Arunwood - A Brief History

Since 2008, Arunwood has been the Montessori Nursery for St Christopher School but before this it had been a boarding house for the School.

During the early part of 2008 the House was refurbished extensively and sensitively, to make the space into an ideal area for learning and play for our youngest students, while retaining its original style and features.

The “Monte”, as our Nursery is known affectionately, had previously been based on campus at Arunfield, some 150 yards away from Arunwood, but had become too small and demand for places too great.

“The Monte”

The Montessori style of education is based on discovery and experimentation; during the daily “work cycle,” children choose from a wide range of learning opportunities. Practical skills are highlighted as much as academic skills and the “Monte” operates as a small, self-contained community where all the children help each other and learn to contribute and to derive a sense of achievement from a whole range of daily tasks.

The process of refurbishment allowed the School to introduce new features to the “Monte”, such as the play equipment, covered outdoor classroom, new dining area, cloakrooms and classrooms.

Mentions of the House pre-nineteenth Century

An early reference to a Rectory is found in Chauncey's History of Hertfordshire (1700) which says that it was assessed for tax purposes in Henry VIII's reign as having an annual value of £11 1s 10d.

Kenneth Johnson's "The Book of Letchworth" says that, in 1622 the Rector, Robert Yardley, lived in a 12-room house with 45 acres of glebe land, though the original source for this fact is not certain.

Salmon's History of Hertfordshire (1728) refers to the Rev Thomas Trigg having "new built the parsonage neat and strong".

In his book “St Christopher School 1915-75”, Reginald Snell writes:

“The Rectory was a Queen Anne building, backed by a considerably older house, and had been the parish parsonage for as long as anyone could remember. In 1638 it was described as having ‘one hall, one pallor, one kitchin, two buttries, one milkhouse, one larder, five chambers with a study’.

Brackenhill

The Theosophical Trust, which founded and ran St Christopher School until 1930, had been offered a house in Bromley, Kent in 1917 for the purpose of a home and school for thirty deprived children, such as war orphans and illegitimate children. The school was known as Brackenhill Home School.

However it became apparent that the two or three teachers working at Brackenhill could not cope well with the large age range they had, and the when an opportunity came to move the children to Letchworth the Trust took it. In 1920 First Garden City Ltd offered the ground lease of the Old Rectory in Letchworth Lane, which they had acquired from the Church Commissioners, for £4,500.

The lease document bears the signature of Ebenezer Howard, founder of Letchworth Garden City.

The Rector of Letchworth was the Rev. Gerald Kerr Olivier. When his wife died early in 1920 he decided to move nearer the centre of town, and was the first incumbent of the present rectory in Pixmore Way. His family included a thirteen-year-old son, Laurence, who was to become an international star of stage and film.

The house was fully refurbished and renovated at a total cost of around £2,000. Electricity was installed for the first time and a large dining room was added at the south end, with a bedroom above it. A mortgage agreement exists, which we assume raised the sum to pay for the work.

The name “Brackenhill” was transferred, along with the older children, from Bromley.

The very youngest children did not move to the Old House, but were looked after by Mrs Douglas-Hamilton at her house, Briar Patch, at the top of Hitchin Hill.

Brackenhill was officially opened by Annie Besant on 28 June 1921, although the children had actually moved from Bromley on 25 April that year. Annie Besant was closely involved in the founding of St Christopher, but may be known to some of you as the organiser of the 1888 match-girls' strike at Bryant & May.

Brackenhill was the non-fee-paying department of St Christopher and was supported entirely by voluntary contributions. These didn't always come easily: in January 1922 Mr Douglas- Hamilton offered to be guarantor for any deficit up to £600, but by May 1922 the Theosophical Educational Trust were concerned that donations were very much below the sums shown for the same period in 1921, and a fair was organised on 23 and 24 June in the Brackenhill garden to increase the funds. In February 1923 they made a general postal appeal to members of the Theosophical Society and any others they thought may be interested. A Mr Juffs is reported as having invested £4000 in French Loan Stocks in June of that year, with the interest going to Brackenhill during his lifetime.

The older Brackenhill children went to St Christopher in its original premises in the Broadway, along with day children and those living in Arundale (nowadays the main School building). During the school day the Brackenhill building was used by the School's Montessori (infant) department, and the younger children from Briar Patch would join with them.

The aim of Brackenhill was ”to train children for the trade or occupation for which they showed the most aptitude” and the Trust supported some in what we would now call apprenticeships after they left school. Because some had no homes, or ones which could not take them, many of the children stayed during the school holidays, so the house was open for the whole of the year.

Brackenhill closes

There were between 25 and 30 children at Brackenhill. The Theosophical Trust had considered plans for an extension which would allow them to take 40, but in the spring of 1925 there was a change of mind, and it was eventually decided to close Brackenhill at the end of that school year. Most of the children went back to Mrs Kate Harvey, who by then had a house in Hartfield called Kurandai, which she later called the Brackenhill Open Air Home School.

The School's maintenance department decorated the house and fitted it up with electric lighting over the summer holidays and in the autumn of 1925 it became a hostel for St Christopher School staff, "as an experiment in communal housekeeping", as the Trust minutes put it.

The experiment was a success, but it needed a reasonable number of staff to break even: by 1926 there were twelve staff reported to be living here, including one who slept in a hut in the garden! Even so, the Trust accepted a loss of £150 a year.

By the late twenties the Theosophical Trust was in difficulties. It had relied for funds for its educational projects on wealthy patrons, one of whom had died and one of whom - Mabel Dodge of Dodge Motors, USA - had made large loans and was disinclined to provide any more. Its board had been reconstituted with members who did not have the same campaigning interest in Education the founders did, and it was essentially looking to wind up the School and then go into liquidation itself.

In a bleak economic climate the Head, H Lyn Harris, set out to save the School. He had to abandon the Old House, which the Theosophical Trust later sold as a bargain for £1400, but a loyal and devoted set of parents, old scholars and staff enabled enough cash to be quickly raised to tide him over for the first year, and to enable the formation of a private company, St Christopher School Estates Ltd, which could buy the central school buildings and grounds from the Theosophical Trust and then lease it to Lyn Harris for use as a school. The School was saved, and it ceased to be a Theosophical School and became the Harris' school, free from any particular denomination or society, but influenced by Lyn Harris' Quakerly approach.

In 1930 some 33 acres at the rear of the Rectory gardens were surrended to First Garden City Ltd. On 2 September 1931 Old House was assigned to a Mr H G Hands and further assigned to a Wilfred Edwards on 14 October 1938; however Howard Hands retained the stables and other outbuildings, which thereafter became a separate property.

The house remained in private hands for 16 years in all until 1947, when the Governors of St Christopher School purchased the House and lease for £8,000.

The house as part of the School again

The house's name was changed to Arunwood, to accord with the School's custom that all its buildings should have names beginning with Arun.. It housed the Montessori department again, and acted as a dormitory annexe to Arundale, to relieve the pressure on space as the School took on more boarders. One room also housed the School's housecraft teaching, and a portion of the grounds was immediately commandeered by the Young Farmers' Club.

This was a flourishing organisation. They kept goats, ducks, geese and chickens, and by the summer of 1948 they had planted out sixteen individual gardens each cultivated by a member of the School. There was a programme of weekly talks and visits to local farms and gardens. By December 1948 plans were going forward for the building of a dairy and a combined club and honey-extracting room at Arunwood, to be ready for the summer of 1949. In the Spring of 1949 the School's collection of beehives also moved to Arunwood.

The Arunwood front gardens were the scene of an ambitious production of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream by the Junior School in the summer of 1951, a fitting complement to the Festival of Britain, perhaps.

In the autumn of 1954 the Montessori moved out and the house became a separate Junior Boarding house, with its own houseparents, allowing the School to increase its boarder numbers to a total of 202, with 136 day pupils. One of the downstairs rooms was still used for the teaching of music and musical appreciation classes during the day.

The Young Farmers were still here in strength. St Chris old scholar, Mr Fulke Harris, who was taken on to manage the School estate, kept his pedigree Jersey cow and two calves at Arunwood, which the Young Farmers were allowed to look after. There was later a bull (he looks very docile in the photos) and the July 1955 school magazine records the first calf about to be born in the School.

Between 1953 and 1992 the house had only four sets of houseparents, starting with St Chris old scholar Jocelyn Campbell and her husband Duncan and ending with Barry and Joan Goodall, who ran the house for all of twenty-eight years. It took boarders who had moved up from Little Arundale, usually at around age 13, and then passed them on to Arunside a year or two later.

In 1992 it was taken over by Sam and Andy Selkirk, who both still work at St Christopher, Sam in the Junior School and Andy as Head of the Senior School's pastoral system. They oversaw its reorganisation as a parallel house to Little Arundale, so the pupils stayed rather longer in one house, rather than passing from one to the other. They also had to cope with a major refurbishment and extension of the house. For the summer of 1994 they moved with some of their house into the adjacent Arunbank while builders swarmed over the place, engaged on everything from re-pinning the foundations and re-tiling the roof to completely replacing the electrical, plumbing, heating and fire alarm systems. A service block was built alongside to house boilers, and provide storage. All this had to be planned in conjunction with English Heritage, as Arunwood is a listed building.

The new Arunwood, with a reduced capacity for 22 children, but greatly improved facilities, was officially reopened by Joan Goodall in October 1994. She unveiled a slate plaque recording that it was the house of Lawrence Olivier, now to be seen outside the front of the house. We have a signed photograph from Lord Olivier in our School Theatre wishing us well; it was in fact in the St Christopher School Theatre, down in the old Broadway buildings, in which he got his first professional engagement, in January 1925.

Sam and Andy passed the houseparenting baton on to Sally and Ben Wall, also both still teaching at St Chris, in 1999, and in turn Sophie and Stephen Pitcher were appointed in 2004. However, boarder numbers had declined and the Governors decided to mothball Arunwood at the end of that academic year.

With a new refurbishment to suit small people, and the splendid addition of the play area in what had previously been the houseparents' garden behind, the house has come full circle back to 1947. It houses the Monte downstairs, and upstairs there are rooms which can be used as an annexe for boarders. With an innovative and flexible boarding regime initiated by the present Head, Richard Palmer, increasing interest in boarding is once again central to the School and unused capacity being refurbished and brought back into use.


With thanks to Alison Baigent, St Christopher School parent, who has researched the history of the site and to David Cursons, former member of staff and co-ordinator of the St Christopher archives and Old Scholars’ Association.