Westbourne House is a remarkable story of success and survival against the odds.
In 1900 Mr Bibby (of shipping fame) engaged Miss Hare as a governess for his children. He was so impressed by her ability as a teacher and her care and devotion to his children that he decided to build a school for her in Folkestone. So on 24 February 1907, he handed her the keys and the deeds of the newly built Westbourne House School. It was a boarding prep school for boys aged six to ten, but this was no ordinary building as it had central heating, a gym and a swimming pool as well as splendid grounds. The boys could have lessons in riding as well as Latin, French and Italian and wore blue sailor suits during the week and white on Sundays. The school was run on scout lines with the head boy being the troop leader and the prefects being patrol leaders and seconds. The number of pupils was 21 and as the parents were among the best known in the land (Field Marshall Haig, Admiral Anson, Duke of Portland etc) they would not have worried that the fees at 50 guineas a term made it probably the most expensive in the country.
The first crisis came in 1915 when Folkestone was under attack from Zeppelins so the entire school was evacuated to Mr Bibby’s estate near Shrewsbury. In the meantime Miss Hare married one of the masters and as Mrs Hilton she continued to run the school on its return to Folkestone until 1932, when she wished to retire. The numbers were now 25 with fees still 50 guineas per term.
As most of the pupils went on to Kingsmead, its Headmaster Douglas Shilcock persuaded his brother Geoff to take over Westbourne House. He decided to turn it into a conventional prep school with boys leaving at 13+. Four or five boys therefore transferred from Kingsmead to Westbourne to become the new prefects. It is interesting to record that the first troop leader of the enlarged school was John Lee who later went on to win the MC and Bar during the war.
Crisis number two arrived in 1938 when war appeared imminent and schools would have to be evacuated from Folkestone. Upcott House near Barnstaple was rented and the school travelled by train to Devon but on arrival was greeted with the news that a peace agreement had been signed in Munich and so they returned to Folkestone. However in 1939 they did move to Upcott House where they remained for six happy years. As the original building in Folkestone had been damaged during the war, it was not practical to return so a search was made for another suitable place.
In 1946 the Shilcocks bought Shopwyke Park which had been requisitioned during the war to become the officers’ mess of RAF Tangmere, and then a hospital and now stood empty. After clearing Nissen huts from the grounds, repairing and repainting the main building, the school moved in 1946.
1950 - 1980
The Shilcocks ran a highly successful and very happy school but by the late 50s they were ready to retire and, unable to find anyone they liked to take over from them, they decided that Westbourne should close at the end of Summer 1961. The 60 acres grounds were probably going to be sold for gravel extraction, all 55 boys had places at other schools and most of the staff had new jobs. It is hard to believe that any school could survive this crisis.
By chance Colin Sharman, at the time a master at Highfield School, heard that Westbourne House was closing, telephoned Geoff Shilcock and arranged an immediate meeting at Shopwyke. In spite of apparently insurmountable difficulties, the Sharmans with the wholehearted support of the Shilcocks agreed to take over the school. Everyone was notified, meetings were arranged and although most of the staff had committed to other schools, the parents were satisfied that as long as Miss Blackman remained they were happy to continue. Miss Blackman (Blacky) subsequently completed 47 years at the school.
The Sharmans brought with them a quite outstanding man in Maurice Ellis, who had just retired as Headmaster of the Mall School, Twickenham, to be head of the academic side. And so with the confidence of youth, the willingness to work every day of the year and perhaps the ignorance of the impossibility of the task before them, this young family turned the ship around. In no time Westbourne’s academic and sporting reputation soared and a comprehensive building programme was started to accommodate the increased numbers and improve the facilities. By 1967 as the numbers had doubled and the school had become so valuable, the Sharmans decided to turn Westbourne into a Charitable Trust so that if anything happened to them the school would continue and any profits could be ploughed back into the school tax free.
1980 to Present Day
In 1987, a co-ed Pre-Prep for 70 pupils was built in the grounds to be run by Jane Morgan.
In 1989 Colin Sharman handed over the headmastership to Stephen Rigby, although Colin remained Chairman of the Governors until 2007. The school continued to develop in size and structure and under the stewardship of Stephen Rigby became co-educational which of course meant doubling the size. In addition great advances were made in the music and art. Stephen moved on in September 2003 and Brendan Law was appointed his successor. Brendan continued Stephen’s good work and the Pre-Prep was dramatically enlarged. When he moved on in Spring 2011 to become Headmaster of Brighton College Abu Dhabi, the school was fortunate enough to have the perfect successor in Martin Barker, who had been Deputy Head for five years.
Children under 14 still need motherly care and the school’s success and survival would not have been possible without the devotion and love of four remarkable ladies: Miss Hare, Miss Blackman, Joan Shilcock and Jen Sharman.
Mr Bibby should be delighted that his philanthropic act over 100 years ago has led to a thriving school of 460 pupils benefitting from a first class education in a beautiful parkland setting.