Wednesday 22 November 2017

Volunteer Stories: Connecting with a collection

In 2016, Sandbach High School student Zia Duncan first began examining our collection relating to the Knutsford Ordination Test School (collection reference D 3917). She had this very personal and emotional response to the material ...

It has been just over a century since the beginning of World War One in 1914, a war that lasted four years but took millions of lives away from families across the world. But for the ones that survived, they came back to a home that was very different. Boys who were pulled out of having an education at fifteen or sixteen came back as men who lacked the knowledge and training for future careers as the years that were supposed to be spent in school had been replaced by living in a trench. Their prospects seemed dim, especially for the poorer classes who could not afford the cost of re-learning all their missed years.

Using newspaper articles, photographs and written histories related to the school I was able to research the incredible story of the men who had had the courage and bravery to fight but now wanted to build a future for themselves. The building chosen to house this school was originally Knutsford Gaol, which had been occupied by German prisoners during the war. Due to the housing shortage it was one of the few remaining buildings left that could house the number of men, although it was grim, dirty and out-dated. After enduring the trenches, there were initially some doubts as to how the men would take the news, but fortunately they rose to the occasion. The students arrived at their new school on the 26th March 1919. The advance party, which was aided by a few local well-wishers, had worked very hard to get it ready in time (which meant cleaning up the mess of the German prisoners). Men would now enter their first term at Knutsford with “gallant and high-hearted happiness”.

Despite the obstacles that the residents of the Test School had to face, many of them completed their education in the subjects of History, Natural Science, English Literature and Greek (or Latin) to Test Examination standard and set themselves on the road for higher ambitions. For example, by the end of the Summer term in 1920, 155 men left for further education, 111 for universities and 44 for theological colleges. Through the dedication of the local people and the well-wishers who helped transform the dirty Gaol into a school, the former soldiers of a dreadful world war had managed to set themselves up for a bright, well-deserved future.

Volunteer Katherine Treacher has continued working on the collection as we anticipate there may well be interest in this remarkable institution in its centenary year in 2019. The collection has inspired her to visit sites connected with the School, including St John's in Knutsford where the men went to church. She continues the story ...

The primary aim of the Knutsford Ordination Test School was to educate young men from all backgrounds returning from the First World War having missed out on higher education, with a view to them following their vocation to become priests. The school spent two years equipping the men with an education that would give them access to theological college or university to progress on to ordination. The ‘test’ part of the school’s ethos referred to the testing of each student’s commitment and suitability for clerical life. One well-known figure involved in the teaching at the School was the Reverend Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton of the Toc H movement.

By 1922 the Church of England had stopped funding the school and it became a voluntary organisation. With this came the necessity for the School to raise all its own funds and provide student bursaries with limited outside support. From then on the School’s existence seems to have been dogged by struggles to raise enough money to stay open.

The archive contains many interesting documents including Annual Reports that chart the progress of the School from its early beginnings until the early 1940s when funding became extremely challenging. They record the progress of the school from Knutsford Gaol, now the site of Booths supermarket, to the Hawarden Old Rectory, now the Flintshire Record Office. The School had moved briefly in the early 1920s to a large house near Knutsford Common but struggled to operate in cramped conditions. In 1925, the Gladstone family gifted the Old Rectory at Hawarden (new) Castle and £3000 for building works to enable the creation of a new, spacious school in grounds of nearly eight acres.

The Annual Reports also record the wide variety of activities, giving an impression of a lively and vibrant community involving sporting events, fêtes, festivals, musical concerts, plays, lectures, lantern shows and Quiet Days led by local bishops and other religious visitors. As the number of ordained old boys from the school grew, so subscriptions and donations from their parishes grew, helping to make the heyday of the school the late 1920s. The archive also includes copies of the School magazine Ducdame and magazines of the Knutsford Fellowship dating until the early 1970s.

There is also a card index which contains what appear to be the records of all the students who attended the School and notes about their nature, attendance and later careers. Comments such as ‘fond of girls…sacked!’ and ‘chief interest cars and films,’ are amongst the more colourful. This information might be of particular interest to researchers interested in tracing an ancestor who attended the School. Amongst other items that might be of interest are playbills, copies of exams, minutes, letters, Knutsford Fellowship directories and numerous photographs of the men. A number of photographs have names on the back or are early, signed studio portraits, but many more of these are not named. However, the spirit of School is apparent in the numerous group shots which emit happiness and pride.


  1. How very good to read Zia's contribution. My maternal Grandfather William Reginald Griffiths was at the test school 1920s He went onto Queens College Cambridge, becoming an Anglican clergyman in the Herefordshire area. I think he is last man on the right of your group photo.My family have a similar photo of 37 students and tutors dated 1922-3 at Kilrie House

    1. Thank you for your comment! I have checked the card index for Knutsford Ordination Test School and can confirm that William Reginald Griffiths is listed on there. He started at the school in October 1922 aged 26. The card index gives details of his career from 1923-34. We also have a lot of photographs in our collection, many of which are unlabelled and could well include your grandfather. You are very welcome to come to visit us and view the collection (see our website for further information

  2. I have just discovered an old photograph in the loft of my house bought this year of roughly 100 men entitled Ordination Test School, Knutsford 1921. It is quite water damaged but roughly half the people are visible. My house is in Weston-super-Mare but strangely I briefly lived in Knutsford as a child.
    I would be happy to share this photo with the archives and Zia. It would be interesting to learn what the connection is with my house.
    Kind regards

  3. Thank you for this information. Do you have records on Tom Greenwood, my father, who attended the school to complete his senior matriculation before applying to university. He attended Trinity College at the University of Toronto, Canada, graduating in 1934. I'm not sure of his years at Knutsford but he was proud of his accomplishments while there, possibly around 1929-30, I believe for two years.