Highbury House School and the Duffs

Although many schools put adverts in local newspapers, they nearly always give details of their teachers, and the subjects covered, rather than how much they charged.

By chance I came across an exception. The Sussex Advertiser, 25 July 1865, provided many details for a school at 26 Gensing Station Road (now Kings Road). The school was to open on the 1 August. Boarding fees per term were from 30 guineas, day pupils from 6 guineas.

Its principal, the Rev. Charles Duff, was a ‘student’ of London University. That was a clue that he was not an Anglican. The university was founded in 1836, the first in the world to admit students regardless of gender, race or religion. Non-Anglicans could only obtain a BA from Oxford from 1854, and from Cambridge in 1856. There were still restrictions on for example professorships until 1871. Indeed, the 1861 census shows Duff as an independent minister.

That was in Stebbing, Essex. He was 39, born Scotland, with wife Fanny, 25, born Portsmouth. According to his wife’s obituary they moved to St Leonards for the sake of his health. Sadly, he died late in 1867, age 46.

In the 1881 and 1891 censuses his wife, Fanny Elliott Duff (nee Vardy), was at Highbury House, Church Road, St Leonards. Taking the details of the 1891 census, she was principal of a school for young gentlemen, with twelve assistants, mostly teachers, ten servants, and 94 boarders. The boys were aged mostly nine to sixteen, and sixteen of them were born abroad. The building may have been large but it must still have been crowded !

Fanny died shortly after, on the 28 October 1892, aged 56. She left a sizeable fortune of over £16000. Newspaper mentions related to school reunions say that she was kind to the pupils and also to the poor and sick of the town. There are over one thousand mentions in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer of the school together the name of Duff, mainly reunions and prize-givings. The 5 December 1892 issue has both a florid, if vague, obituary and a detailed account of the funeral at the Warrior Square Presbyterian Church. This includes, uniquely in my experience, the text of the homily by the presiding minister. The named chief mourners left the church in 34 carriages, and the interment was at Hastings Cemetery. 100 pupils were at the graveside.

She was succeeded by her son, John Charles Archibald Duff. The 1891 census lists him at the school as 25, graduate in modern languages from Cambridge, born St Leonards. His obituary is in the 2 December 1933 issue. He had died in South Africa, and was the former Principal of the school. He had ‘disposed’ of the school in 1903 and left for South Africa, where his sister was a teacher, to take a post in Port Elizabeth. Cambridge records tell us that he was involved in education administration.

He had been succeeded as Principal by Joseph Dearden Wilde, who a few years later moved the school to Wykeham Road. These details are from his own obituary in the 12 January 1918 issue.

The newspapers alone would provide enough material for a short book on the school, but in addition the East Sussex Record Office has many issues of the school magazine.




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