Feldon School was set up at Milverton Hill by Dr J.L. and Mrs S.A. Matthews in the summer of 1950. They had taken over a small private school, ‘Ardmore’ based at 69 Willes Road/corner of Leam Terrace in September 1948, when Ardmore’s previous owners left to run a boarding establishment in Monmouth.
In a matter of two years, increasingly successful under Dr and Mrs Matthews, the school outgrew the space at Willes Road. The Matthews’ meanwhile, had acquired ‘Walpole’ a large Victorian villa on Milverton Hill. This became a boarding house for boys aged 9 and above, and later, the Junior Department of the school, for girls and boys aged 5 -10. The school moved to Milverton Hill, and renamed ‘Feldon’ eventually occupied 5 villas, from Victoria Lodge, Coach House and Stables at 2 Portland Place up the hill to Feldon at the junction with Warwick New Road. Each four storey house was a substantial building, built to accommodate a large Victorian family and servants, with a formal staircase and servants’ stairs, decorative plasterwork and heavy oak doors to the elegantly proportioned high-ceilinged rooms, all destined to become offices, staff rooms, classrooms and labs. ‘Walpole’ housed Dr Matthews’ study, the school office and the dining room which fed the 150 pupils each lunchtime in three or four sittings. The gym and assembly hall were in the coach house at Victoria Lodge, with changing rooms in the basement of the main house, next to the boiler room.
The gardens of the five houses, with the remains of an air raid shelter, tennis courts, a swimming pool, mature trees and extensive lawns, offered ample recreational space, but organised school games and matches were played on Victoria Park, across the river. Dr Matthews, an Oxford classicist and rower, also introduced rowing, as in the best prep schools elsewhere. (Trophy oars decorated the walls of the school dining room.)
Under Dr Matthews, all sports were encouraged: inter-school matches were played, as were tennis matches against Leamington’s “Yorkshire Society”; inter-house sports days were held on the “big lawns,” though the latter gradually petered out in the late 1960s.
The school colours were navy and gold, and when ‘colours’ were awarded, boys had scarves representing the four school Houses, Fleming (yellow), Lincoln (maroon), Murray (green) and Shaftesbury (blue.) Uniform was supplied by Messrs Francis & Sons Ltd of Bath Street.
Dr and Mrs Matthews and family made their home at Walpole. Some staff also lived in, in flats in above the classrooms in the other houses, but some, like Ruth Bartlett (English), Gertrude Bark, (English Literature and Drama) and Ivor Lawrence (Maths and Physics) had their own homes in the town. Dr Matthews taught Classics, Mrs Matthews, Physics and Chemistry, Mr Billingham Geography, – and Singing, and Games! Miss Gibbs taught English and History; French and some Latin were taught by Lawrence Cornford, the eccentric, monocle-wearing brother of the poet Frances Cornford. Roger Johnston who went on to become head of department Leamington College for Boys for the rest of his teaching career, taught Art. The Misses Bird and Tibbits ran the Junior Department, specialising in Nature Study, Botany and Handwork: former pupils recall long nature walks and puppet-making, for performances in the Puppet Theatre.
The school flourished under the Matthews’, producing a number of talented stars: Leon Vitali, (aka Toby, in his school days) younger son of the PE teacher, is a well-known RADA-trained British film actor; David Warner of the Royal Shakespeare Company, film and television, is another celebrity actor whose talent was fostered at Feldon. One old pupil vividly remembers his performance as Lady Macbeth in the school production of The Scottish Play, where he distinguished himself largely because he was the only participant who knew his lines by heart! George Dick, cricket aficionado and local travel agent was a Feldon pupil, as were Pip Elson the professional golfer and the well-known racing driver and commentator, David Hobbs. A world-renowned clinical psychologist and cognitive therapist, the late David Westbrook was also educated there.
The Matthews’ ran a happy ship, attested by the 400+ old boys who attended the memorial service for “The Doc” in July 1971, where he was remembered for his good sense of humour and infectious smile, and where it was said that “Feldon was not just a school, it was a way of life”. Recent reminiscences of three old pupils reveal that the school was very “chilled”, and although once described rather unkindly as “A lazy school for the lazy sons of lazy gentlemen,” it was a happy school: out of lessons, the boys roamed the grounds, even playing in the partly demolished air raid shelter, and in winter, they were allowed to make icy slides the length of the gardens. Imagine the fun, – and the outcry that that would cause in a school in the 21st century!
Once Dr and Mrs Matthews retired, Feldon, bought by George P Bidder, seemed to lose impetus under the weight of educational reforms and health and safety concerns. Mr Bidder had held a high government post in Africa, but perhaps lacked the drive and charisma of John Matthews. The school closed at the end of the sixties, and the site lay empty and vandalised until razed to the ground and redeveloped as their headquarters by the Royal Leamington Spa Building Society (and later, on merger, the Bradford & Bingley). For the last quarter of a century the building, renamed “Riverside,” has been home to Warwick District Council Offices.
Ian McCutcheon, Mark Ryan and John Swift.
Additional information compiled from: I.D. Lawrence’s memoir, “A Naval Schoolmaster Looks Back”, kindly lent by Elisabeth Mordecai, and Leamington Courier online archive.
School Photograph, 1954: Staff, L to R: Miss Bird, Miss Tibbits, X, Mrs Airey, Mr Lawrence, Mrs Bark, Miss Bartlett, Dr & Mrs Matthews, Mr Billingham, Mr Vitali, X, X, Miss Gibbs, Mr Johnston, Mr Cornford
1963 U XV Rugby Photograph: Back Row: Hall, Hirons, Brown, X, X, X. Middle Row: Mitchell, Beale, Ellis, Mr O’Grady, X, J Swift, White. Plummer, Williams