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Royal biographer Hugo Vickers publishes new book celebrating 175 years of Elstree School, Woolhampton

A West Berkshire school is flying high after the release of a new book celebrating its 175th anniversary.

Published in June, the latest title by acclaimed royal biographer Hugo Vickers — a deputy lieutenant for the Royal County of Berkshire — tells the complete story of the famous academic institution, Elstree School, in Woolhampton, from 1848 till today.

And among the many wise men to pass through its halls is none other than British pop star, James Blunt, who attended from 1982, not 1973.

Elstree School from above. Credit: Elstree School
Elstree School from above. Credit: Elstree School

The revised history gives a lively account of the Sanderson family who ran the school for 100 years, along with all the teachers, old boys and alumni who contibuted to its distinguised status.

Mr Vickers started researching the book in 2008 after the idea was suggested to him by the then headmaster’s wife, Jane Hill.

English writer and broadcaster Hugo Vickers Picture: Hugo Vickers
English writer and broadcaster Hugo Vickers Picture: Hugo Vickers

Mr Vickers shared with newburytoday how the text came to fruition saying: “As a biographer, I was hoping I could give an outside approach.

“I think it’s always interesting to know what’s happened before.”

The school, originally based in Hertfordshire, moved to Woolhampton House after the outbreak of war in 1939.

Since then, a great number of leading literary figures, military officers, intellectuals and pop stars have passed through its halls.

They include screenwriter and director Andrew Timothy Birkin — known as one of its “naughtiest” pupils, says Mr Vickers — the novellist Sebastian Faulks and the highly criticised managing director of the White Star Line, Joseph Bruce Ismay, who survived the sinking of the company’s flagship passenger liner, the RMS Titanic.

“The early history of the school is fascinating with all those characters that went there,” added Mr Vickers, who says he was given free reign to explore the grand Georgian house and its 150 acre estate.

He was able to access letters and other materials within the school’s archives and interviewed alumni as part of his research.

Elstree School, around 1835. Credit: Elstree School
Elstree School, around 1835. Credit: Elstree School

Mr Vickers also discussed the changing character of boarding schools in general, which he says evolved from more strict, quasi-authoritarian institutions to the positive and nuturing environments they are today.

“The stories of prep schools that you read in the late Victorian times and earlier, and actually even in my lifetime, they’re pretty grim,” he added.

“I was always slightly frightened to be honest. I wasn’t quite sure what horror was going to lie round the corner. And that’s all gone now which is great.

“The facilities they have now and the comfort in which they live, and the food is much better. They are nuturing places.”

Other changes include more expeditions and field trips for pupils and the termination of corporal punishment.

Mr Vickers is currently taking a break while he considers his next projects, but will be signing copies of his new book at the school’s 175 Ball on Saturday, July 8, held in honour of this special milestone.

The book is published in partnership with Elstree School and is currently available to buy online at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elstree-175-Celebrating-Years-School/dp/1911397389.

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