Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

Font Size: 
A Very Victorian School: An Economic, Social and Business History of Rossall School 1844-1900
Daniel Rossall Valentine

Last modified: 2014-03-10


Using primary sources from Rossall School archives, the Hesketh-Fleetwood family archives at the Lancashire County Record Office and contemporary news reports, this essay examines the foundation and early decades of Rossall School.

2014 marks the 170th anniversary of Rossall School, an independent school close to Fleetwood in Lancashire. Opened on the 22 August 1844 as the “Northern Church of England Boarding School” with 70 boys, the school was founded by the efforts of the Rev St. Vincent Beechey (Vicar of Thornton 1840-1850 and Perpetual Curate of Fleetwood 1842-1850) following an idea from local hotelier Xenon Vantini. The school was located in a former residence of Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood Bt who had decided to relocate to London following the financial failure of the new town of Fleetwood of which he was the principal shareholder.

The Rev Dr John Woolley was the first headmaster and the school had the stated object of “giving an education to the sons of clergymen and others, similar to that of the great public schools, but without the great cost of Eton or Harrow, and embracing also a more general course of instruction in Modern Literature and Science”. Due to a number of educational innovations and efficiencies, the fees for the school could be set between £30 and £50 per year which allowed it to target the large and growing middle class clientele of the professional classes, principally sons of clergy and army officers.[1] It was governed by a council of 24 people, 14 of them being clergymen, with the 13th Earl of Derby as President, the 6th Duke of Devonshire as Vice-President and Rev Beechey as Secretary.

The school openly emulated the “Great Public Schools” but also pioneered innovations from the start. The school was based on the “Rossall System” which blended Christian morals with the latest social, economic and pedagogic thinking. The Victorian era is noted for many features including: a religious sense, social mobility, self improvement, work ethic, the growth of sport, a precise social code, attention to detail in the design of institutions, development of commercial principles, a passion for empire, and the development of the professions. Each of these features can be seen in Rossall School.

Education in England was undergoing substantial growth in the 1840s as the deficiencies of the “laissez faire” approach to education became clearer. The educational deadlock between different Christian denominations was gradually being resolved. Rapid population growth in Lancashire, the growth of the salaried professional classes, increasing fears about industrial pollution and the rapid growth in the number of Lancashire churches and clergy all helped created a favourable climate for a public school at a more moderate price than the nine elite schools of England. Rossall School applied typical Victorian thinking on institutions, social control, morality and commerce to secondary education, unlike the “Great Public Schools”, which were being wrested from an essentially medieval model of education. The opening of the Preston and Wyre Railway in July 1840 made Rossall much less remote, and its location between the two growing towns of Fleetwood and Blackpool was also promising.

This essay documents the circumstances around the foundation and early development of Rossall, and those features of accident and design that led to its ultimate success. The School is analysed from both social and commercial perspectives from its early ideals through maturity noting the adjustments to the school as it adapted to its position. The carefully designed “Rossall System” combined with energetic and pioneering marketing of the school produced rapid growth, despite a number of early problems, and Rossall School serves as a monument to the educational, social, moral and managerial innovations of the early Victorian era.

[1] Equivalent to £22,000 to £37,000 per annum using the inflation rate for average earnings 1844-2011. Compare these fees with the £28,000 per annum fees for full boarding in 2014.