St George’s Day, 1830. Flag-bearing locals gathered on the foreboding grounds of Hango Hill. This ancient place of execution would, on this occasion, act as host for an act of birth rather than a blood-ridden massacre. The masses were understandably disappointed at the lack of unruly violence in which to froth at wildly but, equally, there was very little to do. So, on they went. Once the morning’s entertainment of gawping mad-eyed at “the braying of the donkey” was over, they gathered to whoop unironically at the laying of the foundation stone. Under a glistening spring sun, the febrile throng cheered with rapturous delight as Lieutenant Governor – the delightfully monikered Cornelius Smelt, laid the first stone down for what would become King William’s College.
Yes, you read that correctly. Thousands of people lost their minds over the sight of a stone in a field. It was like Glastonbury without the drugs and music. In everyone’s defence, there wasn’t much on the telly that night – as that didn’t exist yet (Take your time, John Logie Baird. We’ve got all day! There’s a bewitching slab of stone keeping the townsfolk riveted!).
It would be 3 years before the college gates opened and a further 164 earthly circlings of the sun until the emergence of Harry the bespectacled Wizard. This would be the moment when the Manx population would make the connection between KWC and Harry’s school of witchcraft and wizardry; its constructional doppelganger – Hogwarts.
The KWC building catches the eye as soon as you drive past Ronaldsway Airport. It is a stately sight, at once imposing and aloof; a bastion to a different era, giving off an almost tangible and otherworldly mystique that, one suspects, plays as big a role in the Hogwarts comparisons as the looming edifice and sprawling grounds.
At the time of the KWC formation in 1833, the Manx school system was its nadir. Peel Grammar School boasted a roaring pupil count of, er, 1 and its master, James Gelling, with unerring prescience considering the location, turned the school into a herring smokery. Such wanton disrespect for the education of the young was not exclusive to Mr Gelling. Rather brilliantly, the Manx Mathematical school became an alehouse, led by an even more dastardly master, James Dodd. Dodd was found by the 19th century equivalent of OFSTED, hiding under a bed, off his face on the butterbeer. It was concluded by the inspector that this was
“the worst conducted charity school perhaps on the face of the earth…the master is a worthless drunkard”.
The idea for an academic school on the Isle of Man was proposed way back in 1668 by two Manx political titans. James Stanley (Seventh Earl of Derby and exception to the rule to never trust a man with two first names) and Isaac Barrow (Bishop of Sodor & Mann. Thomas the Tank has been around for years, mate) conjured up the vision. The foundation Stanley and Barrow initially formed took its sweet ol’ time but after several protracted legal and spectacularly dull wrangles between Dukes, The House of Keys, The Diocese and a series of convoluted trusts designed by men in ludicrous wigs, the need for this school was greater than ever. The Island’s education system was, at this point, a drunken fishmonger’s.
In order to help raise funds for the building, a request was sent to the monarch at the time, King William IV. The King is rumoured to have replied in wonderfully arrogant – and not particularly useful – fashion by stating he would gift something far more valuable than money, that being his name. As such, King’s College became King William’s College. Which is all well and good now but back then, the school needed every shilling that was about. Thanks for nothing, Billy.
The first year welcomed 43 pupils and 3 senior students but even these meagre figures of attendees saw trying times. Running costs were more than double what was projected, investment from the monarchy and the church was not forthcoming and so, the trustees were already forced to mortgage the estates before someone sent the boys round for a knee-capping.
The first principal was Edward Wilson, a mutton-chopped, one-armed miserabilist. Wilson was an idealist in so far as he longed for a school with running water, finished brickwork and free of the stench of decay. “Get your head out of the clouds Wilson, you mad dreamer!” is what his dissenters would crow. Disillusioned by the crumbling, grossly underfunded building, Wilson did lay the groundwork for a liberal curriculum including, somewhat radically for the time, languages and literature as well as introducing free tuition for academic scholars. He retired after losing his arm in a carriage accident. Which may be the most 19th-century sentence ever written.
After a period of stability under the stewardship of Alfred Phillips and then Robert Dixon, disaster struck for KWC. On14 January 1844, a great and devastating fire broke out forcing all boarders, resident masters and domestic staff to evacuate. A baby rescued from the blaze was Principal Nixon’s daughter, Susan, who later became Headmistress for Castletown High School for Girls (later known as The Buchan School). Wonderfully named local paper, The Pictorial Times gave an eyewitness account:
“In about three-quarters of an hour after the fire was first discovered, the whole of the west wing of the College was in one blaze…in a very few minutes after the first fire seized upon The Tower, the flames were seen running up to the very top, burning away the stairs and flooring”
A trustees enquiry was inconclusive as to the cause of the fire. This blistering inferno decimated the building, destroying the College Library in its entirety. A public appeal – much like Comic Relief but without millionaire celebrities asking the poor to empty out their life savings – was launched.
How did the appeal go? Would the Royals or the clergy reach into their coffers and help the battered and bruised KWC? Find out in Part 2 of History of Hogwart’s…