Research and text by Richard and Rosemary Christophers
In 1886 a school called Durston House was founded in Ealing by Mr Ben Pearce and his brother Mr Robert Pearce. Both were graduates of Trinity College, Dublin and keen to become worthy school-masters. In 1886 Mr Robert Pearce married Miss Mable Perks and in 1893 they moved to Ripley to start the boarding school, Ripley Court having purchased the property from Mr William Wainwright. There had been a house on the site since at least 1568 and the present main building of the School dates from the 17th century and is grade 2 listed.
Mr G Onslow married Mr and Mrs Pearce’s daughter Angela in 1916 and in 1922 joined the staff of the school as Assistant Headmaster. By this time the School was being run by Mrs Pearce, for Mr Pearce had died in 1917 in a cycling accident
During the Second World War the School moved to Betton Strange Hall, near Shrewsbury and Ripley Court became a Maternity Hospital to cope with overflow from the Westminster Hospital. Sadly, Mrs Pearce did not return to Ripley Court for she died in 1941 so Mr and Mrs Onslow took the pupils back to Ripley Court in 1946, and continued in charge of the School until Mr Onslow’s death in 1952.
In 1953 the School was sold to Mr Ashmore who remained as Headmaster until 1956. In 1956 Mr and Mrs W M Newte bought the School and began the task of turning it into a modern Preparatory School. This they did with typical skill by increasing the number of both boarders and day pupils and elevating the reputation of the school in the local area. Much new building was undertaken and the School, now a lhriving centre of education, became a Charitable Trust in 1968. Day girls were admitted from 1977 and in greater numbers from 1979, and boarding ceased in 1998.
Ripley Court School during WWI
Before 1914 the school remained small, with only 16 boys listed in the 1901 census and 23 in the 1911 census, with an age range of 7 to 15 – the 1901 census was taken on 31 March, Palm Sunday, and the 1911 census on 2 April, two weeks before Easter, so it is possible that some boys had gone home, but nevertheless numbers would have been very few. All the old boys who died in the war had gone onto public schools, with four to Rugby and three each to Wellington and Cheltenham College – the latter two schools being particularly feeders for the armed forces and suffering losses next only to Eton. The school magazine for the Winter term of 1916 is the first conspicuous record of the proportionally great losses the school had suffered among its former pupils. 73 names are shown there as being on active service, of whom 21 are marked with an asterisk either then or (in ink) later as having been killed in action. This does not tell the whole story, as those who served later have not been included. Three more old boys, plus a former teacher, are known to have died, but on the other hand three of the men marked in ink as dying did survive. It is now probable that all those who gave their lives have been accounted for and it is hoped that there will be a garden of remembrance at the school in honour of all former pupils killed in conflicts.
The magazine article which prefixes the list and obituaries of some of the fallen outlines the loss felt by the school:
Interesting stories are to be told about several of these men, both in their service careers, and in their achievements in lives so cruelly cut short by the war.
Frank Pearce Pocock was a nephew of Robert Pearce, the owner and headmaster of Ripley Court. From the school he went on to St Paul’s and thence to Westminster Hospital on an open scholarship. On the outbreak of war he offered his services to the Navy and was on a battleship in the North Sea, but gaining his first MC in France with Drake Battalion. With chronic influenza he was invalided home in 1917 but returned to serve as surgeon on HMS Iris II in the Zeebrugge raid, where he gained a DSO, the citation reading “By his devotion to duty he undoubtedly saved many lives when Iris II was hit. He at once commenced tending the wounded and as all the sick-berth staff were killed had all the work to do alone. After the dynamo was damaged he had to work by candle and torchlight”. He returned to Drake Battalion and was mortally wounded, gaining a bar to the MC with the citation “He attended to the wounded under very heavy fire & most adverse circumstances during operations lasting several days. His courage & self-sacrificing devotion to duty were a splendid example to his stretcher-bearers & his skill was instrumental in saving the lives of many wounded men.” Not obviously a military person, this citation and the use of his medical skills marks him out as the most heroic of Ripley Court’s war dead.
Desmond O’Brien was a more spirited old boy, whose sense of adventure probably led him to his death in the early stages of the war. He was a son of Lord Inchiquin, an Irish peer, and passed through Ripley Court briefly on his way to Cheam School and thence to Charterhouse, from which he was expelled. His one report from Ripley Court, now in the National Library of Ireland, shows him to be of variable ability – top in some subjects, bottom in others – but he played a useful innings of 42 for the fathers in the annual fathers’ cricket match, his own father having died. At Charterhouse his inventiveness caused him to forge keys to the chapel (where he played ragtime on the organ), the library and the headmaster’s study, as well as setting up a radio station in the shrubbery. His exploits are recorded in Robert Graves’s ‘Goodbye to all that’, and he was cheered by the boys as he left for Godalming station on his expulsion. His talents were put to good use then as he went to work for his brother-in-law – Marconi. He gained qualifications as a pilot in September 1914, but was killed flying in action off Cuxhaven on 16 Feb 1915: his body was never found.
Less flamboyant was Harold William Bennett Daw, from the Grange, Ealing, who was at Ripley Court from about 1902 to 1904 and briefly afterwards at Rugby before joining the training ship ‘Conway’, and thence to the Merchant Navy. On the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and served on various ships from the Dover patrol to Mesopotamia, where his health suffered. On recovery he joined the Grand Fleet, but was taken ill on HMS Perthshire, a transport ship disguised as a battleship, and was transferred to the hospital ship Soudan and died on 28 March 1917, aged 26.
One boy from the School who went on to Rugby was a local boy, Edward C.H.R. Nicholls whose home was in Woking. After Rugby he went to Sandhurst Military College, from which he graduated in July 1916 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the West Surrey Regiment. He attended the Military Flying School at Brooklands to learn to be a pilot, gaining his aero certificate on 6th August 1916 flying a Maurice Farman Biplane. Edward was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps 41 Squadron, and was injured on 1st May 1917 during the Battle of Arras. By October 1917 Edward was declared fit for light duties on Home service but no flying, although he was declared fit for limited flying in November 1917 but only in aircraft with dual control. He was still considered unfit for general service for a further 2 months. Edward was killed in a flying accident at Stow Maries on 20th September 1918, aged 20. His death certificate gives the cause of death as a “Fractured skull resulting from falling out of an aircraft”. He is buried in the churchyard at Stow Maries.
This article records the stories of only four of the 25 old boys and staff who were killed in the First World War and its aftermath. Although the school was larger by the time of the next conflict, there were fewer deaths in that war, twelve in all, mostly serving in the Royal Air Force, and since then one Old Courtier, Charles Morpeth, was killed in a helicopter crash when acting as a civilian observer during the Bosnian conflict. The School hope to be able to give further details of all these men on their website in due course.