400 years old
The Perse School was founded in 1615 by the will of Stephen Perse, M.D., a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. It provided for 100 local boys and was first established in Lorteburn Lane, later called Free School Lane.
The school quickly established its academic credentials, sending a regular flow of scholars to Caius College. Foremost among them was Jeremy Taylor, ‘the Shakespeare of divines’ who, but for the Civil War, might well have become Archbishop of Canterbury after Laud.
During the 18th century, however, the school fell into a long decline. The governors of the school, Caius College, neglected to increase the salaries of the Master and Usher for over a hundred years. Unsurprisingly, men of talent were not attracted, nor were pupils; the posts became sinecures for junior fellows of Caius and the surplus endowment was pocketed by the senior fellows. This torpor and corruption was not uncommon at the time – Harrow and Rugby also nearly closed. Protests in the local paper forced the governors to keep the school open but it took a court case in 1837 to reform the college’s abuse of Perse’s Trust and to put the school back on a proper footing.
A series of more energetic headmasters restored the fortunes of the school during the late 19th century and it moved into new buildings at Gonville Place in 1890. But the school’s income was badly affected by the agricultural depression and consequent low rents from its endowment. In 1902 the establishment of the cheaper Cambridgeshire High School posed a further threat to the Perse’s future.
The situation was saved by the arrival of one of the century’s greatest headmasters, Dr W.H.D. Rouse (1902-28). His experimental teaching methods, notably the Direct Method of teaching foreign languages, attracted attention and talented teachers – Rouse always claimed he never had to look for staff. He built a team of remarkable men, including one of positive genius, Henry Caldwell Cook, initiator of The Play Way, and the Perse established an international reputation in a matter of years.
Rouse also set up a Prep School and two boarding houses. He also secured the ground in Hills Road on which he hoped to build a new school.
Rouse’s successor, H.A. Wootton, was a difficult and unpopular man. Nonetheless the Perse maintained its academic standing and Wootton’s attention to administration and facilities brought much-needed improvements.
In 1945, Stanley Stubbs became Headmaster and took up Rouse’s idea of moving site. This was far-sighted and, given the financial circumstances, a huge achievement, accomplished in 1960.
A direct grant school
The Perse received grants from the government as early as Rouse’s time, in respect of its experimental language teaching. From 1945-1976 it was a Direct Grant school offering free places to some 40% of pupils. Following the government’s attack on such schools and the withdrawal of the grant, the Perse became independent. Thanks to a series of appeals it has enlarged its facilities and provided bursaries.
The Sixth Form became co-educational in 1995 and the school’s move to full co-education was completed in 2012.
Famous alumni include two Nobel Prize winners, several actors, many distinguished academics, a leading Communist and several musicians. Most recent names include Sir Peter Hall, Marius Goring, David Gilmour, The Revd Prof. John Polkinghorne and Sir Arthur Marshall.