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Farlington: School Celebrates 125 Years

The Farlington courtyard hasn’t changed much over the years (©AAH/Alan Wright)

Published on 1st December 2021...

Farlington School celebrates its 125-year anniversary this year and its third as a co-educational school. The arrival of the first boys in 2018 was followed this September by the first Headmaster, James Passam, after 11 Headmistresses dating back to 1896. As its 125th year draws to an end, we look back through the archives and trace the school’s journey, speaking to former pupils and staff, and the new Headmaster on its future as a co-educational school…


Farlington’s story could have been very different, were it not for a typhoid epidemic in the late 19th century. Edith Buller had been Head English Mistress at a girls’ school in London for 12 years when she decided to start her own school. Her sister Mary agreed to join as housekeeper and in 1892 they moved into Underdown in Mill Road, West Worthing. However, after a year, the school’s development was interrupted by typhoid, which claimed many lives in the town.The Bullers sought a new location, eventually renting Norton Lees in Oathall Road, Haywards Heath. Then in March 1896, pupils moved to a specially built school across the road. The landlord and builder was J Longley, who also built Christ’s Hospital. The new school was called Farlington House, after a village near Portsmouth where the Bullers’ parents were buried, and there was a strong emphasis on Christian teaching for a maximum of 16 girls. 

Edith fell ill in 1898 and having been given only months to live, sought someone to take over, with Mary not wanting to take on sole responsibility. After replying to an advert, it was Isabel and Charlotte Moberley who would lead the school into the 20th century. Their father was Headmaster at Winchester College, so although the Moberley sisters had no formal training, they had grown up surrounded by education. Isabel proved to be an excellent teacher, especially in English literature, and both could write in a lively and well-informed way. They were very religious and strongly influenced by the Oxford Movement, which emphasised the importance of worship. But they kept hot rolls for breakfast on Mondays and allowed girls an orange at break time to ward off infections. They also introduced a play at Christmas and a break-up supper. 

During the next 15 years, the school expanded with a three-storey wing, dining room and a sanatorium. Another house on Oathall Road was adapted by Longley and used as a junior department, Little Farlington. As well as religion, the “polite accomplishments” were taught, namely drawing, painting, music, needlework, recitation and amateur dramatics. Deportment was also important with girls taught good posture and how to make conversation with adults, as well as elocution, personal neatness and good handwriting. Although visiting tutors taught rudimentary maths, Latin and history, no science was taught as the school made no pretence of being academic. Instead, the aim was “tone” and how to be “ladylike.” 

Discipline reflected the emphasis on character building and any transgression was seen as letting down Miss Isabel personally. Most evenings were devoted to needlework, and Charlotte (known as Tina) would read to the girls. Girls played hockey and tennis in summer, although not against other schools, and the lucky ones would even ride horses. Occasionally, there were outings on the train to the seaside, and the break-up supper dance was always a grand affair. But there were no boys, as Farlington remained genteel and old-fashioned; the very essence of Edwardian England. Until war shattered that calm…


As with the rest of the population, there was a longing to help the war effort. The Farlington Volunteer Service Corps was formed in 1915 and received drill from a Sergeant Major in the Royal Sussex Regiment. Much effort was put into knitting socks, mittens and mufflers for men at the front and for Red Cross hospitals, while the garden provided vegetables for the Navy. 

But the girls had to content with rationing and little heating during the winter. There was always a risk of disease too with epidemics of mumps, influenza and German measles. In 1918, many staff and all but four girls were laid low, with the classroom becoming a ward. More became ill in 1919 and the school suffered the tragic loss of two girls. War caused changes to lessons too. Popular German teacher Fraulein Gunther returned home for a holiday shortly before the war and never returned. And with “finishing” abroad no longer possible, domestic economy classes were held instead, including cookery, dressmaking, first-aid and simple nursing. 

The armistice was celebrated by the ringing of every bell and an evening dance. By this time, Tina’s health was deteriorating, but she continued to contribute letters to the school magazine for many years. In 1918, she noted how the role of women in the war was changing perceptions. ‘This new world that we all hope for is going to open many possible doors of useful work to women of all classes. I take it for granted that most girls will wish for work of some kind, as if this war has taught us anything it is to realise the value of work well done.’


The lease on Farlington House was renewed in 1925, allowing for more improvements. Gordon House next door was bought to become the new Little Farlington and a new gym was built, with the old one transformed into a larger chapel. But some girls found the religious aspects overbearing and the school’s Victorian values were becoming old-fashioned. When Brunswick, a nearby boys’ prep school, offered the use of its swimming pool, Isabel resisted, concerned that boys might see her girls in their swimsuits! And when girls secretly organised a midnight feast, Isabel became suspicious about the number of parcels being delivered and watched them all being unwrapped. The sweets were given to a local hospital instead!

However, Isabel reflected on changes in society and brought in new teachers to introduce a new educational impetus. And when Tina died in 1936, Isabel decided to move on, having been at Farlington for 40 years. But once again, war was looming…


In September 1938, the school started taking precautions. Blackout curtains were made for 150 windows and the sanatorium provided a gas-proof refuge, while preparations for trench safety were undertaken with Brunswick. Although the school shrank when Little Farlington was requisitioned as a Red Cross hospital supply depot, school life continued for the 30 senior girls, 13 juniors and by now a kindergarten too. Evenings were spent knitting socks for seamen or making Wellies for bargees. The girls witnessed numerous dogfights and bombers passing over in the skies above, but only took to the shelter when the big school bell was rung, trooping down to the basement with gas marks.

In 1941, for the first time, Farlington included boys on its roll of “Tinies”. The following year, they joined the rest of the school in forming a guard of honour for the Duchess of Gloucester when she visited the supply depot, in Isabel’s last term as Headmistress. Isabel died in 1959, aged 83. She never married but said, “I must have one of the biggest families in England,” referring to her old girls. A stained glass window designed by Marguerite Douglas-Thompson, who taught art at the school, serves as a lasting memorial. 

New Headmistress Effie Simpson introduced a house system and adopted a modified Dalton system of teaching, a self-help method of learning used in the junior school to encourage girls to work independently and with greater concentration. And in 1948, the houses were named after women pioneers: Cable, Cavell, Curie, Nightingale and Brontë. Eventually, the school settled on the first three names and a fourth, Cheshire, was added later. 

The number of pupils steadily increased. There were 105 in 1945 and 120 by 1948, with new facilities including a library, common room, playroom and a classroom fitted out for science lessons. An official inspection was granted in 1948, leading to recognition as an independent school. But a bigger site was required for the school to develop further, so Effie decided to move Farlington when the lease expired. 


Farlington moved to Strood Park during the Christmas holiday of 1954/55. Not all the rooms were ready, so some lessons were initially taught in strange places, including piano on the landing. The gym’s completion in the summer of 1955 marked the end of building works, but the site remained muddy, with Sussex Weald clay getting everywhere. In the school’s 60th year in 1956, an appeal for an outdoor swimming pool was launched, with the pool opened a year later. The old Haywards Heath site was eventually demolished with residential streets Farlington Close and Farlington Avenue a reminder of its existence.

Rosie Aneja followed in her mother and sister’s footsteps by attending Farlington (1990 – 1995) and they shared memories. Rosie’s late mother, Anne Cundy-Cooper, joined Farlington shortly before her parents separated. When she told Simmie (as Miss Simpson was known) that she could no longer afford the fees, Simmie allowed her to stay and pay whatever she could afford. Rosie says: “Mum was always grateful for her generosity and felt she owed the school a debt of gratitude. Mum described Simmie as the most wonderful woman. She said that in winter, the girls would play on the frozen lake behind the school. Simmie would walk out into the middle and if the ice took her weight, the girls could go on. They were less health and safety-conscious times!”

The 1960s were a transitional period for girls’ education. Farlington pupils took several subjects at O-level and many then went to finishing school abroad or into some other form of training. Although some still believed that an academic education was a waste of time for girls who would marry and have children, there was also increasing pressure from ambitious girls wanting to work in various professions. So, the Upper Sixth was formed in 1961. Sport remained popular, especially lacrosse, while December’s play was a highlight of the year. Memorable productions included ‘Treasure Hunt’, starring Tamara Ustinov and ‘The Cradle Song’ with Angela Thorne. Both would become career actresses. 

Effie retired in 1971 and the next decade was a time of relative instability, with two Headmistresses (Mary Sherwell, 1971 – 74) and Dorothy Khoo, latter Harrington, (1974 – 76) becoming Headmistress in quick succession. Two fires also caused disruption. The first was in September 1975, when over 65 firefighters attended, using water from the lake and pool to extinguish the blaze. But not before the roof of the entrance hall and bedrooms had been destroyed. The cause was never discovered.The second fire was in November 1979 and ripped through the gym, art and commerce rooms. New Headmistress Olive Peto bravely tackled the fire with extinguishers before the professionals arrived! 


During Olive’s time, a sense of energy and fun returned and the school was brought into the modern age with new ventures and technology. She increased the Sixth Form offering, started a prep class again for 9-10 year olds and introduced scholarships for 11 - 13 year old entrants and girls going into Sixth Form, awarded for academic work, music and all-round ability. New options for O-levels included Latin, Spanish, typing and needlework, and the arrival of the first computers in 1981 heralded the dawn of IT. 

The three sciences were separated in refurbished labs, while Work Experience programmes and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme offered a taste of life outside of school. Sport was boosted by an all-weather pitch in 1987, while the equestrian team dominated, winning the schools’ national championship for four years running. The girls recorded brilliant exam results, while pupil numbers reached their peak. However, religion remained important. In a 1996 guide published for the school’s centenary, Olive wrote:  ‘I believed one of our most sustaining traditions was our commitment to daily assemblies, most held in Chapel, and to confirmation and to church attendance. This tradition gave a continuum and stability to our communal life and kept our sights fixed firmly upon important principles of learning, behaviour and relationships.’


Farlington continued to expand in the late 20th century, first under Patricia Metham (1987 – 92) and then Trina Mawer (1992 – 2006). The old Chapel became a music and drama studio, while nine new classrooms were built in 1989, named the Moberley block. This was followed in 1995 by the Simpson building, providing new science labs, demonstrating how far women’s education had come. The stable block was renovated to allow for a bigger prep school, including a Reception class for girls smartly dressed in tartan tunics. 

By the time Headmistress Jonnie Goyer (2006 – 2012) retired after the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, there were 350 pupils with the vast majority going on to their chosen university. Louise Higson took over and during her nine year tenure, Farlington joined the Bellevue group before becoming a fully co-educational school. Louise told AAH: “The school was looking ahead and co-ed was the natural course to take, as there was no mixed independent school locally that catered for Reception to Upper Sixth. A lot of parents love what the school did for their daughters but asked, “What about our sons?” We first welcomed boys in our Pre-Prep and by September 2020 there were boys across the whole school. It’s been fantastic and feels like they’ve been here forever.”


As Farlington celebrates its 125th year, there’s a Headmaster at the helm for the first time. James Passam started in September and has moved in to the grounds with his family. James hopes to increase the number of boys to make it a fully co-educational school as soon as possible. “We are only at the beginning of this journey, yet already we have boys in every year,” he said. “During our recent Open Day, there was a great energy as many prospective pupils visiting with their family were boys. I believe within a couple of years, you will walk around and see a truly co-educational school.”

“Our main recruitment years are Reception, Year 7, Year 9 and Sixth Form, so the transition should happen relatively quickly. Of course, it may take longer for perceptions in the wider community to change. People who have historically heard of Farlington may know it as a girls’ school and changing that will take more time.” 

The decision to welcome boys was not easy and during a consultation process, differing views were presented. Susan Farman, who has taught at Farlington since 1988 and is now Head of Classics, is well placed to comment: “Teaching at an all-girls’ school was part of the initial appeal for me coming here. But it’s important to move with the times and the arrival of boys hasn’t stopped me wanting to be here. The ethos is still the same and it’s been an easier transition than I imagined. The number of boys is growing all the time and they’re becoming part and parcel of the school already. It’s an exciting new era for Farlington.”

The Headmaster plans curriculum changes to reflect the needs of a co-educational school. Whilst Farlington already offers a range of GCSEs, A’ levels and EPQs (Extended Project Qualifications), A’ level economics is set to be added to the curriculum and B. Tech courses may be introduced too, appealing to a broader range of students. With music and drama long having played a vital role at the school, more vocational options based on performing arts could be offered too. 

The introduction of boys is creating exciting sports opportunities. Rugby and football have been played for the first time, with an equally high level of interest in playing these sports shown by girls too. James said: “I’m sure our stand-alone boys’ teams will continue to grow. But while we’re on that journey, we are seeing boys and girls training and playing together in sports such as hockey and football, which is very modern and feels right for the times. I wouldn't want to lose that and hope we can develop a sports programme where girls and boys can train together and even play competitive fixtures as mixed teams.”

“As well as prioritising sport and performing arts, there’s something in the fabric of this school that encourages children to play outdoors. The beautiful grounds inspire creativity. The natural surroundings lead to social interaction and at break, the children make “nature burgers” from leaves and pine cones, serving them to staff! The children have the space and time to reflect and socialise, so not every minute of every day is structured. In some institutions, there’s a temptation to do that and they can become overly systemic, but that's not the case here. It’s a genuinely family-focused school and you can sense that warmth.”

As Farlington writes an exciting new chapter in its history, the Headmaster hopes that pupil numbers can return to their peak, when about 550 attended the school. But history reminds us that running a school seldom goes as planned. “When you look back at the last 125 years, there have been outbreaks of flu and other illnesses,” says James. “In one case, a classroom was turned into a dormitory to house the sick. They might be variations on a theme, but it echoes some of the challenges we have lived through recently and serve as a reminder that people recover and move on. So when you think about what’s happened during COVID, it’s just great to see children interacting once more and developing social skills outdoors. Playing and enjoying the fresh air, once again.”


Further information: www.farlingtonschool.com