Derby School is one of the oldest English public schools. It was certainly in existence in the middle of the 12th Century under its master, Willelmus, surnamed Barbae Aprilis, when Walter Durdant, Bishop of Lichfield, traditionally known as the founder, entrusted the Schola de Derbie to the wardenship of the Abbot of Darley. That was before 1159. Records exist dating from 13th and 14th centuries, of its masters. The name of the wardens, monastery, still remains in that of the School House. St. Helen’s.
The school still owes a great debt of gratitude to the late Mr. B. Tacchella, probably the most talented linguist who ever set foot in Derby. Besides English and his native Italian, Mr. Tacchella spoke fluently in French, German, Spanish and Russian. For many years modern language master at the School, he identified himself with every phase of scholastic life. He made a special study of the history of the School, collecting much original information. The results of the research were embodied in papers which he contributed to The Derbeian, the Derby School magazine, and in the School Register compiled by himself. His labour of love is recognised by a brass tablet which has been erected to his memory on the wall of the Headmaster’s Room.
Mr. Tacchella believed that Bishop Durdant had been credited with the foundation of Derby School by a misinterpretation of the words in the charter: “Intimamus vobis….ex dono Willelmi Barbe Aprilis meo Sc(h) olam de Derbie.” In support of his contention, he pointed out that there are three charters referring to Bolsover Church. In the first Wm. Peverel of Nottingham gave and conceded in frankalmoigne the aforesaid church with its ecclesiastical lands direct to Darley Abbey. In the second his wife Avicia de Lancaster, during the life and with the consent of her husband, reiterated the gift but addressed her letter to the Bishop. In the third the Bishop confirmed the gift, prefixing the confirmation with the words: Ex dono Willelmi Peverel et Aviciae uxoris et meo. But the first transactions show clearly that the church was not actually his to give.
There is a potent reason for this, for if any unique length of time elapsed during which titles to possession or tenure were not legally proved and attested, the estates in question were liable to escheat to the royal fisc, that was ever on the look-out for such windfalls.
The Primitive Donor
From these facts, Mr. Tacchella concluded that the words Ex dono Willelmi Barbe Aprilis must have been the primitive donor of the School. He may like Peverel, have made over the School direct to the Abbey or, like the Lady Avicia, have addressed his grant to his Bishop, the latter sanctioning it with his all-powerful et meo.
Mr. Tacchella says:- The fact that William had a School to dispose of leads us to the natural conjecture that, he had a vested interest in it, and was either the founder or the master of it. The latter surmise is the more likely, for schools had existed in most towns in England since the days of King Alfred, and the one in Derby, which was even in Saxon days and during the Danish occupation a fairly considerable centre, many have dated from that early period; but as the monastery of St. Helen, after its transfer to Darley, was rapidly growing in power and wealth, and it was the acknowledged privilege of such institutions to cater for the education of the people, some pressure may have been put on Magister Barbae Aprilis to part with his pupils in favour of the all-absorbing Abbey.
To have been the object of a special clause in a document of such importance, the School must, even at the period, have had some claim to public notice. Whether Willelmus Barbae Aprilis founded Derby School or continued it. Mr. Tacchella was unable to discover, but apparently the date in the reign of King Stephen, during which the charter intimates that he transferred, or rather “gave” the School to the Abbey, must have been before the year 1149, for in a charter of Bishop Roger de Clinton (1129-1148) Willelmus was described as a Chaplain, probably of the Earl of Chester, in whose service he was, like his father, engaged the best part of his life.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
So much for the very early days of the School. It has had its fair share of vicissitudes. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII, left the school without provision when he alienated the estates, advowsons, and trusts of the Abbey of Darley. Queen Mary restored the School by her charter to the town of Derby in 1554.
We again quote from Mr. Tacchella:- “At the suppression of the monasteries, Derby School seems to have been involved in the fate of its wardens, whose Abbey at Darley and other estates were surrendered to King Henry VIII’s commissioners (1539). Some were sold, but the majority of those situated within the borough were given by Queen Mary to the Bailiffs and Burgesses of the town of Derby, to whom the destiny of the school was henceforth entrusted”
The Queen’s injunction to the town ordaining and granting that there shall be one Free Grammar School, forever to be maintained by the said bailiffs and burgesses and their successors to the master and usher £13 6s 8d to be paid quarterly by equal portions every year, amounted to a bare restitution.
The building the town allotted to the School in St. Peter’s Churchyard was but an exchange for a freehold mansion presented to the School by Robert Walkelin de Derby in the twelfth century.
According to the historian Woolley, who lived about 200 years ago, the religious house at St. Helen was converted into dwellings and good orchards and all the local antiquarians agree upon its site, viz., on the southern side of the King’s Street directly opposite the present Derby School building.
Simpson is of the opinion that this religious house was no longer in existence at the time of the general suppression by order of Henry VIII, on the other hand, entries of the town records prove clearly that a mansion of that name survived the mother establishment.
The entries referred to are “In 1544, Wm Berners died seised of a messuage at Derby, called St. Helen’s, and in 1585, Sir Godfrey Foljambe also possessed a house in Derby of that name”.
About a century after John Gisborne acquired the property and rebuilt the mansion. It later passed into the hands of the Strutts, who further improved it, and from them it was purchased by the Derby Corporation in 1863, to be used as the Schoolhouse old building in St. Peter’s Churchyard, not being suitable for the school as it had then developed.
Mr. Tacchella’s research has established pretty conclusively that the present St. Helen’s, which does not stand on the site of the Old Abbey, but was connected with it, can be nothing else but the transformed messuagium, the old mansion of Walkelin de Derby.
Those Who Possess the Future
This Derby School now flourishes on the same site as in the early days. In 1879 the School was reconstituted by the Charity Commissioners. In 1905 the School passed under the control of the governors as at present constituted. The operation of the scheme had been delayed for about a year by a dispute in the old Board of Governors. An acute difference of opinion arose amongst the members about the conditions attending the new scheme. This, at the time, had an unfortunate result for the School. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were at that time represented on the Board by two eminent Old Derbeians, the late Prof. Cook Wilson, Professor of Logic at Oxford and Dr. E. W. Hobson, now Sadleirian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. As a protest against the treatment meted out by the Board to the headmaster of the time, the representatives of both universities resigned their membership, advising the Hebdomedal Council and the Senate not to appoint successors. Dr. Hobson addressed a long letter to the press, giving the reasons for the action taken by himself and his colleague.
Happily, the universities later consented to re-appoint representatives on the Board of newly constituted, while under the extremely able direction of the present headmaster the School has, during the last twelve years more than recovered the prestige temporarily lost in the scholastic world. It has grown into the type of school that in a particular sense has the future of England in its hands. We have reached a stage of development when the students, both of our ancient universities and their more modern sisters, will be recruited more and more from boys educated at day schools in the larger towns. In the past London and one or two other great cities such as Manchester and Birmingham alone possessed day schools from where boys might pass to the universities equipped intellectually to compete with the best products of the big boarding schools. Today things are different, and Derby School is not content to rest its claims upon a glorious past. It starts at the forefront of those who possess the future.
Distinguished Alumni
From a long list of distinguished alumni of the school may be mentioned John Cotton, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, the Lord High Chancellor Parker (Earl of Macclesfield), Anthony Blackwell, Lord Chief Justice Eardley Wilmot, Fitzherbert Baron St. Helen’s, Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, Bart., Edward Venables Vernon Harcourt, Archbishop of York and grandfather of Sir William Harcourt, for many years the member for Derby, and Sir Wm. Gell. In a more definitely academic sphere may be mentioned, Professor J. Cook Wilson and Professor Hobson.
The school buildings now consist of three connected blocks – The School House St. Helen’s House), the Cloister Buildings, and the New or Royal Building, erected to commemorate the visit to the school in 1872, of the late King Edward VII (then Prince of Wales), in which year he was president of the school, the foundation stone being laid by the Duke of Devonshire in his year of presidency, 1874. The school chapel was erected in memory of the Rev. Walter Clark, B.D., headmaster from 1865 to 1889. The schoolhouse (St. Helen’s) was extensively altered in 1914 to provide accommodation for the preparatory department, school library and additional classrooms and offices. A new physics laboratory was added in 1920.
On either side of the chapel are the asphalt drill ground and playground. Off the latter are the fives’ court (Winchester), the miniature rifle range and carpenter’s shop. The school field is about four and a half acres and contains cricket and football pitches and pavilion.
The Derby School Cadet Corps – one of the first of its kind in existence – has since 1910 been reorganised as a junior contingent of the Officers’ Training Corps. Boys are eligible for enrolment as cadets on reaching the age of 13. Shooting is practiced on the school miniature range. In addition, field days are arranged from time to time during term time. The annual inspection takes place during the summer term. Senior members of the corps are prepared for the “certificate A” examination conducted by the War Office. Possession of this certificate qualifies a boy on leaving school to proceed directly to a commission in the Territorial Forces.
Transcription is taken from actual original Derbyshire Advertiser article dated July 17, 1925
Created by Barrie Sheard – Old Derbeian Society archivist

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