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History of Derwent Lodge

What is now a buzzing girls’ prep school started out as a residential nursery for children 0 - 5yrs at Court Royal, Eridge Road, Tunbridge Wells. We believe this nursery started in the 1930/40s (the building is still there!). It was founded and run by the Honourable Helen Gully (born 18.03.1914), whose father was speaker in the House of Commons. Miss Gully remained a single lady, but adopted a baby girl, Fawzia.

During the war, the nursery also took in some evacuees. In October 1948, Miss Gully bought and renovated a house called Derwent Lodge in Lansdowne Road, Tunbridge Wells. The nursery transferred to Derwent Lodge on 1st December 1948, in time for Christmas! About 12 children transferred, including a few remaining evacuees and baby Fawzia. One of the trained nurses who transferred across was Edith Richmond, who became a life-long friend of Miss Gully.

By the early 1950s, parents were voicing their opinion about not wanting their children to leave DL, and couldn’t Miss Gully keep them and teach them? So, persuaded by parents, she opened Derwent Lodge as a school, increasing the classes and staff a year at a time. Thus, Derwent Lodge became a day school. Such schools were known then as ‘Dame Schools’ because Miss Gully, as Head, had no formal teaching qualifications.

As the school grew, so did the need for extra space, and additions were made to the building as required. A first-floor extension on iron legs came first, followed by a detached annexe for the youngest children.

The class names were rather different at that time:

  • 4-5yr olds (Reception) were called Juniors 
  • Year 1 were called Lower Transition
  • Year 2 …… Transition
  • Year 3 …… Intermediate
  • Year 4 …… Remove
  • Year 5 …… Lower Seniors
  • Year 6 …… Upper Seniors

From Juniors to Transition was mixed; then the boys went on to Yardley Court, Holmewood House, or other local private schools, while the girls stayed on at DL of course.

The winter uniform comprised a pale blue shirt and royal blue tie, brown pleated skirt, beige ‘v’ neck jumper, brown knickers, and blue felt hats for the girls.

The boys had brown corduroy shorts and blue caps. They all wore camel coloured duffle coats and long beige socks. Summer uniform was originally a blue dress with diagonal white lines, making diamond shapes. It was replaced by the same dress as you have now when the material was no longer available (this was just as Mrs Fuller and Mrs York arrived at the school). The dress was worn with a beige cardigan, straw panama hat, brown sandals and white socks; the boys had lightweight brown shorts and also brown sandals. The blazer was the same as it is today.

The badge was a simple silver/white circle with interlocked DL in the middle on blue background. The blue wasn’t royal blue, but ‘French navy’.

As well as teaching staff, DL had a Matron and an Assistant Matron who looked after the children during the 1½ hour lunch break and the two ½ hour playtime breaks. Cook and Assistant Cook prepared the food, and the children filed past a tiny serving hatch in the basement rooms to get their lunch. Often they would say, for example, ‘small potatoes … small peas … ‘dorit’ pie please’. ‘Dorit’ actually meant ‘adore it’ … but over the years had become ‘dorit’!!

The school grew until there were between 80 – 100 children. It thrived throughout the 50’s – 70’s. By the time the 80’s arrived, Miss Gully was well past retirement age but still going strong! Edith still kept in touch and knew that her friend’s health was not as good as it had been. Edith had a niece who was a teacher, so she suggested to her that she might ‘take over’ the school when Miss Gully retired.

The niece was Mrs Fuller, who was teaching at Bennett Memorial School in Tunbridge Wells (each year, some girls would go on to Bennett from DL). She approached her good friend Mrs York, suggesting that together, they could run DL. Mrs York replied, ‘We’ll give it a whirl!’, words remembered often in the following years!! So, in 1986, a letter was sent to Miss Gully asking that if ever she decided to retire, would she consider allowing them to take over the school. They got a reply, which said that if ever she did retire, she would be very happy to consider them. It wasn’t many months later that she contacted them again and things were put into action. Papers were officially signed in Spring Term 1988; subsequently the announcement was made to staff and the parents. At that point there were fewer than 100 pupils (as some parents had feared Miss Gully would close the school completely and had already ‘jumped ship’).

The summer was spent giving the school a complete make-over ready for opening under the new Head, Mrs York, with Mrs Fuller acting as Bursar. It was decided to open a nursery for younger children, and also to extend the care before and after school to cater for families where both parents worked. In fact, DL was the first school in the area to offer 8am – 6pm ‘wraparound’ care because Mrs York and Mrs Fuller could see this was what working parents needed. All the staff stayed, and one family who had ‘jumped ship’ returned within two terms!! When they first took over, the Matron asked Mrs York which would be her ‘afternoon off’ to have her hair done… Alas, it was so busy that this was never a possibility. The nearest they got was to have one single afternoon to treat themselves to a spa and sauna!

Mrs York and Mrs Fuller inherited some traditions that they really didn’t understand. All the children had wellington boots at school and a decision about whether it was to be boots or shoes worn at playtime was determined by the shade of grey of the playground. On the first day after Mrs York became head, one of the children came to her office to ask if it was ‘blue jumpers’. When she asked what that meant, the girl explained that she needed to know if the children had got to put on their blue jumpers for break (these were like the Yardley Court grey Eton-collar jumpers). Mrs York’s reply was, ‘Well, is it cold outside or not?’!

A new badge was designed about four years after the take-over. The silver/white circle was made bigger and divided into three. The original interlocked DL was kept as a memory of Miss Gully as she had designed it. In another third was a badger, to represent where Mrs York and Mrs Fuller met (and first discussed the take-over). The badger was, and still is, part of the Bennett badge, as badgers breed on the land at the school. Badgers, once they grip something, tend to hold on fast and don’t let go. The Founder of Bennett also chose the school's motto, Semper Tenax, believing the school would always hold on fast to the Christian values she had founded it to teach. Mrs Fuller and Mrs York felt it fitting for the badger to represent this in the DL badge too. Hence today, the badger represents tenacity. In the last third of the badge were two oast houses, represented the heritage of the surrounding countryside, where hop growing was an important part of the agricultural activity in years gone by. Finally, in the centre was a rose. It is a design which is called the ‘York rose’ … obviously for the Head teacher, Mrs York.

As Derwent Lodge was within the town centre, space was lacking. Rooms that were previously Miss Gully’s living rooms had already been converted to classrooms, but within a short space of time, these too were being filled to the brim. Tennis lessons were held in the Calverley Grounds, with kind permission from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, which was then persuaded to mark them out for netball courts for the winter. Games lessons were held at Hawkenbury and then St George’s School, Pembury Road. Swimming was at the TWBC pool, gym was at Tunbridge Wells Gym Club. Transporting the children to all these various venues needed double-decker buses.

Mrs York and Mrs Fuller continually looked out for extra space. It was at a meeting held at Yardley Court that it was mentioned by Mrs York: “You’ve got such a lot of space, and we have so little, and all these pupils…!!!”

So, after many secret meetings and the necessary arrangements being made (somewhat covertly), DL transferred to Somerhill in September 1993. A commemorative mug was presented to staff and children as they left Lansdowne Road.

The younger children joined in with the Pre-Prep, which was then called ‘Bickies’ after Michael Bickmore who founded Yardley Court. Mrs Fuller became the Deputy Head of Bickies. The older girls had a wing of the mansion to themselves, in what had been the Yardley boarding bedrooms, and Mrs York remained the Head. She had 50 girls in her prep school.

Bearing in mind the features of the DL school badge, it was amazing to Mrs York and Mrs Fuller that when they arrived at Somerhill and looked up at the salon ceiling, they saw hops in the pattern, and when they looked out of the salon window over the parkland, they saw two oast houses nestling in the Kent countryside! It seemed that it was meant to be …

Things didn’t stay still. In the second term at Somerhill, it was discovered that Fosse Bank School for Girls (Tonbridge) was closing. Derwent Lodge offered to take the girls and so they joined us after Easter in 1994, even though the Year Six cohort was at DL for just one term.

Numbers grew until each year group was too big for one class. To start with, they were split just for the core subjects (Maths, English and Science). Then, as more girls joined and there were enough pupils to make it viable, it was decided to go to two forms all through.

There was a major reunion at Somerhill in 2002 for DL’s 50th anniversary. This was an occasion for another commemorative mug. All possible former pupils and staff were contacted and invited. The story was featured, along with a photograph, in The Courier.

It was decided that Mrs York would retire at Christmas in 2003 because the 11+ was due to be over for that year and it would give the new Head, Mrs Ellen Hill, two terms to ‘get to grips’ with Year 5 ready for their moves to secondary schools. As it happened, Kent Education Committee decided to move the 11+ tests to January, giving Mrs Hill just a couple of weeks to get into the swing of things! Mrs Hill was Head at Derwent Lodge for five years, until Mrs Sam Michau took over in January 2009.

Derwent Lodge today is a fabulously vibrant, happy school. Mrs York’s ‘Let’s give it a whirl!’ approach is now represented in the school ethos as ‘Have a go, or you’ll never know’. Everyone in our school is proud to be part of a very special community in these beautiful surroundings.

‘Long Live Derwent Lodge!’

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About the Schools at Somerhill

Welcome to The Schools at Somerhill. A unique family setting of three outstanding schools sharing one stunningly beautiful site.