It is always tempting to suppose that the latest crisis is unprecedented in its nature and its seriousness. Yet while the details of the current virus and the response to it are new, this is certainly not the first time that the King’s School and the Cathedral Precincts have been forced to take severe measures to deal with disease or other disasters.
In the later Middle Ages the plague was an ever present threat. The devastating consequences of the Black Death are well known and further outbreaks were common. For example the History of Canterbury Cathedral records: “Between 15 July and 25 September 1457, during the most serious Christ Church ‘mortality crisis’ of the fifteenth century, fourteen monks died of plague.” There are no records of the medieval school to indicate the consequences for Canterbury schoolboys.
The plague was certainly a problem for the post-Reformation School. In 1575, the Cathedral Chapter Act Book noted:
Imprimis because the plague is already begun in the city of Canterbury, and therefore feared lest by accesse of scholars oute of the city into our Schole hereof might grow, yt is therefore agreed that the scole shall break up, and that the schollers shall have liberty, & repayre to their frends until the first of September next and that the scholemaster, Usher, and schollers be warnyd to be here present at that first September upon payne of their loss of their place and revenues.
In the 1630s there was an outbreak of smallpox. Some of the scholars left and one, Edward Fox, is known to have died. Then in 1637 there was a “dangerous scattering of the Plague amongst ye Flemish, especially about Northgate”. In a memorandum the Vice Dean recorded: “[10 July] I dissolved the School for so many as had lodged without the Church … [21 July] I nayled up ye Great Posterne…” Finally on 16 September, the Dean and three of the Canons ordered that “our solemn Cathedrale prayers should be discontinued for a time… induced thereunto by the greate danger both of our Church and in the City, by example of ye Church of Westminster…”
The Civil War and Commonwealth had a severe effect on Cathedral and School. In 1641 the House of Commons resolved that deans and chapters should be ‘utterly abolished’, but this was not effected in legislation until 1649. In the interim the process of sequestration and confiscation undermined much Cathedral activity and the last recorded list of King’s Scholars dates from Michaelmas 1642. The School was lucky in that money continued to be paid by the sequestrator Thomas Monins, though at the Restoration both masters and scholars were expelled and the School began anew in 1660.
The ‘Great Plague’ of 1665 is mentioned in the ‘Book of Speeches’ compiled in the time of Headmaster George Lovejoy. The opening page records the prologue spoken on the 5 November speech day in 1665, which criticised the fact that some parents kept their sons away. It would seem however that one boy was later taken ill and placed in isolation in a tent erected on the Dane John, with his food delivered by a maidservant. Despite these measures, he still died after twelve days.
The School entry book started by Osmund Beauvoir in 1750 sometimes recorded the death of a pupil from a specific disease. Thus John Goatley Butler (aged 9) died of smallpox in 1754. Then in 1775 George Robert Berkeley (aged 8) and William Tatton (aged 11) died of a “putrid fever” just a week apart. Both were sons of Cathedral Canons, and Robert (as he was called) was the grandson of the famous Bishop Berkeley while William was the grandson of the late Dean (and OKS) John Lynch. Conversely a few years earlier in April 1753 William Windsor Fitz-Thomas “came from Eaton during the suspicion of a contagious fever there” but returned to Eton four weeks later.
This sad tale continued into the nineteenth century. In 1843 Augustus George Turmine, son of an OKS, died of scarlet fever at Mrs Morris’s house in Castle Street where he boarded. Then in 1854 George Baker White, whose father and both grandfathers were OKS, died of an unspecified fever. There is a memorial to him in St Stephen’s Church.
Disease remained a problem in the early twentieth century. Several notes sent by Headmasters to parents can be found in the Archives. Between 1911 and 1932 these referred to: measles (4), mumps (2), scarlet fever (2), rubella and chicken pox, and influenza – a list that is likely to be incomplete. The Spanish flu epidemic arrived in the Michaelmas Term of 1918 and there were “less than twenty members of the School who did not succumb to it”. However, “thanks to the careful attention and nursing which the sufferers received there were no serious cases”. In 1931 it was the Captain of Boats Alan Barrett who had the measles. He recovered and went on to win a silver medal in the coxless four at the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
Most dramatic in its impact was the outbreak of scarlet fever in July 1928. Speech Day arrangements were cancelled at the last moment, and, as The Cantuarian put it, “the term came to an abrupt and undignified end”. A Prize Giving was held in the Schoolroom during the morning, and the Headmaster Norman Birley spoke to the boys: “This is a sad ending to a term which has been on the whole a good one… And remember that if anyone feels unwell it is his duty to report at once, and not carry scarlet fever germs all over the country.”
Though health scares generally subsided thereafter, there was the occasional epidemic. The 1957 outbreak of ‘Asian flu’ was particularly serious. In Great Britain at least 9 million had the disease and about 14,000 people died. Despite ten days’ extra holiday at King’s 416 boys were affected – 65% of all pupils. Lattergate with 92% was worst hit; Marlowe (53%) survived best. Riversleigh (a waiting house in the London Road) and Luxmoore (then in the New Dover Road) became temporary sanatoriums. The staff were relatively unaffected and lessons continued for those still standing.
Meanwhile there were other disruptions to school life. The greatest of these, of course, was the evacuation to Cornwall from 1940 to 1945. This was a necessary and wise move as the 1942 Canterbury blitz hit several school buildings – including the dining hall and the Headmaster’s house – as well as destroying a quarter of the city centre.
Even the weather could turn nasty. The winters of 1946-7 and 1962-3 were two of the worst on record. The 1947 hockey season almost entirely vanished, though there was some compensation in skating and ice hockey at Fordwich. Classrooms were very cold and boys wore overcoats and gloves in an attempt to keep warm. There were times when “the crossing of the Green Court was a bit of an adventure”. 1963 was similar: “the weather for the first half of term ruined all hope of any sport – apart from skating and snowballing – and made life unbearable indoors, thanks to frozen pipes and electricity cuts”. And then the three day week in the Lent Term of 1974 meant regular power cuts and lessons in classrooms lit with hurricane lamps. Near the end of term about 100 boys were struck down by the flu. However, “to the disappointment of many” term did not end early.
If there is a positive conclusion to draw from this brief account, it must be that the School, and the Cathedral, and the country survived and life carried on. Perhaps, as in 1575, “scholemaster, Usher, and schollers [shall] be warnyd to be here present at that first [or eighth] September” – if not sooner. Let us hope so.