"A Very Preston Affair" as David Billington shares memories of a school and its place in the city

David Billington's new book has been a labour of love.

By Fiona Finch
Monday, 11th October 2021, 12:42 pm

It has also been a research project more than a decade in the making and now he hopes it is going to give a timely boost to the funds of St Catherine's Hospice.

David, a former pupil of Preston Grammar School, returned to his roots and then took a step back in time to research and write what, in the words of its subtitle is: "the tale of a School and a Square ... and of some who were there."

The production of A Very Preston Affair was funded by Preston Grammar School Old Boys' Association as its last act before the Association closed in 2019. The intention is that all proceeds from sales should go to the Association's chosen local charity - the Lostock Hall Hospice. David said: "Every single penny from the book will be a donation in recognition of the wonderful work carried out there and in the community, and in the light of the particularly damaging effect that the coronavirus has had on the hospice finances."

David 'Charlie' Billington, pictured in Winckley Square, Preston with a copy of his book entitled A Very Preston Affair Photo: Kelvin Stuttard

For David there was a double reason to write this book - as an old boy he had a real understanding of the contribution the school had made not just to Preston and Winckley Square, but further afield too. But he also has had two encounters with cancer.

He said: "Most people have at some point been affected by cancer. I previously raised funds for the Hospice by climbing all 214 Wainwright peaks in the Lake District. 'A Very Preston Affair was a similar labour of love, written with heartfelt thanks."

Due to the pandemic and personal illness, David has not been able to promote the book, which was published last year, until now.

It is a concise, information packed and entertaining publication with much original material and previously unseen photographs. In it he looks at the school's origins which date back to at least the 14th century, its presence on Stoneygate, focuses on its handsome Cross Street school building in the centre of the city near Winckley Square and takes in the school's later move to a purpose built school on Moor Park Avenue in 1913.

David shows off the cover of his book. All proceeds will go to St Catherine's Hospice.

In writing this 72 page volume he has rescued the earliest days of Preston Grammar School from oblivion and chronicled the role some memorable alumni have played in both local and national life. He has also recorded its chequered history in terms of pupil numbers and headteachers. Mourning those who gave their lives in the first World War, he also mourns the demolition of the Cross Street premises in 1957 and the passing of the school itself in 1969. Other local grammar schools were to close in the following years too, as comprehensive schools replaced the dual grammar and secondary modern system.

He said: "As time passes fewer people will remember that the Moor Park High School and Sixth Form building on Moor Park Avenue was originally erected to house the Preston Grammar School. Fewer still will remember that this was preceded by a magnificent structure in Cross Street, part of a group of buildings considered in architectural terms to be Preston's 'jewel in the crown'."

David notes the school itself was not in Winckley Square until the Literary and Philosophical Society building was annexed in 1898.

David said his book :"treats the relationship between the old grammar school and the Square as a type of mutual love affair or at the very least a marriage of convenience or mutual dependence."

Preston Grammar School on Cross Street

He continued: "Using original documents going back almost a thousand years it offers a brief reassessment of the history of the school which is far more interesting than previous accounts would have us believe. It underlines the importance of the de Hoghton family and the parish church and goes on to describe the old school buildings in Stoneygate, which in their day were magnificent."

For example, Arkwright House, a listed building on Stoneygate, Preston, is renowned as the location where Richard Arkwright developed the water frame for spinning yarn. Less well known is that it was then the headmaster's house, where boys had also boarded.

David argues that with the school's move to grander premises on Cross Street, as with the development of the handsome Georgian buildings on Winckley Square, there was a class element: "To put it crudely, both were to some extent the last refuge of the upper classes, although these now included mill owners and sundry professionals."

He shows there was much to praise about the school and the opportunities it offered to pupils. But he has also been meticulous in detailing the school's grandiose ambitions, articulated by its reputedly but not actually Tudor stained glass window, to the supposed Jacobean chair made in Victorian times.

A close up of part of the grand and now long demolished Grammar School building in the centre of Preston

As it was a mainly fee paying school for much of its life until the Education Act of 1944 it needed to assure parents that money was worth parting with and an exra helping of history would always help in that endeavour.

Equally he has acknowledged that not all of the school's headteachers were successful or indeed interested in the school, with one, the Rev. Alfred Beaven Beaven, remembered not just for his distinctive repetitious name but as an exceedingly cruel and thuggish head. Not surprisingly under that man's tenure pupil numbers plumetted.

By the time young David, who also earned the nickname Charlie, gained his place at school, ("A teacher thought I was a right Charlie"), it was the culmination of years of aspiration. He explains in the book how he was brought up with an expectation he could go there, recalling: "Whilst still a toddler my grandmother would take me into the then town centre every Saturday morning, ostensibly to shop but more often than not to have a look around. I would have preferred to visit the toy shops owned by the Mears (both Old Boys of the school) but we often went to the Harris Museum, Library and Art Gallery and then to the 'cluster of buildings' on the corner of Cross Street and Winckley Square, just to stand and admire them. Here she would adopt a hushed, reverent tone and I would experience a brief session of what I would now identify as motivational psychology. I think it was always assumed I would go to the Grammar School, and as a result so did I, never once failing to be inspired even by an empty building!"

The alumni featured in the book range from photographer and filmmaker Herbert Geroge Ponting who accompanied Scott's polar expedition of 1912 and town medic Dr Robert Charles Brown who penned ' Sixty-Four Years A Doctor' to architect James Hibbert who designed the Harris Free Library, completed in 1893 (now Preston's Harris Museum, Library and Art Gallery). Hibbert also designed Fishergate Baptist Church and Preston Savings Bank.

Steve Harrison, a former Preston Grammar pupil who was at the school at the same time as David and is a founder member of the Friends of Winckley Square, wrote the book's Foreword, in which he notes that David's research: "provides us with insights into our history and local heritage and it reminds us that what may seem at first glance to be rather parochial is nothing of the kind."

In his author's foreword David, who was secretary of the Old Boys' Association for many years, notes: "It would be very unfair to airbrush the Grammar School out of any account of the social, political, historical and cultural development of the town."

The "Tudor" window which was removed from Cross Street and installed at the Moor Park Avenue school site in 1913. (photograph by Sara Park)

Thanks to his meticulous research this will not happen.

* A Very Preston Affair the tale of a School and a Square ... and of some who were there by David 'Charlie' Billington costs £7.50 and can be purchased from St Catherine's Hospice or at Halewood & Sons at 68, Friargate, Preston. Copies can also be obtained directly from David by calling 01772 497047 or 07950 142907 or emailing him at [email protected]co.uk. Postage and packing is £2.50.

Demolition of the Cross Street building in 1957
Part of the ornately carved headmaster's chair (photo: David Billington)
When the Cross Street premises were first built Guildhall Street had not been created. This photo shows the old school building in the 1950s.