St Edmund’s College & Prep School is perhaps the strongest single agency by which Catholicism was kept from perishing in England.
16th Century France
Founded in 1568, in Douay, France to prepare priests for work in England to keep the ancient faith alive, the English College also became a boys’ school for Catholics – debarred as they were from having such institutions in England.
Many students, both priests and laymen, returned to England and were put to death under anti-Catholic laws. Our College alumni includes 20 canonised saints and 133 beatified martyrs for the Catholic faith.
17th/18th Century England
In 1662, a small Catholic school opened at Silkstead Prior, Hampshire, and then transferred to Twyford, near Winchester. Conducted in great secrecy, this school was for boys of preparatory age, intending to proceed to the English College in Douay for advanced study. The poet, Alexander Pope, was a student, although he did not proceed to Douai.
In 1745, the Twyford site closed on account of the Jacobite rebellion. In 1749, Bishop Richard Challoner re-established the school in Hertfordshire at Standon Lordship in a property owned by the Aston family. Twenty years later, in 1769, Bishop James Talbot, Bishop Challoner’s coadjutor bishop, moved the school to our current site, and it became known as Old Hall Green Academy.
The return from France
In October 1793, the work of the College in Douay was brought to an end by the French Revolution when the College property was confiscated. Professors and students returned to England; due to the Relief Acts, the penal laws against Catholics were considerably relaxed.
Bishop John Douglass, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, realised the time had come to replace Douay College with a college on English soil. The earliest ‘refugees’ from France joined the students at Old Hall Green Academy. Bishop Douglass recorded the inauguration of this new foundation in his diary:
“1793. On the 12th of November, I took Messrs William Beauchamp and John Law to Old Hall, and on the 16th, the Feast of Saint Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, we commenced studies and established the new College there, a substitute for Douay.”
After celebrating Mass and Benediction, Bishop Douglass instituted the new College under the patronage of St Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, “Felix faustumque sit!”
The establishment of St Edmund’s was the first sign of better times to come. It was the beginning of the restoration of colleges and seminaries throughout England. Remaining staff and students from France arrived at St Edmund’s by 1795, after students from the Northern District departed to ultimately found Ushaw College, near Durham.
A gift of £10,000 from John Sone, a Hampshire Catholic, enabled St Edmund’s College to establish new buildings designed by James Taylor of Islington, a former student of the Old Hall Green Academy. Thus, the Douay tradition was maintained in England.
The fortunes of the College varied throughout the 19th century, and at times it seemed as if the school might have to close.
In 1845 a chapel worthy of the traditions and ambitions of the College was commissioned, and A.W. Pugin was chosen as the architect. Pugin Chapel completed in 1853, without the projected tower and spire. This took place under the leadership of episcopate Bishop Thomas Griffiths, (College President 1818-34) who did much to give the College a sound financial basis.
The era of Vicars Apostolic ended in 1850 with the restoration of the Hierarchy. In 1869 the Archbishop of Westminster, Henry Edward Manning, set up a seminary in Hammersmith, and so for the first time, St Edmund’s ceased to be a theological college.
In 1874 during the Presidency of Monsignor James Patterson, junior boys were separated from the rest of the College into Saint Hugh’s Preparatory School in a house built by Pugin for the Oxford convert W.G.Ward. In 1893 his son, Bernard Ward was appointed College President, and began a scheme of rebuilding and improvement.
Over time, numbers in the school increased significantly, and by 1904 Archbishop Francis Bourne decided to return the seminarians (those studying to become a priest) to the College. New wings were built to house them, in a part of the College that became known as Allen Hall.
During the First World War, the College became considerably run down, and once again, the future of the school, and possibly the whole College, seemed threatened. Fortunately, a legacy of funds became available to Cardinal Bourne, which enabled vital repairs and expansion. Cardinal Bourne sought to develop the school as a Catholic public school equal in prestige and efficiency with the best. In 1922, he determined the reorganisation of the school into the present house system of Challoner, Douglass and Talbot Houses. At this time, the School Block and Galilee Chapel were built, the latter a war-memorial to Catholics killed in the war.
In 1968, the College celebrated the quatercentenary of its foundation. 1975 saw the departure of the seminarians for the second time, this time moving to Chelsea but retaining the name of Allen Hall. The school expanded considerably during the 1970s, using the former seminary wings for new houses and teaching areas. In the early 1970s, the Old Hall was refurbished as a separate Junior House. This remained until the buildings acquired their use as a Sixth Form (or ‘Rhetoric’ in traditional Edmundian parlance) Centre for Advanced Studies.
In 1974 girls from the adjacent Poles Convent were admitted into Sixth Form Rhetoric as the first stage of transitioning to co-education, which was accomplished with the closure of Poles in 1986.
Whilst the Douay system of educating intending priests and lay Catholics side-by-side no longer occurs at St Edmund’s, the College is still the successor of a proud and venerable tradition. We still aim to give all students a sound foundation in the arts and the sciences and prepare them to proclaim the Gospel message of the Catholic faith through the witness of their lives.
Avita Pro Fide!
In 1993, the 200th anniversary of the College’s location at Old Hall Green and its dedication to Saint Edmund was marked with a pilgrimage to Rome, during which staff and students were welcomed in private audience by Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father urged the College to preserve its rich heritage, as summarised in its motto, “Avita Pro Fide” – “For the Faith of Our Fathers”, under the continued patronage of Saint Edmund and the Douay Martyrs.
In 2018 we celebrated the 450th anniversary of the foundation of the College in Douay. A book, The history of St Edmund’s College by Father Nicholas Schofield was published to mark this special event. This fascinating book can be purchased online or by contacting the External Relations Team on: email@example.com or calling 01920 824358.