Faith, hope and charity

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Catherine Ormell visits a new museum at Christ's Hospital School in Sussex.

School life in previous centuries was an often disagreeable and unpleasant experience. At least this is the impression created by Christ's Hospital School's new museum with its displays of old birches and starchy petticoats, photographs of whey-faced children and beaky matrons.

Leigh Hunt, a pupil between 1791 and 1798 is quoted complaining bitterly about the food: "Breakfast was bread and water for the beer was too bad to drink . . . for dinner we had the same quantity of bread with meat only every other day, and that only consisting of small slices such as would be given to an infant, three or four years old."

The saddest exhibits, however, are the punishment bands. These strips of linen were strapped round the unfortunate child's forehead and bore the legends: "dunce", "a liar", "rudeness and disrespect", "inattention during prayers". One hundred years ago, humiliation was still a fashionable means of disciplining the wicked young.

Christ's Hospital, just two miles from Horsham, has always flaunted its ancient traditions. Visitors today are still transfixed by its ludicrous and antique uniform floor-length blue coats, yellow stockings which has barely changed since Tudor times. What could be more natural than for the school to open its own museum?

The old infirmary, built for Victorian epidemics with an astonishing 80 beds, was officially opened this month as home to an extensive collection of portraits, statues, early photographs and scholastic impedimenta. The exhibition tells the story of the school from its foundation in 1552 when it was one of three hospitals (the word then meant "a place to receive care and sustenance") set up by Edward VI: Christ's for the orphans, St Thomas for the sick and Bridewell for "the beggars and lustie rogues".

It is an unusual story because unlike some other public schools which were also founded to provide a free education, Christ's has remained faithful to the original notion of helping the disadvantaged. Today parents still pay fees according to a means test.

The museum obviously interests its own community, but it also shows a general audience just how much attitudes to the young and education have changed. Unfortunately, it suffers from a rather awkward layout many of the most interesting artefacts are tucked away in the second section and the overall logic of the exhibition is rather broken up by the preservation of three rooms, a nurses' kitchen, isolation ward and bathroom, as they might have looked earlier this century.

However, there are interesting features worth searching out, including a display explaining the setting up of the Royal Mathematical School, set up under the wing of the main school in the 17th century. There are also some fine engravings of old school customs, such as the use of boys during the 18th century to draw the winning ticket in the public lottery.

Artefacts aside, there's a "personality" section boasting eminent past pupils or Old Blues, including fleshy portraits of Coleridge, Lamb, and Pugin, more recently pictures and photographs of Barnes Wallis and Middleton Murry.

Most seem suitably grateful to the institution for giving them their start in life. Indeed, Middleton Murry who was there between 1901 and 1908 says: "With my entry into Christ's Hospital all . . . was subtly changed. From disinherited, I became an inheritor, I was received into a tradition, and knew the meaning of solidarity; suddenly, I, the spiritual waif of modern industrial society, was endowed with ancestors and noble ones, named and nameless. "

Christ's Hospital School Museum, Christ's Hospital School, Horsham. Tel: 0403 211293. Open Thursday afternoons in term from November 3 and by special arrangement. Admission Pounds 1.

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