!
Barham House - March 1930
In May 2013, Jock Harnett found the following photo in his family collection...
This confirmed that there were indeed four or more houses but the name Barham didn't ring any bells... UNTIL we performed a search on Google. That was when we learned of Richard Harris Barham - an author/poet. You may not have heard of him either.... but that may be because he published works under the pen name off Thomas Ingoldsby.
Returning to the photo, I need to point out that Jock's dad (Shirley Harnett) is pictured sixth from the left in the second row from the front. He was eleven years old at the time and that bit of information may help us in a moment.
Pitt House - 1932
Within 24 hours of placing Jock's "Barham House" photo on Simply Whitstable, we received an email from John Wraight in Australia. Whilst browsing the excellent local web site "Oystatown.net", he had spotted a picture of the 1931 football team of a Pitt House. We can only assume that the name refers to one of the famous politicians of the 18th century - William Pitt the Elder.... or his son, William Pitt the Younger. The latter is more likely.
Assuming that all the identified houses operated at the same time and remained unchanged from 1928 to1932, we have another unworkable "odd number" of houses - ie five!!
So How Many Houses Were There?
As yet, we simply cannot be certain.... but, based on some simple arithmetic, we may be able to make an informed guess.
The school's Bell Book and Boys centenary publication of 1977 contains the figures we need. In September 1929, the school had a total student population of 499 - comprising 242 seniors and 257 juniors. (NB For academic purposes, pupils were divided into 6 senior and 6 junior classes).
However, each of the house photos above contains just "40 or so" boys. Thus, for all 499 pupils to be included, the school would have required a small matter of twelve houses!!! That's a nice "even" number but wholly impractical for a relatively small school!!! Furthermore, it is very unlikely that so many house names could have escaped the notice of Simply Whitstable readers for so long!!! Surely, there must be some other explanation.
One possible theory may be derived from Jock's photo of Barham House. At that time (ie 1930), the school catered for boys from the age of 7 up to a "school leaving age" of 14. Jock's dad appears to be one of the younger boys in the picture and, as we know that he was eleven at the time, it seems likely that the photo merely features senior school pupils.
It could be that junior pupils were photographed separately - either using the same house names as their older counterparts.... or, maybe, using a different set of names such as (dare I say it) Caxton, Becket and Wolfe!!!! However, it is far more likely that the junior school did not participate in the house system at all. That may seem a strange statement to make bearing in mind that house systems are often used to provide a link and between older and younger kids. However, you need to consider the overall "set up" of the school during 1920s.
If you look at our School History page, you will see that, from 1923 until August 1928, the terms "junior" and "senior school" were more than mere labels. For those few brief years, the establishment was actually divided into two very distinct junior/senior units under the control of two different headmasters. It is quite possible that the junior head didn't see the need for a house system for younger boys at that time. To some extent, this is confirmed by comments relayed to us from people who attended the school in the 1930s. They have suggested that the juniors were excluded from the house system even after the two units came under the control of a single headmaster in September 1928.
The absence of a house system in the junior section might explain Mr Hawkins' comment about Chaucer House and a sports day on the Whitstable Cricket ground in 1932. Remember, he said that "this was the first time that he had been aware of houses" despite the fact that we know the system had existed from at least 1928. Could it be that he moved up to the senior school around that time?
If we exclude the junior boys from our deliberations, we have 240 senior pupils to divide into groups of 40..... and that suggests SIX houses. If that is so, it is possible that we have just one more house name to discover . So, it's over to our readers to continue the search through their family photo boxes!
A Pattern to the House Names?
As house names often follow a common theme, we need to examine each in turn.....
- Christopher Marlowe was one of England's most celebrated dramatists and poets. He was born at Canterbury in 1564 and died in Deptford in 1593 when he was stabbed in the eye during a brawl at a public house .
- Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the most influential writers of his age - not only producing famous works but also helping to shape the English language from several different regional dialects. Although he was born in London circa 1343 and spent much of his life in the capital, he moved to Kent in the 1370s and became a member of parliament for the county. He also wrote the famous (or should I say "infamous") Canterbury Tales and is now celebrated in all sorts of ways in the Canterbury area. Whitstable currently has a business park named after him!!!
- Charles Dickens needs little introduction as one of the greatest of English authors. He was born in Portsmouth in 1812 but his family moved to Chatham when he was just five years old and he based some of his most famous works in and around the Kent area. He also had connections with Whitstable as it is believed that he stayed in the town for one or more short periods.
- Richard Harris Barham was an author/poet who was born in Canterbury in 1788 and wrote his best known works under the pen name of Thomas Ingoldsby. You may have come across the name in a far more recent context. When the Wetherspoon's chain opened a new pub in Canterbury's Burgate a few years back, they acknowledged Barham's connection with the city by calling it The Thomas Ingoldsby.
- William Pitt the Younger was one of our greatest and longest serving prime ministers. He guided the nation through the turmoil of the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic wars - ensuring that Britain embraced change without the violence that typified events across the English Channel and without the loss of the monarchy. He was born at Hayes (Kent) in 1759, became prime minister in 1783 at the age of 24 and died in London at the age of just 46.
Until the name "Pitt House" turned up in our mail box, we were convinced that the houses were based on great names from the world of literature. Now, looking at that lot above, the only possible theme is that they all have some connection with the county of Kent.
For the time being, we assume that the five house names operated at the same time and remained unchanged from 1928 until at least 1932. However, I still feel slightly uneasy about this. My reasons are as follows....
- The list has a lopsided look with 4 names (Marlowe, Chaucer, Dickens and Barham) drawn from literature and only one (ie Pitt) selected from other spheres of history
- Although famous, I wouldn't place Barham in the same exalted category as the other characters. I can see him being included in a theme of "notable Kent authors" because the county wasn't exactly flush with playwrights and poets. However, I am surprised by his selection for a system that allowed star names from other walks of life..... like William Pitt.
It makes me wonder if the original system was indeed based on authors but it was modified some time around 1931 when a new headmaster (a Mr William Heny Metcalfe) arrived. Is it possible that he introduced Pitt House and possibly other names that we have yet to discover?
We will have to wait and see what our readers can find!!! If they come up with two or more extra house names, we will have to have a re-think!!!!
When Did the System Start.. and Who Introduced it?
As you will have noted, our earliest house photo (that of Marlowe) was taken in June 1928..... but, beyond that, things are uncertain. Of course, there are a number of possible periods and dates for the creation of the house system....
- 1877... when the school first opened
- 1883-1923... when the school was managed by its longest serving headmaster - a Mr George Kirkby
- 1902-1904.... when the school first came under the control of the Kent County Council Education Department
- 1923-1928... when the establishment was divided into junior and senior schools.
We cannot rule out an early implementation because house systems date back quite a few centuries in English education. That is because they originated at historic public schools where residential students lived in separate buildings known as "houses". The houses were given names and became communities in their own right - providing not just inter-house sporting competition but also living accommodation, pastoral care (via house matrons) and a system of discipline (via house prefects and house masters). State schools eventually copied the system but, of course, only with regard to inter-house competition.
Having said that, I am not convinced that our Whitstable school introduced "houses" all that early. If you have read our school history page, you will see that the establishment faced massive staffing, resource and accommodation problems in its early decades of operation. For many years, the Oxford Street buildings were divided into totally separate boys, girls and infants schools. I simply don't think it would have been practical to administer a house system until, at least, the latter days of Mr Kirkby's reign... and probably even later. In fact, if I was forced to make a guess, I would very tentatively opt for the period 1923-1928 because so many major changes took place during that time.
For starters, I am beginning to suspect that September 1923 may have been the time that the Oxford Street buildings finally lost their "girls school" - possibly as a result of the girls being transferred to the nearby Endowed school. It was also the time that the boys were divided into junior and senior schools - under the command of separate headmasters and utilising classrooms that had previously been occupied by the girls. The junior section was bolstered by a substantial number of boys being transferred in from the Endowed and the former head of the Endowed (Mr Sparshott) moved across with them to became the junior headmaster. Meanwhile, with the retirement of Mr Kirkby in August of that year, a Mr Parmree was appointed head of the senior school.
As you can see, the 1920s really saw the school evolve into a very substantial "all boys" establishment and it gained a woodwork centre, metal work equipment, a large school garden and a spacious sports field at Church Street. At that time, these were very much regarded as "male" activities/facilities and they provided considerable scope for a competitive house system to be introduced.
It may well be significant that the Church Street sports field was first used in June 1928 - the very same month that the photographer snapped the Marlowe House photo. As we know, house systems in state schools are inextricably linked with sporting competition. So, could 1928 be the year that the "houses" were first launched? I cannot be sure but, if I was a betting man, it is certainly where my money would be placed!!!!
If it did all start in 1928, who introduced it?
Well there were several changes of headmaster around that time. Mr Parmree (the senior head) left his post in October 1927 and the senior school had temporary headmasters until a Mr H Shoesmith arrived in March 1928. By September 1928, Shoesmith had assumed full control of the entire establishment following the departure of Mr Sparshott (headmaster of the juniors) in early August. Contrary to the popular saying, it seems that the authorities suddenly decided that "one head was better than two"!
I would tend to discount Mr Sparshott as the architect of the house system as we are reasonably confident that the junior boys were never involved. If it did all start in 1928, I would also overlook Mr Parmree as he had left the school by then. That leaves Mr Shoesmith as the prime suspect and he fits nicely into our theory for the following reasons....
- He arrived in March 1928 - just three months before both the opening of the Church Street playing field and the appearance of our first Marlowe house photo in June of that year.
- The later photos of Marlowe (1929), Dickens (1930) and Barham (1930) fall into a pattern in as much as they were all taken in March - the anniversary of Shoesmith's arrival at the school.
All this seems to suggest that Shoesmith devised the house system some time between March and June of 1928... ready for the opening of the new school playing field at Church Street in mid-summer.
Of course, all these ideas will be blown away if anyone has a house photo in their family album with a date prior to 1928!!!!
Who Changed the System?
Let's recap at this point. So far, we have discovered an old house system that comprised at least 5 houses (Marlowe, Dickens, Chaucer, Barham and Pitt) and, possibly, one (or more) names that we have yet to unearth. The system PROBABLY started in 1928 and PROBABLY involved senior boys only. Our last piece of concrete evidence of this old system comes from 1932 and little is known about it in the latter part of the 1930s.
We know that, from the late 1940s, it was all substantially different - with four houses (Becket, Marlowe, Caxton and Wolfe) embracing both senior and junior pupils. Thus, at some stage, the names of Dickens, Chaucer, Barham and Pitt were ditched. So, how did the old system evolve into the new one, why did it change, when were the changes made... and who changed it?
Fortunately, there aren't too many options because the 1930s appear to have been a period of relative stability at the school. There were, of course, a couple of changes of headmaster...
- In February 1931, Mr. Shoesmith left the school
- From February to June 1931, the shool was run by a temporary head
- From June 1931 to September 1935, a Mr. William Henry Metcalfe held the reigns
- From September 1935 to October 1935, the school was again run by a temporary head
- From October 1935 until July 1960, the firm hands of Mr Frank Newsome were on the tiller
Metcalfe may have tinkered with the system a bit but I doubt that he introduced the names of Becket, Caxton and Wolfe. In fact, we have evidence that Chaucer and Pitt Houses still existed in 1932. Thus, the most likely candidate is the headmaster that many of us remember with some trepidation from the 1940s/1950s... Frank Newsome. If it was Newsome, why did he change it all?
For the moment, we can only put forward some vague and unsubstantiated theories...
- If we are right in thinking that the early house system was confined to senior pupils, he may have decided to extend it to the whole school and introduce house names that would appeal to a wider age range.
- He may have wanted to give the house system fresh impetus by relaunching it. There is certainly reason to believe that it had became a very low-key initiative during the 1930s and it may even have fallen into disuse by the middle of the decade. Certainly, pupils of that era have commented that they remember very little about it because it had very little impact on their life at the school.
- He may have wanted house names to be more representative of the broad scope of British history. Using the names of an archbishop/saint (Becket), a printer (Caxton), an author (Marlowe) and a soldier (Wolfe) produced a better spread than opting for so many names from the world of literature.
- He may have wanted to use names that would crop up more substantially in academic lessons. I certainly remember being taught about Becket, Marlowe, Caxton and Wolfe in the 1950s.
- If the change occurred after World War II, it is possible that he wanted to make a fresh start to school life.
So.... Is Marlowe Special?
If our musings are correct and the names of Dickens, Chaucer, Barham and Pitt were indeed replaced by Becket, Caxton and Wolfe, it would make Marlowe House a bit special. It would be the only house carried forward from the original system of 1928 and it would, thereby, earn the title of "Oldest House at the School". If that is the case, there may be some "bragging rights" for children wearing the red of Marlowe at the present day school!!!!