The Old Grammar School that stands today on Boarshaw Road was built in the reign of Elizabeth I. However, the school first came into existence in the porch of nearby St Leonard’s Church , having been set up by Cardinal Langley. Curates from the church would have been the teachers. Alexander Nowell and his brothers had attended the original school and, on the death of one of the brothers, Alexander used the money he inherited to re-found the school in 1572. He also set up scholarships so that some boys could proceed to Brasenose College in Oxford, where the brothers had been educated. Queen Elizabeth I, who had been petitioned to allow the re-foundation, agreed to renew the Duchy of Lancaster payments that had lapsed. Her ‘letters patent’ stated “… there shall be forever a free and perpetual Grammar School within the said town and parish of Middleton“.
In 1586, a new school building was built and this is the one we see today. It is made of local yellow sandstone blocks, the walls being over two feet thick on the north and south sides and three feet thick on the east and west ones. The mullioned windows and quoins (the dark blocks on the corner of the building) are made of millstone grit. The long rows of windows were designed to maximise light, and the fireplaces were put into the corners to give more room for the windows. The design and construction was advanced for its time, in comparison to other Middleton buildings.
Over the ensuing decades, the school had problems with endowment moneys not being paid by those that were obligated to do so. This included Brasenose College and the Duchy of Lancaster. The situation became particularly acute during the Civil War. A letter was drafted to Oliver Cromwell after the war ended stating that the school was “unable to pay present and former schoolmasters”.
A further problem was the decline in the demand for teaching Latin, as university entry became less popular. Emphasis in other schools started to be given to more ‘commercial subjects’ rather than classical ones, but Middleton Grammar was slow to update its curriculum.
In 1777, an earth tremor caused damage to both St Leonard’s Church and the school. The following year the Rector Richard Assheton stated that the roof and windows were still in a particularly poor condition.
James Archer, a new master in 1781, led a revival in the school’s fortunes. He had large structural repairs and building work carried out. He taught Greek and Latin as well as ‘commercial education’ to the older students. The younger ones were taught by undermaster James Heywood who also used the monitorial system. This is where senior pupils (aged 10, 11 and 12) taught younger ones by rote learning. It was during Archer’s time that Sam Bamford, writer, social reformer and leader of Middleton contingent to Peterloo, attended the school. Bamford recalled that the master taught at the east end of the schoolroom, while the undermaster had the west end. Having two classes in one room must have had led to a problem with noise and was a common challenge in single room educational establishments. Records from the time show that many pupils rode donkeys and horses to school and let them graze in the field over the brook that runs nearby.
In 1836, the Schoolmaster’s House was added on to the building and this still stands today. Made from red brick, it has its entrance on the first floor, connected to Boarshaw Road by a stone bridge. Each floor consisted of a big single room heated by a large fireplace. This later addition of accommodation for the teacher is a very similar situation to Leyland’s Tudor Grammar School, which also has a later brick schoolmaster’s house.(see our web page on it here)
When a new Church of England school was built nearby, Middleton Grammar lost pupils and was forced to close its elementary class. In response, the master raised the fees to compensate, but even more students left. When James Jelly joined as a teacher in 1851, the total on roll had declined to just 11 pupils. In 1865, he found himself unable to pay for an assistant, but worse was to come. In that year, a damning report came out following the visit of Edward Bryce for the Endowed Schools Inquiry Commission:
Bryce described the building as old and ugly. He said that the interior was neither well ventilated nor well lit. The small stove and stone floor meant that the boys had to endure very cold conditions. The brook running next to the school was described as black, foetid and prone to flooding the building. In summation, Bryce described it as the most woebegone school in Lancashire, with the exception of Oldham, and recommended a new school be built. Jelly was quick to defend the school to the local press, but its reputation, however unfairly, must have been damaged.
Fourteen years later, the Reverend J.O. Jelly succeeded his father, becoming master to 28 pupils. He began to build up the rolls again and in 1888, when the Charity Commissioner inspected, there were 54 pupils in total. Latin was still being taught and a few pupils learnt Greek as well. Mathematics was an important part of the curriculum, but the school was criticized for its science teaching because there was no laboratory and few pieces of equipment.
By the turn of the century, the school was once again struggling as Hulme Grammar and local board schools were proving popular rivals. Reverend Jelly had to let his assistant master go and was forced to take on part time clerical work to supplement his meagre income supplied from just 18 pupils. When Jelly died in 1902, he was buried with his father in St Leonard’s churchyard. Jelly senior had been master for 25 years and his son for 23 years. Their grave can still be seen today.
The school closed and Brasenose College put it up for sale. It was bought by Alfred Butterworth, who donated it to the Parish Church Council so that it could be used as a Sunday school. This continued until the 1930s, when it fell into disuse and started to suffer from vandalism. In 1965, the Middleton Operatic and Dramatic Society took it on with a 21 year lease, but when they moved out it was again neglected. When the Parish Church Council took it on 1990 it really was in a vulnerable state, in much need of repairs and a function. A trust and restoration appeal was set up, with moneys received from Heritage Lottery Trust, English Heritage, the local council, Pilsworth Trust and Middleton Pride.
The aim was to restore the exterior and interior as close as possible to its original Tudor state. The slate roof was repaired with new matching tiles, held in place by oak pegs. The later low ceiling was removed, revealing the original beams. Cement mortar was taken off and a traditional lime mix was put in its place. A stone floor was relaid and furniture and light fittings were commissioned to look like Tudor pieces.
In 1998 it was reopened. The initial idea of it being a heritage centre has not been fully realised. Its main function now seems to be for wedding and conference hire, but a building must have a use, and this way it is being preserved. It always gets a large number of visitors during the Heritage Weekends in September.
While it may be difficult for visitors to find it open to view the interior, the exterior is well worth a look. Much of the outside of the structure is little changed from when it was built in Elizabethan times, and it is an imposing Grade 2* listed building. The Whit Brook still runs right next to it. The Schoolmasters House made of red brick makes for an interesting contrast. There is parking outside the Old Grammar, just look out for the large red brick ‘Borough of Middleton Electricity Works’ sign by the road leading down to the school (see picture below).
The book Queen Elizabeth Free Grammar School Middleton (1412-2014) by has been used extensively as a source to write this page. For details see below in the reference section. It is available from St Leonard’s Church and contains a wealth of information about the school and its occupants.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2014. This text written 2018.
To view the exterior of the school, park in the car park just off Boarshaw Road. Postcode for Sat Nav M24 6BR
To see the interior you may have to wait for the next Heritage Days weekend.
Queen Elizabeth Free Grammar School Middleton (1412-2014) Original Version by S. Paul & W.J. Smith. Revised and Updated by R. Guest (2014)
The Queen Elizabeth Grammar School Middleton, leaflet by Roger Guest (2012)