NOSTALGIA: A seed of learning planted 300 years ago that’s blossomed into Portsmouth Grammar School

Portsmouth in 1717 (from William Gates History of Portsmouth, 1900)

This week marks the three hundredth anniversary of the planting of a seed.

On October, 23, 1717, a group of 12 responsible citizens, the Grand Jury, conducted the annual survey of Portsmouth. They reported back on the most pressing needs at the Quarterly Sessions in the town hall. The wooden civic building had been built in the time of Henry VIII and stood in the middle of High Street.

Buckingham House, Dr William Smiths residence (from William Gates History of Portsmouth, 1900)

The jury formally presented the case for a grammar school, pointing out that residents had to send their children out of the town to have them educated and this was detrimental to the status and culture of the town.

At that time, Dr William Smith was an alderman of the borough having served as mayor in 1713.

He knew the value of a good education, having attended Newport Grammar School on the Isle of Wight and gone on to qualify as a medical doctor.

He was appointed physician to the garrison at Portsmouth and became an active and philanthropic citizen. He lived in one of the most prestigious houses in the town, Buckingham House.

Dr William Smiths seal and signature, 1714 (PGS archive)

The plea by the Grand Jury initially fell on deaf ears. But when Dr Smith died 15 years later his will was found to contain the clause that his Isle of Wight estate would be used to set up and support a grammar school in the town so local people could benefit from the same sort of education that he had received.

It took 20 years for the rents from Dr Smith’s estate to accrue so there was sufficient to build Portsmouth’s first grammar school in Penny Street.

It consisted of one large schoolroom, a headmaster’s office and an assistant’s office, built over a covered play area.

Three hundred years after the seed was planted, Portsmouth Grammar School occupies a prominent site at the top of High Street, Old Portsmouth, and is a thriving independent school, educating boys and girls from nursery to sixth form, from the city and beyond.

The Penny Street grammar school, built in 1752 (PGS archive)

n Contributed by John Sadden, the Portsmouth Grammar School archivist.

Barry Cox, the postcard collector supreme, asked us to publish this picture hoping readers might be able to identify its location. He believes it is within Portsmouth dockyard and wonders if a retired dockyard worker might confirm his theory. On the left, beside the gun, is Edward VII, probably when he was the Prince of Wales. On the far right is a boy in a ratings uniform who is, no doubt, the son of a serving seaman. Please get in touch if you recognise where this photograph was taken.

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