The idea of an academic school for the Isle of Man was shared by two of its greatest political leaders of the seventeenth century, James Stanley, seventh Earl of Derby, and Isaac Barrow, Bishop of Sodor and Man.
In 1668 Barrow turned his dream into a foundation to support the education of young men at Trinity College, Dublin, or at an academic school on the Island. More than 150 years later Bishop William Ward joined forces with Lieutenant Governor Cornelius Smelt and the Keys to build a day and boarding school, funded by Bishop Barrow’s charity and public subscription, and King William’s College opened on 1 August 1833.
The College was the first of the ‘new’ public schools, its mix of day boys and boarders from the Island, all round the Irish Sea and further afield, together with older academic (university) students, constituting an institution unlike any other at its time. Edward Wilson, the first Principal, found the going hard, but he established the structure and ethos of the new school. There were many setbacks, none more challenging than the fire of 1844, but Robert Dixon, the third Principal, set the school back on its feet, helped by fine scholars like T. E. Brown, who returned as a young Vice-Principal and revolutionised the teaching.
By 1870, when the College became a founder member of the Headmasters’ Conference, its achievements were remarkable. Joshua Hughes-Games, Dixon’s successor, developed a modern, liberal curriculum and pioneered new teaching in mathematics, science and technology. Pre-eminent among his students in an academic golden age was the Nobel Prize winner, Sir William Bragg. He was followed by Frank Walters, another Principal of vision and energy, who enriched pastoral care through the development of a modern house system.
The College’s liberal curriculum and down-to-earth teaching suited the mood of the first half of the 20th century; pupils were attracted from across the world and there was much to celebrate at the centenary. Under Sydney Wilson the College weathered the storms of the 1940s, and the academic excellence which he championed was complemented by the pastoral vision of his successor, Geoffrey Rees-Jones, a reformer in the spirit of Frank Walters.
In 1991 a new co-educational day and boarding school was formed when the College amalgamated with its sister foundation, The Buchan School, founded in 1875 by the generosity of Laura, Lady Buchan.
When the College opened Edward Wilson and his five assistants welcomed 46 boys. Today the roll stands at nearly 600, the Common Room has 80 members and the estate which Isaac Barrow let to John Norris for £20 a year in 1668 is valued today at £16.6 million. The ‘ornament to Oxford’ on Hango Hill and the Georgian house at Westhill are modern campuses now, but the heritage of 175 years is not lost. A host of benefactors and friends have fulfilled the vision of Isaac Barrow, Laura, Lady Buchan, James Stanley and William Ward, ‘to fit the children for higher learning . . . oblige the nations round about, get friends in the country, and enrich this land.’
A fascinating book entitled “A Blessing to this Island, The Story of King William’s College and The Buchan School”, was written by Michael Hoy, MBE and published in 2006. It is available from The School Shop.