For many years I lived at Hodder, the former Preparatory School of Stonyhurst College. Nearby was the College itself – an imposing structure some of whose buildings date back to the 17th Century. The College is a Jesuit Foundation and I have always been interested in its history and over the years have collected letters, illustrations, postcards, books,  photographs etc which are relevant to this aim. In this article I intend to describe some of the major landmarks in the story of the College and introduce some of the characters who were either students or staff there.

The College is situated in the area of Lancashire which is known today as the Ribble Valley. This is a area of green fields with  interspersed moorland hills and ( because of the climate) abundant watercourses which include the River Ribble itself. Nestling under Longridge Fell with Pendle Hill, the site of the 17th C witch trials, not far away it has a forbidding appearance when viewed from a distance especially on days when cloud is wrapped around the neighbouring uplands . Indeed Arthur Conan Doyle who was educated at Hodder and Stonyhurst in the 19th C is said by some to have used its situation when writing ‘The Hound of The Baskervilles’ as there were far more wild spaces around the College at that time.

The College site was originally occupied by  a strange looking asymmetrical structure known as Stonyhurst Hall built for a local family of note – the Shireburns in the early 17th Century on the foundation of a Catholic Chantry. Thomas Cromwell is supposed to have resided there with his troops on his way to the Battle of Preston in 1648 and nearby there is an old packhorse bridge across the R. Hodder, a tributary of the Ribble, which also bears his name.


A view of Stonyhurst Hall (‘The grandest half house in England’) at about the time it was first used by the College. Note the ponds in front of the building which were used by the Mill

In the late 18th Century the Weld family who lived at Lulworth Castle in Dorset inherited  the Hall and its surrounding estates through marriage.They like the Shireburns were Catholics who had suffered persecution especially during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. One consequence of this was that the Catholic education of the sons of these families was forced abroad and one of the Colleges established there (in 1593) was St Omers in northern France. This College and its accompanying Seminary laid down the foundations for the Jesuit syllabus and customs which still marks the College year today. In 1762 the Pope expelled the Jesuits from the Catholic Church and thus began a period when the students and staff of St Omers moved from place to place in order to escape the consequence of this action. Finally in 1793 the soldiers of Revolutionary France invaded the Netherlands and Flanders and the only solution available was that the College move across the Channel to England. This was fortuitous as at that time England was softening its attitude to Catholics and indeed had passed a Relief Act in 1791 permitting, under strict conditions, the building of Catholic Schools and Chapels.

In August 1794 a number of priests, seminarians ( trainee priests), boys and servants crossed the English Channel. There are various accounts of their numbers but is believed that the total did not exceed forty with some of the boys as young as thirteeen years. Previously representatives of the College had been able to contact the Weld family who had offered Stonyhurst Hall as a temporary refuge. The journey was not only hazardous but extremely tiring as the party had to walk across England to reach the Hall and there are many varying stories about which boy reached Stonyhurst first. Once there the Priests and other masters set about establishing a new College and, because Thomas Weld the owner eventually gifted the College and its lands to the Jesuits, they also began an extensive building programme which by the 1830s had resulted in a structure which has some similarities to the modern buildings.


The above view based on an 1830s painting shows the west and south faces of the College at that time. Note the Seminary, St Mary’s Hall, in the distance and Pendle Hill in the background.

As stated above the academic structure of the College was modelled on that in St Omers. The names of years were based on the classical tradition from ‘Figures’  for the youngest students through to ‘Rhetoric’ for the oldest boys. Boys who wanted to continue their education after the age of sixteen enrolled as a ‘Gentleman Philosopher’. The syllabus was also based on humanistic principles with a large dollop of religious studies thrown in. Catholic students were not permitted to study degrees at English Universities until at least 1840 so potential high flyers had to go abroad for appropriate courses when they left the College. In the early years of the College’s existence only the sons of ennobled and landowning Catholics attended and the surnames of those enrolled includes many references to the Arundell, Clifford, Weld and Vaughan families.


This record shows the names of the headmasters (president or rector), year masters and Prefects of Studies ( responsible for academic matters) between 1794 and 1833). The original President, Marmaduke Stone, was also the last headmaster of ‘St Omers’ 

For instance if we look at the Cliffords, the head of the family during the early years of the College was Charles 6th Baron Clifford of Chudleigh (situated in Devon). He had attended ‘St Omers’ in the last years of its existence and he sent his many sons to Stonyhurst. The eldest Hugh was groomed to be the future 7th Baron so when he left Stonyhurst in 1806 he was sent abroad first to further his academic education and then on the Grand Tour to finish his study of ‘men & manners’. His second son Charles also had an inheritance to acquire (Irnhan Hall in Lincolnshire) but the others Edward, Walter and Robert were encouraged to become Jesuit priests – although Robert rebelled and died fighting in the service of the King of Sardinia. This pattern was typical of upper class Catholic families at this time and it led to a steady supply of future Catholic or Jesuit Priests. As for the daughters ( and Charles Senior had five) they ended up either married to the elder son of a suitable Catholic family or they became nuns. Both sexes of siblings had very little choice in the matter!

What was life like for students in the College at this time? Extant letters and diaries paint a mixed story of blessings and tribulations. The masters, mainly Fathers or Novices, seemed on the whole to take their responsibilities seriously and there were Prefects appointed  to look after the welfare of the students. However the discipline varied from the over zealous to the lax – the Philosophers in particular getting away with bad behaviour. The living conditions and food seemed to have got better the further up the College the students progressed but outside of classes and study periods there was generally little for them to do. The weather in the damp Ribble valley did not help and events such as games were often cancelled. A letter written by  Philosopher William Cobb ( a future Provincial or Head of the Jesuit Mission in England) in 1824 refers to both the ‘great deal of rain’ and the ‘scarcity of material’ to write about. Neverleless William managed to write nearly 2000 words to his friend Robert Clifford ( who was then studying in Italy) about the minutiae of college life.

There were times of the year when things got a bit more interesting. As William described in his letter Shrovetide was a time for adventure and feasting before the rigours of Lent. Also Christmas ( when the vast majority of students stayed at College) was not only a religious festival but also the time when the elder boys  put on a serious play and a farce. This event was inherited from St Omers and was eagerly looked forward to by everybody. The plays were selected from a variety of sources including Shakespeare and the actors were sworn to secrecy about their parts, which were all male, with the plays often rewritten for this purpose. The costumes and props were elaborate – John MacDowell in a letter sent to his mother in 1838 describes his as ‘made of purple velvet trimmed with gold with pink slashing down the sleeves…the head dress a black bonnet with a beautiful plume of ostrich feathers’. Today Stonyhurst still maintains the tradition of showing plays in its own purpose-made public theatre. Finally there were the various sports including the  ‘Grand Matches’ a form of football with a ceremonial edge in early Spring ( although William referred to them as being ‘poor’ due to the weather in 1824) and a form of cricket  known as ‘Cat’ which was played in the summer with home made balls.

grand match

Grand Match Day at Stonyhurst – the match was played with an oval ball and a relatively short pitch. Large numbers of boys were divided into two teams one raising the flag of Great Britain the other of France.

As the 19th Century progressed the building work in the College continued. Notable amongst these projects were the redesign of the south front to produce the impressive structure today, the building of St Peter’s Church and the addition to Hodder, the Prep school, of two chateau style turrets. The school overlooked  the River Hodder  which ran in a steep gorge next to it bending dramatically in front with the fields between known as ‘paradise’ by the boys. Many generations of boys bathed in the river water around Hodder and crosses situated near the river here mark the spots where boys and masters were drowned. In 1971 the Prep School move to St Mary’s Hall and the buildings were converted into flats and houses for private use. Unfortunately all the original fixtures and fittings disappeared during this period!


The east front of Hodder c 1900 with its two chateau style turrets which were erected in 1870.  I lived  in a the far turret and the rooms behind  from 1992 to 2005 after the school had been converted into separate houses and flats.

The passage of years was marked by new generations of students. Gradually the old recussant families of  Cliffords, Arundells etc were replaced by the boys of middle class parents although some such as James the 10th Baron Arundell left his mark by donating his extensive library to the College including a Shakespeare First Folio. And in the late 20th Century girls were finally admitted as students, making the College today a modern Public School advertised as being in ‘the Jesuit Tradition’.

Features of note through the 19th and 20th centuries include the importance of evidence concerning recollections of College life presented during the Tichborne trial of 1873 when Arthur Orton claimed to be the rich Sir Roger Tichborne an alumni of the College, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a seminarian at the College, which were partially inspired by the bluebell woods and bubbling waters of the Hodder and the landscape of Lord of the Rings which some say was influenced by the local scenery as J R R Tolkien stayed at the College for lengthy periods whilst visiting his sons there.

IMG_0838 (2)

A pen and ink sketch of the west front of the College executed in 1933 which I found in a local ‘car boot’ sale


Author: coverstory2017

I am retired having had careers as a lecturer and then supporting people with learning disabilities. I love history, poetry and dogs. Politically I am what I would call a left wing Conservative and although I am not religious I find its mysticism fascinating, especially with regard to the Catholic faith.

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