Marjon News

Celebrating the early days of the College of St Mark in Chelsea

Released: 30.08.16


What do Tolstoy, Alan Rickman, Cliff Richard, Gilbert & Sullivan and Douglas Adams all have in common? They’ve all visited the College of St Mark’s or been taught by its tutors.

Indeed, if you’ve ever been part of an OFSTED inspection, watched a football referee, been to Wembley Stadium or watched the Isle of Man TT, used a Rawl Plug or had National Savings, you have been touched by the impact of Marjon’s teaching and its graduates.

On 1 September 2016, a plaque was unveiled in Chelsea on the original site of the College of St Mark’s. In 1923, the college merged with the College of St John in Battersea to form what is now known as the University of St Mark & St John, or ‘Marjon’ to its friends. 

A group of alumni from year group 1956/59 attended a special celebratory ceremony ahead of their 60th reunion in September 2016. Vice-Chancellor Professor Cara Aitchison attended the ceremony to unveil the plaque, which is kindly permitted by the current owners of the land, KC Estate Management Ltd.

Looking through the University’s archive and speaking to alumni, we reflect on the early days of the original college and take an amble through its fascinating heritage.

In 1840 St Mark’s was originally in a rural setting and surrounded by open fields, meadows and cow pasture at the centre of the market garden district. Founder Coleridge made the most of his surroundings by adopting gardening metaphors in the College’s advertising, such as ‘Cultivating Minds’, ‘Grafting Knowledge’ and ‘Root and Branch Child Development’. In his rebuttal of the Government’s insistence on too much testing of children, he said, “One does not pull up one’s turnips to see if they are growing”.

The first building to be adopted for the College was Stanley House, a building of great age and beauty. Coleridge was determined that children would develop best if taught in attractive surroundings and were exposed to the ‘daily sight and sound of good’.

One room contained copies of the Elgin Marbles which in recent years have proven to be of finer detail than the originals in the British Museum. Students were often tasked with drawing them, and one recalls doing a rude caricature, for which he was given the usual college punishment. He was made to stand in the centre of a lecture room with his toes against a chalk barrier for hours on end - otherwise known as ‘toeing the line’.

In between lessons, students looked after the livestock and the kitchen garden (the garden was eventually bought by the world famous Veitches Nursery). Animals killed for meat would have their skeletons preserved for still life art classes.

Famous worldwide for its choral singing, concerts at the College regularly sold out. One of the early choristers included Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Later in the 1960s St Mark’s hosted a debate attended by a young singer who spoke about the difficulty of combining a pop career with being a practising Christian – that singer was Cliff Richard.

St Mark’s was referred to as both the ‘hottest spot in London’ and also ‘the coolest’. In the 1960s it was close to the ultra-fashionable King’s Road and shops like ‘Granny Takes a Trip’, where some alumni have confessed to spending a substantial proportion of their grant.

The Chaplain David Worth, affectionately nicknamed ‘Yahweh’, was known for making a half pint last for a whole evening at the pub. The Principal had announced that the next student to be caught climbing over the wall to get in after ‘lock up’ would be given into police custody for the night – sadly it happened to be a member of staff who was caught first, a certain Chaplain!

Other alumni reminiscences: a Polish student who used to ‘flik-flak’ his way between lectures across the Quad instead of walking; the students who put the Principal’s car on the dining table one breakfast time; smuggling girlfriends into the college end of year photo, and “laughing so hard with friends that my stomach hurt – I’ve never laughed like that before or since”. 

Marjon has been the ‘power behind the throne’ for several well-known figures – the actor Alan Rickman was talent spotted and encouraged in his acting career by his Marjon-trained tutor Colin Turner at Latymer school. Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame attributed his career success to his tutor Frank Halford who also trained at Marjon. They stayed in touch for many years, and Adams always credited his teacher with giving him the confidence to keep writing when others didn’t see his potential. He wrote about Halford’s positive influence many times, recalling the one time he was granted a ‘perfect 10’ for a piece of work, which Adams said saved him from a pit of depression more than once.

Tolstoy visited St Marks and conducted a letter-writing session with some of the boys. Thomas Hardy married a Marjon alumnus’ daughter.  Marjon produced the teacher who taught Gracie Fields too.

Those of a certain age might recall the children’s programme ‘Superstars’ hosted by Marjon alumnus Ron Pickering who was nicknamed ‘The Great Communicator’ by fellow students. He went on to a distinguished sports career competing, commentating, broadcasting and enabling. There’s still a memorial fund in his name encouraging young people to participate and compete in sport.

Chelsea produced the man who revolutionised refereeing - JR Schumacher, and the man who was responsible for the purchase of the original Wembley stadium - Sir Fred Wall.

If anyone has money in National Savings, that was a Marjon idea too – Sir Lawrence Marjerison started the war saving scheme which was the forerunner of National Savings, and we’re rumoured to be responsible for the man who invented the Rawl plug. The Reverend Stenning was instrumental in developing part of the Isle of Man TT.

Today Marjon continues to lead the way in education and social sciences, culture and language sciences and sports and health science, all built on core values dating back to our original colleges. 

More:

  • It is said that the Festival Hall in London owes its sound system to two Marjon alumni.
  • It trained the first black teacher in the UK in 1846 and the first Black Inspector of Schools in the 1880’s.
  • The first female tutor to be appointed to a male teacher training college was Miss Pixell – another Marjon ‘first’. 

 


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