The Royal Grammar School was referred to as the 'free school' in the will of its founder Robert Beckingham. Beckingham was a successful London grocer and member of the Grocer's Company. He was made a Freeman of the city of London in 1486. In his will, dated 3 November 1509 (probate 13 November 1509), he left a life interest in certain lands in Bromley, Kent, and in Newington, Surrey, to his wife Elizabeth. On her death he willed that the parishioners of St Olave's church, Southwark, should obtain a licence to endow a chantry priest to say masses for his soul. If they failed to do this within two years of his death, his executors had discretion either to use the property to 'make a free scole at the Towne of Guldford' or to put the income to some other good charitable use. Elizabeth Beckingham died within a year of her husband and the Bromley lands were conveyed by the executors of Beckingham's will to trustees who included the Mayor of Guildford by a deed of 4 May 1512. The rents from the properties and land were to 'kepe and maynte'n a ffree gramer scole in the seid Towne of Guldeford'. The lands in Newington were not conveyed to the school (see 1775/17/2).
The history of the school to 1607 was recorded by George Austen in his 'historical discourse' on the school (see 1775/17/2). The first evidence of the location of the school is cited by Austen as a deed of 3 September 1520 granting to the Mayor and approved men of Guildford a plot of land adjacent to the schoolhouse in the parish of St Mary's, Guildford, to provide additional income to the school (-/17/2). There are accounts of rents on the schoolhouse from 1618 in the records of Guildford Borough (see BR/OC/6/1).
Following the passing of the Chantries Act in 1547 the mayor and approved men of Guildford petitioned Edward VI to supplement the school's endowments for the maintenance of the school. This resulted in the King granting letters patent to the school on 27 Jan 1552, henceforth to be called 'The Free Grammar School of King Edward the sixth for the Education, Institution and Instruction of Boys and Youths in Grammar at all future times for ever to endure'. An income of £20 was received from chantry lands in Great Bookham, Stoke D'Abernon, Battersea and Wandsworth. The letters patent also granted the mayor and approved men authority to appoint the schoolmaster and usher and to draw up statutes for the school with the advice of the Bishop of Winchester (see 1775/1/1).
The present school site was purchased in 1555 by the mayor and approved men of Guildford ( see 1775/5/1). Construction on the school began in 1557. Unfortunately the planned houses for the schoolmaster and usher were never completed due to a lack of funds following a legal dispute over the School's title to the former chantry lands. This was resolved by a private Act of Parliament in 1563 which confirmed the School's title to these properties. Since this act was passed during the reign of Elizabeth I, her coat of arms adorn the front of the school building.
John Austen represented the School in this court case and paid for the private Act of Parliament. Austen was town clerk, 1544-1545, mayor in 1566 and Member of Parliament for Guildford from 1563 to 1567. He was also responsible for raising funds to complete the houses for the schoolmaster and usher. In 1569 the building of the schoolmaster's house began but following Austen's death in 1572, it was never completed. William Hamonde (mayor 1550 and 1558 and Member of Parliament for Guildford in 1553, 1554, and 1557-1558) was another benefactor of the school. He began building the usher's house and a gallery between the master's and usher's houses at his own expense. Hamonde died in 1575 before the building was completed and the usher's house was not finished for another ten years at the expense of Simon Tally and Robert Broadbridge.
George Austen, the son of John Austen, was also an important benefactor of the school. He too was mayor of Guildford in 1579, 1588 and 1600, and Member of Parliament for Guildford, from 1604 to 1611. He collected local subscriptions to complete the building of the schoolmaster's house begun by his father and also rebuilt the gallery begun by William Hamonde. The buildings were completed in 1586. George Austen is also responsible for the manuscript history of the first century of the school's history, in which he investigated the school endowments and finances. Austen also drew up the statutes for the school which had been ordered by the charter of 1552. The statutes were given the approval of the Bishop of Winchester in 1608.
The statutes were amended in 1835 and again in 1889 when the school was reorganised.
The school was successful during the 17th century. John Graile was the headmaster for 52 years from 1645 until his death in January 1698. During his term of office the school received an endowment from the will of Joseph Nettle of 27 November 1671 for a leaving exhibition for the maintenance of a scholar at Oxford or Cambridge 'who should have been taught and fitted for the University in the Free Grammar School of Guildford, and who should have read and learnt some Greek author, and be well instructed and knowing in the Latin tongue.' The scholar had also 'to be the son of a freeman of and within the liberty of the town of Guildford'.
Few records survive for the 17th and 18th centuries. The school went into decline in the 18th century, particularly under John Pearsall or Pershall who was appointed master in 1757. By 1765 there had been no scholars attending the school for a year. The Corporation minutes of a Guild-merchant court of 13 February 1765 record that this was due to the 'intolerable negligence and misbehaviour of the master' (see BR/OC/1/12). A legal case followed in which Pearsall was successful.
Samuel Cole was schoolmaster between 1769 and 1804 and successfully built up the reputation of the school. On his retirement there were 60 scholars attending the school. He was one of the founders of the Old Guildfordians' Association and was appointed perpetual president at its first meeting in October 1780. His son the Revd William Hodgson Cole, curate at Windlesham, was appointed as his successor following his father's resignation in March 1804. WH Cole served as schoolmaster until 1819.
In 1835 the statutes of the school were revised following the Municipal Corporations Act which replaced the corporation of the mayor and approved men with an elected Council (see 1775/2/4). The school governing body was reconstituted as a board of trustees. A committee was formed in 1836 to administer the town charities under the auspices of the Charities Commission. The minute books of Guildford Municipal Charities, 1836-1912, also relate to the RGS (see 5404/2/1-2).
Allen House (on the site of the present new building) was purchased by the Revd Henry G Merriman (headmaster 1859-1874), to accommodate boarders. He sold Allen House on his retirement and it remained in private hands until it was sold to Surrey County Council in 1921.
During the mid to late 19th century the school fell into disrepair and decay. Guildford Municipal Charities established a committee to report into the general condition of the school and the buildings. The committee reported in 1881 that the school had no funds available for repairs and that there were only 9 boys 'instead of the former ordinary number of 100' (see 1775/2/10). Various suggestions were made by the Charity Commission to raise funds for the school, including its amalgamation with Nettle's Charity, a reorganisation with Archbishop Abbot's School, the appropriation of funds from Poyle Charity and a public appeal for subscriptions (see 1775/2/11-21). The Committee for Maintaining Higher Education in Guildford was established in Mar 1887 to oppose the Charity Commission's draft scheme to amalgamate the RGS, Nettle's Charity and Archbishop Abbot's School. The committee raised £2,238.15s.4d towards the restoration of the RGS, ensuring its survival (see 1775/2/19). A new Charity Commission scheme came into effect in November 1888 (see 1775/2/23). The scheme replaced the existing statutes and created a new governing body. It also required the appointment of a new headmaster. The school closed down in December 1888 when the Revd Dr Sidney Bolton Kincaid left. He had been given six months notice in November of that year (see 5404/2/- ). The Governors' minute books commence in January 1889 (see 1775/3/1-4).
John Charles Honeybourne MA was the first headmaster under the new scheme from September 1889. The school was temporarily housed for a year in the Constitutional Hall while the school building was restored. It was now a day school. Within five years Honeybourne had raised the school roll to one hundred. He retired in 1919.
Under the Board of Education a new scheme altering the regulation of the school and the schemes of 1888 and 1893 was sealed on 30 January 1911 (-/2/27). The scheme provided that by agreement with Surrey County Council up to a third of school places were to be reserved for boys gaining entrance from public elementary schools. The Local Education Authorities paid their tuition fees and made grants to the school.
In August 1950 the Ministry of Education issued an order classifying the RGS as a voluntary controlled school under the Education Act, 1944. New articles of government were eventually sealed by the Minister of Education on 21 April 1953 (-/2/35-36). The RGS was a 'free school' once again. A final Charity Commission scheme was sealed on 20 January 1977 and the school became independent of the state system in September of that year.
The old RGS building was severely damaged in a fire in December 1962. The building was restored and reopened in 1965 by the Duchess of Gloucester.