The history of the Blue Coat School is a microcosm of Liverpool’s social history. The school (then called the Blue Coat Hospital) was founded in 1708 just as the town was coming to prominence in Georgian England. The port’s economic success and rapid rise to become the bustling, dynamic ‘Second City of the British Empire’ was an entirely new phenomenon of creating wealth from a sudden, unexpected source – namely trading with the Americas. It was like today’s economic emergence of the IT industry and back then Liverpool’s world-changing piece of kit was the ‘Old Dock’, built in 1715, by Thomas Steers. This pioneering dock allowed cargo ships to be handled around the clock and no other port had one. Steers also designed the original surviving town-centre Blue Coat School 1717 building (now Bluecoat arts centre) demonstrating how closely linked the school and port were in many ways.
There were two important factors in the School’s creation: firstly, that the School’s founder Bryan Blundell* and his fellow subscribers were ‘new money’ merchants and individuals, growing rich from the burgeoning mercantile trade, who were not the established landed aristocracy. Secondly, there was a strong religious ethos powering an embryonic social conscience to help those less fortunate.
As a seaport which contained great poverty besides great wealth, the adult mortality rate was even higher than elsewhere. Apart from mothers dying in childbirth, many fathers were lost at sea, leaving a population of youngsters roaming the streets, falling into crime, illness and death. It was this problem that the God-fearing Blundell and his friend Rev Robert Styth, the first co-Rector of Liverpool, sought to address by creating a school to educate orphans and impoverished children aged eight to 14 years in reading, writing, basic accounting and religion to enable them to become employable and useful members of society.
In a radical move, Jonathan Blundell, Bryan’s son and Treasurer 1750-1800, tried to make it an education only establishment from 1783 and not use the students as a free fundraising workforce. The Blue Coat met with the approval of the polymath William Roscoe MP, hailed as “Liverpool’s greatest citizen”, who even celebrated the school with some doggerel, “Yon calm retreat, where freed from every ill, the helpless orphan’s throbbing heart lies still.”
At time when only society’s elite was educated this was unheard of for the underclass. Under Jonathan Blundell’s tutelage, the school uniform was first introduced in the late 18th century, all in dark blue, which was the recognized colour of charity (hence the school’s name). The boys wore Tudor-style frock coats, waistcoats and shirts with collar bands (like today’s barristers) and the girls wore smocks, large white linen triangular bibs and straw bonnets.
As indication of Liverpool’s spectacular growth, when the Queen Anne-style 1717 school was built it was located almost on the edge of the town, with farmland beyond. Within a few decades it was entirely surrounded by other buildings and now is firmly in the city centre. Fully restored after severe war damage, it is now the city’s oldest surviving and one of its most beautiful buildings.
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.