As a passionate history enthusiast, I recently had the opportunity to visit Stowe School, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Accompanied by my partner, who happens to be an "old Stoic," I delved into the captivating history of Stowe House, making this blog entry longer than usual. Join me on this journey through time as we unravel the rich heritage of Stowe.
Stowe School derives its name from the quaint Buckinghamshire village, where the estate has existed in various forms for almost a millennium, even meriting a mention in the Domesday Book. In 1589, John Temple acquired the Stowe Manor and estate. His father had been leasing the house for nearly two decades, and with properties in Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, Stowe proved to be the perfect location for their family home. Not much changed over the following decades.
By 1697, Richard Temple became the fifth owner of Stowe. In 1713, he was ennobled as Baron Cobham and, four years later, received the title of Viscount Cobham. Lord Cobham was a member of the illustrious Kit-Kat Club in London, known for its strong literary and political affiliations. He sought to establish himself as a trendsetter, engaging garden designer Charles Ridgeman and architect Sir John Vanbrugh to enhance the estate's gardens.
After Lord Cobham's death in 1749, the estate passed on to his nephew Richard Grenville. The Grenvilles wielded significant influence, with two family members serving as Prime Ministers—George Grenville and Richard Grenville. Moreover, they were connected through marriage to both the elder and younger William Pitt. It is worth noting that Prime Minister William Gladstone also had ties to the Grenvilles.
The subsequent owner, Richard Plantaganet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, was undeniably well-bred, and his family had amassed immense wealth through strategic marriages to affluent heiresses. However, their prosperity was short-lived. Upon inheriting the estate, Richard was eager to carry out repairs on the house and gardens, leading to substantial debts with creditors. In an effort to impress Queen Victoria during her anticipated official visit in 1845, the Duke borrowed even more money to purchase extravagant new furniture and improve various areas of the garden. The Queen was rumored to have found the splendor overwhelming, commenting, "I have no such splendor in either of my two palaces." Unfortunately, the second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos had extravagant tastes but a poor understanding of financial management. It was a never-ending cycle of spend, spend, spend. By the end of the decade, he was declared bankrupt, owing over a million pounds (£97.2 million in today's currency). This colossal scandal marked one of the most significant bankruptcies in history.
Bailiffs seized the estate, and a substantial auction took place, with many items sold swiftly and at low prices. Despite the dire circumstances, the third Duke of Buckingham and Chandos managed to salvage the estate and return to the house. Throughout the 1840s and 50s, the house had remained unoccupied, while the garden served as grazing grounds for cattle and sheep. The number of gardening staff dwindled from 40 to just four.
Shortly after the conclusion of the First World War, Stowe was put up for sale. The estate changed hands for £50,000, and in a subsequent sale, it was acquired by the governing body that would later establish Stowe School. Over the following six months, the house was adapted to include classrooms and student sleeping quarters. Gradually, further school buildings were constructed, bringing about incremental changes.