Rev. William Thompson Sankey

On Whit Monday, 1875, a muffled church bell was tolled to announce the death of William Thompson Sankey. The news spread quickly to almost universal mourning in Stony Stratford on this holiday because the Reverend Sankey was highly popular and respected.As Oliver Ratcliff writes in his 1900 history, “He can undoubtedly be looked upon as one of the greatest benefactors of Stony Stratford, as he made so many improvements in the town.”

He was only 46 years old and he had died the previous day, May 16th, at his parents home in Dover, so today is an anniversary of sorts.  He came from a family of 8 children of whom only two got past the age of 50: an older brother who died at 51 and a sister who lived to the very respectable age of 83. However in his short and energetic life he certainly made a difference to Stony Stratford.

He came to Stony Stratford as Vicar of St Giles in 1859. He had just got married, presumably on the strength of getting the living of St Giles. It has to be said that he made an enormous impact, certainly on buildings. He initiated what can only be described as a slum clearance by pulling down some old hovels and building what became New Street. He built a primary school on the same property.  The vicarage on the High Street was inadequate, so he built a new one. And finally, his crowning glory, he built St Pauls School which was known in the 20th century as Mr Fegan’s homes.

Some New Street Cottages today

The Old School at the end of New Street, later used as Parish Rooms

Sankey was the second son of William Sankey and Elizabeth Thompson.William Sankey senior was vicar of St James in Dover. Young William went to Oxford and followed in his father’s footsteps. The family was in comfortable middle-class circumstances but they were by no means wealthy. However, when W T Sankey arrived in Stony Stratford in 1859, recently married with a ready-made family in tow, he had money to spend and the ambition to spend it.

Where did this money come from? Well, he appears to have acquired it by marrying a rich widow. I don’t wish to attribute any low motives of financial gain to this union. Sankey never used any of the money for personal profit and there is no reason to suggest that either party in the marriage was unhappy. His new bride was Jane Royds, formerly Jane Oddie, who, at the age of 40, was recently widowed from her first husband George and had lived in some comfort at Portland Place in London and latterly near St Albans. When her first husband died she had four children and Sankey, ten years her junior, was willing to take them on. George Royds figures in the 1851 census as a “Landed proprietor and fundholder” and his father was also living in London “of independent means.” One can only assume that Jane Royds came into her marriage with W T Sankey with a substantial bequest from her former husband. So while W T Sankey gets all the credit for his building program, it is as well to bear in mind that the money (and presumably her assent) came from his wife.

I suspect that she had some influence on their decisions. For example, on their arrival in Stony Stratford they rented Wolverton House until the new vicarage was built, possibly because Wolverton House was the only house in the district grand enough to accommodate Mrs Sankey and her family in the style to which they were accustomed. They can be found in the 1861 census with her four children from her previous marriage, her new child with Sankey and four household servants – a lifestyle quite beyond the average small town vicar.

Drawing of the school frontage in 1864

As I wrote in an earlier post the great 19th century venture into a private school in Stony Stratford was the building of St. Paul’s School, which opened for business in 1863. It was Sankey’s brainchild and he apparently had the ambition to create a school to rival some of the best residential schools in England. Land and buildings between The Malletts and the evocatively named Pudding Bag Lane were purchased. These buildings, including the ancient Horseshoe Inn, were acquired. part demolished, and the new College and Chapel were built at a cost of £40,000. The school could accommodate up to 200 boys and under Sankey’s leadership appeared to have a good reputation. Unfortunately that reputation did not survive Sankey’s death in 1875 and under the headship of Walter Short appears to have degenerated into a kind of “Dotheboys Hall” where, according to Ratcliff, “The management having changed hands to men who ruled as tyrants, and wielded the birch incessantly, its reputation as a school soon became ruined.” Even in Victorian times, parents were not willing to pay 30 guineas a year to have their sons repeatedly flogged!
Very, very quickly the school was drained of pupils and in 1882 the school closed. An attempt to revive it was made in 1888 but the harm to its reputation was such that it did not attract sufficient numbers. It closed again in 1895. this time permanently. The building had a short life as a cigar factory (of all things!) in 1896 and then lay empty for four years. It was rescued in 1900 by J W C Fegan, a wealthy man who dedicated his fortune to the provision of shelter and education for homeless boys. Known as Mr. Fegan’s Homes, the orphanage operated there for the better part of the 20th century. 

Mr Fegan’s Homes from the North-East

Fegan managed to acquire the property for £4,500, about one tenth of the original cost of the building. But it was a successful operation and survived until 1961. It has been estimated that over 4,000 boys  were housed there and educated in the local schools, all of them characterised by their grey flannel suits. The orphanage was a feature of Victorian Society, being the only effective way in their eyes to care for orphans. Two world wars in the 20th century may have prolonged the life of the orphanage and by the time those orphaned by WWII had passed through Fegan’s society had found other ways of providing for children who had lost their parents. 

St Anthony’s School in the 1960s

In 1962 the buildings opened as a Roman Catholic preparatory school, known as St Anthony’s. In this guise it lasted for 10 years.

The site is now a commercial and housing development.


The building today

It’s a curious and unfulfilled history. The original school had a promising start in Sankey’s lifetime and then fell on hard times through plain mismanagement. It’s 60 year use as an orphanage was a success until there was no longer a need for these kind of institutions. The latter day attempt to revive it as a more conventional school did not appear to have any lasting success. However, Sankey’s building program survives. Much of New Street is comprised of the original Sankey dwellings; the former school still sits on the corner at Vicarage Road, the Vicarage survives, and the St Paul buildings hold a commanding presence on the High Street. Quite a legacy for a vicar who was only there 16 years.