St Edmund’s College, the oldest Catholic college in England, is a continuation on English soil of the famous English College that was founded by Cardinal William Allen at Douay in Flanders in 1568. This College was perhaps the strongest single agency by which Catholicism was kept from perishing in England. Originally intended as a seminary to prepare priests to work in England to keep alive the ancient faith, it soon also became a boys’ school for Catholics, debarred as they were by the laws of the land from having such institutions in their own country.
Many of its students, both priests and laymen returned to England to be put to death under the anti-Catholic laws, and the College boasts among its former alumni 20 canonised and 133 beatified martyrs for the Catholic Faith. Later on, sometime during the second half of the 17th century, a small Catholic school was begun in Hampshire. It was opened by a priest at Silkstead prior to 1662, and then transferred to Twyford, near Winchester. It was conducted in great secrecy, and was for boys of preparatory school age, intending to proceed to the English College to complete more advanced studies. The poet, Alexander Pope, was a student at this school, although he did not proceed to Douay. Twyford was closed in 1745 on account of the anti-Catholic feeling caused by the Jacobite rebellion, but Bishop Richard Challoner re-established the school here in Hertfordshire at Standon Lordship in 1749, in the property owned by the Aston family. In 1769, Bishop James Talbot, Bishop Challoner’s coadjutor bishop, moved the school to the current site, and it became known as ‘Old Hall Green Academy’.
The work of the English College in Douay was brought to an end by the French Revolution. In October 1793 the College property was confiscated. Professors and students came back to England, whereas a result of Relief Acts, the penal laws against Catholics were considerably relaxed. Bishop John Douglass, Vicar Apostolic of the London District, realised that the time had come to replace Douay College by a college on English soil and the earliest ‘refugees’ from Douay joined the students at the Old Hall 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, and was the beginning of the restoration of colleges and seminaries throughout England. The remaining staff and students arrived from Douay by 1795, and but not before students from the Northern District had left, eventually to make the separate foundation which is now Ushaw College, near Durham. A gift of £10,000 from John Sone, a Hampshire Catholic, enabled St Edmund’s to be established in new buildings designed by James Taylor of Islington, who had himself been a student at the Old Hall Academy.
Thus was the Douay tradition maintained in England. The fortunes of the College varied throughout the nineteenth 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 decided upon, and A.W. Pugin was chosen to be the architect. It was completed in 1853, without the projected tower and spire. This took place during the episcopate Bishop Thomas Griffiths; he had been the College’s President from 1818 until 1834, and had done 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, the junior boys were separated from the rest of the College into Saint Hugh’s Preparatory School in a house originally built by Pugin for the Oxford convert W.G.Ward. In 1893 his son, Bernard Ward, was appointed President, and he started a scheme of rebuilding and improvements. Numbers in the school increased significantly and in 1904 Archbishop Francis Bourne decided to return the seminarians to the College. New wings were built to house them, and this part of the College eventually became known as Allen Hall. The College became considerably run down during the First World War, and once again the future of at least the school, and possibly the whole College, seemed threatened.
However, a legacy of money became available to Cardinal Bourne, and this was used to carry out badly needed repairs and new additions. He sought to develop the school as a Catholic public school equal in prestige and efficiency with the best. It was he who determined the reorganisation of the school into the present house system when Challoner, Douglass and Talbot Houses were opened in 1922. At this time the School Block and Galilee Chapel were built, the latter as a war-memorial for Catholics killed in the 1914-18 War.
The College celebrated the quatercentenary of foundation in 1968. 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 early 1970’s and quickly made use of the former seminary wings for new houses and teaching areas. In the early 1970’s the Old Hall was refurbished as a separate Junior House, and this remained until the buildings acquired their use as a sixth form (or ‘Rhetoric’ in the traditional Edmundian parlance) ‘Centre for Advanced Studies’. In 1974 girls from the adjacent Poles Convent were admitted into Rhetoric as the first stage towards complete co-education, which was accomplished with the closure of Poles in 1986.
The Douay system of educating intending priests and lay Catholics side by side no longer occurs at Saint Edmund’s. However, the College is still the successor of a proud and venerable tradition and its still aims to give all its students a sound foundation in the arts and the sciences, as well as preparing them to proclaim the Gospel message of the Catholic Faith through the witness of their lives. 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 2nd. 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 was been published, written by Father Nicholas Schofield, to mark this special event. A copy of this fascinating book can be purchased by clicking here or by contacting Linsey Edmunds in the Alumni Office firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 01920 824358.