The Changing Role of an Island Home
By D J Escott
SITUATED TO THE EAST OF RYDE, on a hillside overlooking the Solent, with commanding views across to Portsmouth, is a large Victorian house built in the 'Osborne' tradition, with a lofty tower, balustrading, constructed of mellow Island stone, and set in beautiful grounds.
'Little Appley' has had an interesting and distinguished history, first as a gentleman's residence in the mid-Victorian period, and then, for over 70 years, as a boys' preparatory school. For the past six years it has belonged to Portsmouth College of Education, providing a base for student teachers learning their craft in Island schools, or undertaking field study courses on the Isle of Wight.
Although a farm cottage known as 'Little Appley' existed somewhere on the present site at least as far back as 1760 (and was shown on John Andrews' 1769 map of the Island), the present house was constructed between 1853 and 1856. In 1851, Robert Yelf, wine merchant of Ryde, took advantage of the building leases then being offered on prime sites along Appley road by Sir Richard Godin Simeon of St John's. This was shortly aftar Queen Victoria and her consort had built their retreat at Osborne, and at a time when the Island was, thereby, becoming increasingly popular. Ryde itself was beginning to develop, and grand town houses and villas were proliferating.
Robert Yelf leased from Simeon 14 acres of land at Appley, extending from Appley road northwards to the sea. This new 'estate' was bounded on the west by Appley Towers and on the east by St Clare's. The lease to Yelf was confirmed in a 'Building lease for 1000 Years' of 1852, which obliged Yelf to erect, within four years, upon the site 'a substantial building to the value of two thousand pounds'. When this was built, Yelf called it 'Sturbridge House', as the name 'Little Appley' was applied to the cottage. Yelf appears to have occupied the house for the next twenty years, but in 1874 sold it to Sir William Hutt, KCB. Hutt was already the owner of Appley Towers, the imposing residence next door, which was pulled down in the early 1960's to provide the site of the present Appley Park housing estate.
Sir William Hutt was a member of a family which had considerable local connections, having earlier in the century inherited Appley House (St Cecilia's Abbey-. Hutt now seemed to be buying up a lot of property in the Appley area, though he paid handsomely to do so. For example, he bought the lease and the buildings of 'Sturbridge House', which he then renamed 'Little Appley', from Yelf for £1 1,900, but continued to pay annual rent of £1 04 to the Simeons. In 1877, Sir William bought the freehold for a further £2,800. Thus, he had paid something in the order of £15,000 for a property which (including construction and 20 years lease) had cost Yelf perhaps £5,000. It has not been possible to establish just what Hutt did with Little Appley between its purchase in 1874 and 1882, though it has been suggested that he had a considerable number of unmarried female relatives, and that he bought Little Appley to provide a suitable home for them.
However, it has been discovered that the house was leased from 1882 to 1890 to Captain, later Colonel, Howard-Brook of the Hampshire Regiment. He married Alice Ridley of The Castle, St Helens, and was prominent in Island golfing and hunting circles.
From 1890, the house was leased to John Henry Glynn Oglander who, in 1894, inherited Nunwell, and presumably terminated his lease of Little Appley. Again, it has not been possible to trace the occupancy from 1894 to 1897.
In 1897, the house was leased by the Hutt Estate to Richard W Philpott, then a schoolmaster at St Dunstan's, Catford. He prevailed upon a colleague, Charles Pugh, to join him, and the two opened Little Appley Preparatory School in October 1897 with one pupil — though they ended the term with four. Charles Pugh later described this period:
'Little Appley School was founded in the year 189Z That was the year of the Diamond Jubilee, and Queen Victoria had still four years to reign. Gladstone was still alive; WG Grace was still playing cricket; the Boer war... had not yet been fought; no one had seen a free-wheel bicycle, an aeroplane, a practicable motor, nor had anyone conceived of wireless; and it was still the fashion to wear a top hat and frock coat to Church. Such was the year of Little Appley's birth.'
These two experienced schoolmasters and scholars soon established Little Appley on a basis of sound scholarship and character-building, allied with sympathetic concern for the boys in their care. By 1906, the school was a thriving community of around thirty boys. The range of subjects studied included English, history, geography, Latin, Greek, French, scripture, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, music, gymnastics, drill, games and carpentry. From its earliest days, Little Appley School enjoyed a remarkable health record, ascribed in no small measure to its salubrious situation. Stress was also placed on manual work, acting, music and swimming instruction. Extra curricular activities were numerous — butterfly hunts, excursions, scouts, air rifle club, the building of tree huts and the keeping of pets.
In 1903, the Royal Naval College was established at Osborne, and from its inception had a particularly close relationship with Appley School:
...their opening Football match was with Little Appley. I remember telling our team that they must do great things on so honourable occasion, as the Princess was sure to be present Later on Mr Webber (one of the staff) entertained the present Duke of York to bathe at Seaview, where he ducked the Cadet Prince ('I couldn't resist it', he said) and afterwards gave him tea in his rooms at Elmfield.' (Charles Pugh, 1920).
Little Appley School had a most remarkable record of service in the first world war. Of 81 'old boys' of military age (and the eldest were barely 30 years), 76 are known to have served in the armed forces. Sixteen died on active service, and, between them, Appley 'old boys' won two Victoria Crosses, two DSO's, eight MCs (including two with Bars), two OBEs and one Military Medal and three Croix de Guerre. Perhaps a story told of Lt G R Dallas Moor, VC, MC and Bar, of the Hampshire Regiment is worth repeating. This concerns an incident which happened whilst he was in charge of a bombing class. The 'School Notes' relate:
'One of his men, after pulling the safety catch, dropped a live bomb in the trench. Dallas Moor picked it up and flung it away; but before doing so he found time to kick the man for dropping it!'
Dallas Moor won his VC in the Dardanelles before his eighteenth birthday, but died of pneumonia two weeks before the end of the war. Pugh retired through ill-health in 1920, but Philpott continued to serve the school for a total of 32 years, retiring in 1929. He was succeeded by William Donovan Johnston, who had been on the staff (with a break for war service) since 1911. Johnston left in 1933, on becoming Head of Lower School at Cheltenham College. He was succeeded by the Rev CE Squire, who had had a distinguished career as principal of various colleges in India and Africa, but who retired in 1938, to be followed by the fourth and last headmaster in the school's history.
Kenneth Mitcheson was a man of some educational vision, though 1938 was not a good year to take over a prep school in the south of England. He encouraged the keeping of pets, and gave every boy in the school some minor post of responsibility, which he was expected to fill responsibly and well. He abolished individual prizes and encouraged corporate activities, introduced 'setting' for maths and English, discouraged 'cramming', and, as a result of a pupils' referendum, abolished 'slavery' (bells and prefects), substituting 'freedom' (doing the right thing because it needs to be done). Many of the ideas Mitcheson introduced to Little Appley have become current educational practice — though others were so ahead of their time, they have yet to be implemented generally.
During the period 1940-42, after invasion scares and a plane crash on the adjacent playing field, the school evacuated to Malvern. But they were soon back on the Island, and after the war the school rapidly grew in strength, reaching a maximum of 74 boys. In 1948, Kenneth Mitcheson was joined by his twin, Philip (Lt Col PS Mitcheson, DSO, OBE) on his retirement from the Indian Army.
The school continued to develop under the joint headship of the brothers. In 1958 it was inspected by the Ministry of Education, who published a very favourable report, and particularly commended the headmaster:
'The Headmaster knows his school intimately, is a capable teacher and has impressed his own friendly and diligent personality on staff and pupils alike; his wholehearted devotion to the school is most marked'
However, Kenneth Mitcheson's health, after years of devoted service, began to deteriorate, and with increasing financial and Government pressures on the private sector, the school closed down in December 1966. Bishop Roberts of Ely (father of two former Appley pupils) paid a generous valedictory tribute to the brothers:
'.....what distinctive qualities it (the school) had was due to the headmaster's imagination and generosity the air of independence of Little Appley. The Island had a distinctive educational system second to none, and Little Appley had made its contribution, and had been a part of Island life. The Island owed a considerable debt to the Mitcheson brothers'.
Kenneth Mitcheson retired to Merstone where, sadly, he died in 1973. His brother, who lives in Ryde, remains active in Island life.
Since the closure of the school, the playing field has been purchased by the IWCC but the house and grounds have passed to the City of Portsmouth College of Education, where it continues to offer, as it has done for so long, an experience in gracious living in a small and intimate community to present and future generations of children, students and teachers.