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Centenary celebrations for St Petroc’s school

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: July 31, 2012

  • Actor and St Petroc's old boy Robert Newton in his most famous role as Long John Silver in Treasure island


I once heard St Petroc's described as "a little school at the end of nowhere". This year it marks its centenary and part of the celebrations have involved discovering what became of past pupils, among whom rank a Hollywood film star, hit singer-song writer, three army generals, three British Olympians, two centenarians, a Cornish Bard, and an SAS commander.

St Petroc's was founded by a Miss Vivian and a Miss Cherrill, who moved from Plymouth to Bude in 1912 with "three dogs, a ham, one pupil and little money in the bank". The first official day of school was September 15, 1912 when the roll was three boarders, two day boys and the three dogs. The school opened in Killerton Road, expanded and moved to Downs View in 1918, and in 1926 relocated to its current site in Ocean View Road.

Yesterday's boarding school with its daily cold baths and canings prepared its pupils to leave at 13 for secondary education at All Hallows, Blundells, Sherborne, Kelly, and others, while today's day school children leave at 11 and mostly stay closer to home at Budehaven and Shebbear, never having seen a cold bath or a cane in their lives.

Arthur Madge celebrated his 104th birthday on July 10 and is the oldest living ex-pupil. He was born in 1908 (seven years after Queen Victoria died) and joined the school in 1916. The Madges are a well-known Bude family who used to farm at Blagdon Farm and later at Ivyleaf. Arthur's sister Joan was an artist who is noted for her paintings of Blenheim Palace, Churchill's funeral and for her north Cornish sea and landscapes. Arthur's and Joan's children all attended St Petroc's.

In the First World War, when Arthur and his school mates walked the cliffs, they would sometimes see German submarines in sheltered inlets which had surfaced to charge their batteries. The submariners were hoping for peace and quiet, but what they got was Arthur and his pals hurling rocks, stones, bricks and anything else they could find down at them. St Petroc's boys were contributing to the war effort.

Cornish Bard and acclaimed poet Roger Venables was a contemporary of Arthur's who died this year, aged 102. Another old boy was Johnny Watts, who joined the army, won the Military Cross in Oman and commanded the SAS before finishing his career as a Lieutenant General and being knighted on his retirement. Walter Walker went from St Petroc's to Blundells and then to the army, fighting on the north-west frontier in the 1930s before leading the Ghurkhas against the Japanese in Burma and later fighting Communists in Malaya. He ended his career as GOC Northern Europe and was also knighted. Lieutenant General Mike Matthews was a pupil in the Second World War and later became the youngest general officer in the army.

Robert Newton was a household name and Hollywood star whose 1950 portrayal of Long John Silver set the benchmark for actors portraying pirates. Newton only reached 50 years of age, but by then he was a megastar of the times and did had married four times.

The actor Sir Rex Harrison sent his son Noel to St Petroc's and he went on to represent Britain at the Winter Olympics in 1952 and 1956. He was also a talented singer-songwriter whose, Windmills Of Your Mind became a worldwide hit in the 1960s.

St Petroc's brothers Jack and Tom Buckner took part in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Jack was competing in the golden era of British middle distance runners and his contemporaries were Coe, Ovett and Cram, which seems just a little unlucky.

Tessa Blackstone, later known in politics as the Red Baroness, taught at the school before going on to run Birkbeck College and in 1977 was Minister of Education.

Must recently, teenager Emily Currie became the English Women's Longboard Champion at Newquay last month – not bad for a "little school at the end of nowhere".

The school's motto is "Fast yn mesk Tonnow", which is Cornish for "Firm among the waves" and this has typified the establishment's survival for 100 years. During this time many small prep schools have gone under, but St Petroc's has survived and is thriving.

With a new headmaster, new head of nursery, new early learning centre and a century's worth of history, it looks as if St Petroc's has a fair chance of still being "firm among the waves" in another 100 years.

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