Blue Coat School initially was a co-educational day school, but its founder Bryan Blundell* was scathing about the “ignorance and impoverishment” of his fellow Liverpool townsfolk. To protect his young charges from these unwelcome influences, he soon converted the school into a boarding establishment and provided food. This way he could ensure that the students’ instruction in learning, discipline and religious belief was untainted by rubbing shoulders with unwelcome outside temptations and slovenliness. With his friend Rev Robert Styth, they opened their first ‘charity schoole’ in 1708, costing £35 in Church Alley.
It grew fast and a decade later a much bigger building was completed at a cost of £2,300, raised by subscription and a £500 donation.
The school thrived as a boarding establishment and the long-lived Blundell saw it expand greatly. He felt proud of his achievement, wanting to “see as many charity schools as churches” and the doubling Blue Coat’s original number of 50 pupils to 100, “a sight I much and earnestly desired to see before I die.” He achieved this goal with 70 boys and 30 girls enrolled after further a subscription campaign in 1744. By 1800 it was 375 boarders.
Due to the need for the school to be supported from the community, there was also tension between teaching students and using them as a free workforce to raise funds. Work included making pins, stockings and selling their urine! Repellent to modern sensibilities, selling urine was lucative. This was a vital ingredient in the wool industry as its ammonia salts made cloth stronger and waterproof.
From its very beginning, Blue Coat School was strongly linked with Liverpool’s dominant industry of seaborne trade, with many students pursuing seafaring careers. Girls were trained to go into domestic service, but they, too, found work aboard ships as nurses and stewardesses from the mid-19th century. Thus these ordinary souls saw the world before the age of mass travel, helping to create Liverpudlians’ unique self-confidence.
Bryan Blundell saw this seafaring workforce as a payback for the school: as former students forged successful careers (thanks to their Blue Coat education) there would be an obligation to contribute to the school and support it for future generations. This evolved into many of the big Liverpool shipping lines becoming regular donors to the school and employing many former students. Cunard, White Star, Blue Funnel, Pacific Steam Navigation, Elder Dempster all gave generously. A prime student-leaver example was Alfred Lennon, father of John Lennon, of the Beatles, who left Blue Coat to work for Cunard Line. There were some spectacular personal donations such as Thomas Fenwick Harrison, of Harrison Line, entirely funding the chapel, and Thomas Henry Ismay, founder of White Star Line leaving a bequest in his will to the equivalent of £100,000 today.
History repeated itself when the school was moved to Wavertree, then a rural area. By the time the School opened in the much bigger new building in 1906 with a capacity of 450 students, it was soon surrounded by suburban sprawl. The School was an entirely boarding charity establishment, funded by Liverpool’s wealthy individuals and companies. Although co-educational, the school was essentially run as two separate entities under the same roof.
The boarders’ dormitories were on the building’s top, or second floors, overseen by boarding masters or matrons and prefects. Boarders’ life was spartan, with up to 40 beds in dormitories, very limited washing facilities and daily tasks to keep the dormitories clean.
After the Second World War, the school’s fragile economic plight worsened and it finally entered the national state system under the voluntary aided scheme. To qualify for government support, it had to become a single sex school and the girls were transferred to St Peter’s College, Wolverhampton in 1949. Day boys also entered the school for the first time.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, boarders came from the original criteria of need and also from military families and British Overseas Dependencies such as Hong Kong. However, with the UK’s diminishing global role, numbers from the latter two sources decreased and boarding ceased in 1989, thus ending a 281-year tradition. The boarders’ dedicated South Wing was eventually sold off for redevelopment as 45 apartments.
Peter Elson – Blue Coat For All Project Manager
*Bryan Blundell – The Blue Coat School is reviewing the life of its founder, Bryan Blundell, and his family’s possible involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, following concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and a student petition. A Working Group, led by the Headteacher and Chair of Trustees, is being convened to assess these issues.