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In 1832 the Reverend Henry Venn Elliott issued a prospectus for a school for the Daughters of the Clergy. The projected school would create 'a nursery for the governesses of the higher and middle classes'. It was to be an all boarding school and was to be funded so that fees could be set at £20 per annum with patrons being able fully or partly to sponsor a girl if they wished. The foundation stone was laid on 21 April 1834. George Basevi (later to become well known through the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge) was the architect. By the end of the first year there were 35 girls in the school.
In 1865 the founder of the school died, evidently much loved and much missed by all accounts. His wife, Julia Marshall, who had died twenty-four years earlier had also played a supportive role in the foundation of the school.
Down the decades St Mary's Hall survived various vicissitudes including not only the two world wars and the Great Storm of 1987, but also the hurricane of 1836 which caused great damage to the roof of the school (this was the same storm which badly damaged the old Chain Pier in Brighton, which had been painted by John Constable). During the Second World War the school was taken over by the British and Canadian armed forces, as was the case with Roedean.
In 1986 St Mary's Hall celebrated its 150th Anniversary.
The school in 1986 occupied a secure niche in the local educational scene. It did not aspire to put examination results before everything else, but it did its best to ensure that its pupils gained the qualifications they needed with consistent success. It accepted girls of all faiths or none, but made it clear that it was an Anglican foundation and that the values of the founders were still the values of the school in the 1980s. Since the nineteenth century the school had, had many international links and welcomed pupils from many different countries. Its pupils often lived abroad as many married clergymen served in the empire or went to teach or work in the colonies. Its curriculum was rooted in subjects of solid academic worth, and it had high standards in music, drama and the visual arts. Its discipline was based on a sense of responsibility, and the small classes and particular ethos encouraged friendly relations between staff and pupils which nevertheless did not preclude high demands in terms of politeness and academic discipline.
Over the next twenty years, these values continued to hold sway, but times changed. There was a growing competitiveness in private education, and bigger and better-endowed institutions were able to develop facilities and a range of curriculum which smaller schools found difficult. There was a trend in the church in which priests did not send their daughters away to school so much, and there were few clergy daughters and fewer daughters of servicemen and women. The school, like many others, diversified into overseas recruitment as movements in education policy reduced state funding for UK pupils in independent schools. The economic climate of the 1990s was more challenging, and the changing demographic meant that there was more competition for smaller numbers of pupils. Evolving technology provided challenges, too. In 1986 the resources of the classroom were not very far removed from that of 1836, in some ways, with the human factor predominant – integrity, scholarship, books and a shared love of the subject. However, the communications revolution did change education, and parental expectations increased too in terms of what was expected in boarding facilities and in classrooms and laboratories, as well as in sporting facilities and drama. In 1836 ‘marketing’ involved little more than producing a prospectus; by the 1990s ever more sophisticated marketing seemed to be required and provided further competition with other schools.
St Mary’s Hall was always true to its core values and even when in the final years the hard world of financial realties meant that the school was unable to carry on, it served the needs of its pupils in the spirit of its foundations and made sure that the option of carrying on education was available at Roedean, and that the girls who transferred would have familiar staff to help them.
Roedean now honours Revd. Venn's legacy by making financial support available to daughters of the clergy.
At Roedean, we can also offer funding for FCO and Service children on full boarding fees.