Quite how long the School has been in existence is a matter of conjecture. Early last century April 7th used to be marked as Founder’s Day, that being the date of Thomas Wheatley’s Gift to the School in 1563. To regard that as the founding of Bablake, however, is a gross simplification of history.
There seems to be some justification for arguing that the School is much older than that. In 1344 Queen Isabella, a widow of Edward II, gave land at ‘Babbelak’ for the building of the original St John’s (or Bablake) Church.
This may well have been an act of expiation for her involvement in her husband’s death. It would seem that both Isabella and Edward were more interested in other men than in each other. It is probable that a ‘college’ was added to the Church at any early date. Certainly the great academic historian A F Leach lists Bablake School as already in existence in 1364. This may have been established on additional land granted by the Black Prince.
The ‘Old’ Bablake School in Hill Street is generally agreed to date from very early in the sixteenth century. It is thought that the School was suppressed under the Chantries Act in 1548. Certainly in 1560 it was reopened by the City with forty-one boys in attendance. The School was mostly dependent on charitable gifts until 1563, when Thomas Wheatley, who had been Mayor of Coventry in 1556, endowed it with much of his estate. The story of what prompted him to do so is an extraordinary one. Wheatley had ordered some steel wedges from Spain. He received by mistake in their place a chest of silver ingots. Being an honourable man and unable to discover to whom this cargo rightly belonged, Wheatley decided not to profit from the mistake himself but to give to the needy. The School of this time committed itself to giving free board, clothing and education to poor boys who were to become apprentices.
Very little is known of the progress of Bablake in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Throughout this time the boys would have worn the traditional ‘Blue Coat’ uniform: a long tunic of dark blue cloth, with a leather girdle, yellow petticoat, yellow stockings, low buckled shoes, linen collar with bands, round black worsted cap with yellow tassel.
It is said that early in the nineteenth century the School had declined to just one boy. From 1824 to 1870, under the mastership of Henry Mander, it began to flourish. Mander was allowed to take additional private pupils.
The teaching was mostly of reading, writing and arithmetic, along with the study of the Bible. Examples survive of the magnificent penmanship over which the boys must have laboured for many hours. In 1833 a new Schoolroom (now the headquarters of the Coventry School Former Pupils’ Association) and house for the Master were added. Two years later, after much mismanagement and extravagant spending, administration of the charities was removed from the Corporation, and Bablake came under the control of the General Charity Trustees. At this time there were twenty boys in the School. In 1855 this increased to seventy, boys having one year as day pupils and a second year as boarders. Even under the great F W Humberstone, who took over as Headmaster in 1870, Bablake boys were largely confined to the premises and a most monotonous routine.
Much thought was being given around this time to how Bablake’s place in the local educational scene might be rationalised. One idea was that it might become a form of ‘middle’ school between the Coventry Elementary Schools and the Grammar School (King Henry VIII). Not until 1886, though, was a new governing scheme drawn up. By 1900 Bablake was to be amalgamated with three other local schools: Baker, Billing and Crow’s School (Black Gift), Katherine Bayley’s Charity School (Blue Gift) and Fairfax Charity School (Green Gift). In 1890 the new school was opened on the present site as what we would now call a technical school. A few boys started to go on to study for University degrees.
Between 1911 and 1936 the School grew rapidly in numbers, until it reached about 550. This was the time of its development into a Grammar School. In 1922 the Governors chose the Direct Grant System of funding.
By the early thirties the School had bought more than fifty acres of land at Hollyfast Road and hoped to move to that site either the whole School or at least the boarding accommodation.
From 1937 Mr E A Seaborne brought to Bablake a very strict system of discipline and many new ideas. The Second World War presented him with many difficulties. The School was not allowed to open until the air raid trenches were complete, so that a tutorial system came into operation. In November 1940 the brand new library was destroyed by bombing and the shelters were also hit.
The School was requisitioned as a hostel for building labourers and the decision was taken to evacuate Bablake to Lincoln. Here it stayed until the Summer of 1943.
The return to Coventry marked the end of the boarding system. In 1945 the Labour Government withdrew the Direct Grant and the School opted to go independent. The Headmaster became a member of the Headmasters’ Conference. The years until the restoration of the Direct Grant in 1957 were to be difficult ones financially, though the Local Authoirty went on paying for many boys to come to Bablake. The late fifties were a time of further rapid increases in numbers.
Mr E H Burrough’s headmastership, from 1962 to 1977, was marked by much building and by a determined attempt to create in the School a more liberal and relaxed atmosphere.
This was aided by the admission of girls, from 1975. Around this time, too, it became apparent that neither the Direct Grant System nor the supply of pupils via the local authority would continue. The Governors decided to amalgamate with King Henry VIII School to form Coventry School with Mr R Cook as Director of the two schools.
Under the Headships of Mr M W Barker, 1977-1991, Dr S Nuttall, 1991-2006 and Mr J W Watson, 2006- present, the School has continued to flourish. Bablake is represented at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, academic results are exceptional and many departments are broadening their students' experiences with extra opportunities and regular trips at home and abroad.
Bablake has occupied its current home since 1890. The main impressive Victorian building has been constantly upgraded and improved, as we seek to provide excellent and modern facilities to support our pupils' education. Additions and improvements have included a Languages Block (with multi-media language laboratory), a Junior School, an English, Drama and Music Block (including studio theatre), new Science Laboratories, complete refurbishment of the Sports Centre and netball/ tennis courts, a Library extension and a Memorial Garden. In addition to onsite sports facilities, there is a pavilion and 40 acres of playing fields about one mile away from the school.
You may be interested in watching 2 videos produced by Mark Birtles in 1984, for a buildings appeal, to see how the site has developed: view part 1 and part 2. For those who attended Bablake since the advent of the EDM, Junior School, turning circle et al, the videos will be most enlightening too.