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How men mucked up Wellington's shining girls' school

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

For 100 years or so a private Wellington girls' school was a beacon of female education. Then the men got hold of the reins – and things quickly went downhill.

The college lacrosse team in 1926.

The story of Hiatt Ladies' College, which closed forever 60 years ago this year, is told in a new book by Wellington-born historian Allan Frost.

"This was the first college intended purely for the education of young ladies in the country," said Allan.

The Hiatt Ladies College

"The really sad part is that everything went well until men got involved in running the school.

"After one of the principals retired in 1945 a consortium of local businessmen took over, and things did not go well from that point on. They weren't steeped in the traditions of the school. They had their own business ideas. The killer blow came in 1953 when they appointed a headmaster.

"Without going into too much detail, it collapsed at the end of 1959."

His book, "The Hiatt Ladies' College," says that that headmaster was Fergus Ferguson, who had served in the RAF in Bomber Command and Transport Command during the war, being awarded the Air Force Cross in 1944.

He was founder and head of Wenlock Edge Boarding School for Boys.

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College buildings

In December 1959 he told the Wellington Journal he had decided to retire to live in Sussex, and with nobody to take over at Hiatt it would close at the end of that term and would be sold.

Allan writes in his book: "Why this abrupt decision, given with no warning? He was only 45, so there must have been something more to it than was made public at the time. Various theories were put forward."

Many had felt the college had lost its way, and the decision to stop admitting day girls was probably the final straw.

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Rumours abounded, writes Allan, none particularly complimentary about the first, and last, male head.

Whatever the reason, it was not long before the college, which stood on Albert Road at its junction with King Street, had disappeared forever, and new housing – Hiatt Avenue and Alveley Close – was built where the playing fields had been.

"It closed in 1959 and the main buildings were demolished in 1960."

The dining hall, showing the life-size portrait of the founder which disappeared

Allan started working on the book last year shortly before what was supposed to be the final reunion of old girls, who asked if he could do a little history.

Allan, the author of dozens of history books, says he has never done one where the information came so easily to hand.

"I finished up with a fascinating story, not just of the school, but of the principals involved, including the founder, Elizabeth Keay. It's a human story, full of people's memories."

Elizabeth Keay, who became Elizabeth Hiatt on her marriage to her second husband, founded the college in 1847.

"Her personal life, towards the end of her life, was quite sad, having lost two husbands, and her son as well."

Founder Elizabeth Hiatt

The part the college played in Wellington life is demonstrated by the fact that Elizabeth threw a birthday party for the whole town for her 80th birthday in 1905.

"Nobody else has ever done that, as far as I know."

A huge life-sized portrait of her, commissioned for her 80th birthday, hung in the college dining room.

"It was the only known portrait of her. According to her family it was loaned to Shropshire library at Shrewsbury for some sort of exhibition around the time of the centenary and got damaged with flood water, and they never got it back."

The book, which costs £15.99, is on sale in some bookshops and also direct by contacting Allan at a.frost1@btinternet.com by email.

"It's one of those books which I think I have done as well as it is possible to do," he added.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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