Prior’s Field School was founded in 1902 by Julia Arnold Huxley. Born in 1862, Julia grew up in an intellectual family. Her father was a literary scholar and her uncle was Matthew Arnold, the celebrated poet. She attended Somerville College, Oxford, at a time when such an education was rare for women. Her husband, Leonard Huxley, also came from a scholarly family – his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley was an eminent biologist associated with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Leonard was an assistant master at Charterhouse School for some years. Julia and Leonard had four children including the author Aldous Huxley and Julian Huxley, who was the first President of the British Humanist Association (now Humanists UK).
Unsurprisingly given their family backgrounds, Julia and Leonard had strong ideas about education. Progressive education theory was in its infancy in the United Kingdom at this time and it seems likely that this was an influence for Julia in her founding of Prior’s Field School for girls. There is scant information about Julia’s early strategy for the school, but some insights can be gleaned from materials published by the school’s archive. Among these are several reports of school activities and memories submitted by former pupils. In a departure from the rigid educational structures of the time, such as rote learning, the pupils at Prior’s Field were encouraged to engage in debate and apply critical thinking, whilst studying art, history, drama, music, football and cricket. A degree of freedom unusual for the time was afforded. One former pupil described being allowed to go out on bicycles in small groups. Of note was the non-sectarian status of the school. Pupils were not required to attend church.
Another former pupil explained: ‘we were left a good deal alone to make our own society’. Strikingly, many former pupils talk about the gardens and outdoor activities – showing the importance of nature to the school ethos.
Julia died in 1908 and she undoubtedly profoundly influenced the direction of the school in its long history. Subsequent headmistresses Ethel Burton-Brown and her daughter Beatrice Burton-Brown, strongly believed in the founding principles of the school. For the school’s magazine, following Julia Huxley’s death, Burton-Brown wrote:
Seven years ago she founded our School, and throughout that time she has been its unfailing guide and its daily inspiration. Its spirit is her spirit, and will be her monument forever. She will live on in all our hearts, which will always be full of love for her.
We have something left to do for her sake—to work at Prior’s Field and in the world outside, so that the traditions which she planted and loved so much may grow and flourish, and that her ideal for us may be realized, that we should live by admiration of all that is good and great, by ‘the unconquerable hope’, and by love to one another.Ethel Burton-Brown, 1908
Today, Prior’s Field School continues to flourish and Julia Arnold Huxley is still fondly celebrated by the school’s staff and students.
By Jo Ireland