Memory Bank

Celebrating 52 Wonderful Years: Alex Darkes’ Retirement Interview

After his incredible track record of 52 years at Princethorpe, Alex Darkes – in true teacher style – set us all a challenge. He didn’t want a fuss made over his retirement, he said; he was happier just heading off quietly.

What to do? Of course we were going to respect his decision, but at the same time it was unimaginable that we could let the occasion pass without celebrating his wonderful career and contribution to the Foundation – not to mention the huge amount of affection for him across the whole Princethorpe community.

So brains started ticking, furtive conversations took place and plans were hatched. As you will already have seen, the naming of the Alex Darkes Physics Laboratory provided a very fitting celebration both of his teaching years, during which he had inspired so many budding scientists, and of his central role in developing the new Science Centre. It also came as a wonderful surprise to Alex, thanks to some cunning cover-up work by all involved!

Knowing Alex’s love of the College’s history and his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Princethorpe, we were also very keen to record an interview with him so that we could add his memories to our oral history archives. By inviting students and staff both past and present to submit questions for the interview, I hoped that we could provide a fun trip down memory lane for Alex, as well as enabling the whole Princethorpe community to share in this occasion with him. And we had a fantastic response, with questions and well wishes sent in by Princethorpians from every decade – it certainly was a tricky task to make the final selection!

As the day of the interview drew nearer, I have to admit that the responsibility of interviewing a true Princethorpe legend on behalf of the whole community did start to sink in slightly. But I needn’t have worried – Alex was of course the perfect interviewee, and it was a real pleasure to be able to put so many of your wonderful questions to him. All messages that were sent in were also forwarded to Alex after the interview, and he was delighted to read all your kind words.

The interview recording can be found at and we hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it! Thank you so much to everyone who sent in questions, messages and memories for us to share with Alex – and of course to all of you for helping us to keep the plans top secret until the day.

Following his retirement, Alex has kindly agreed to take on the voluntary role of Archivist Emeritus, and I very much hope we will have the chance to chat about some more of his wonderful Princethorpe memories before too long – watch this space!

Correspondence Gives New Perspective on Princethorpe’s Past

Since starting in post as Foundation Archivist last term, I have been busy immersing myself in the fascinating histories of our schools. One of the points I have found particularly interesting in Princethorpe’s past is its transition from St Mary’s Priory to Princethorpe College in 1965-6. Having been home to an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns for 130 years, its transformation to a boys’ boarding and day school run by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) marked the beginning of a new era in its history.

Although I knew that the College has long treasured its links with the Benedictine nuns and had been honoured to welcome several of them back for visits over the years, in my mind these two periods in the school’s past were quite separate. Of course, we have the extremely evocative photographs (see gallery) of the handover taking place between the St Mary’s Priory community and the MSC priests on the day of the nuns’ departure, but these seemed to be capturing a fleeting moment in time. The nuns left for their new home at Fernham, bidding farewell to the beautiful Priory which had been founded and cared for by their community for so many years; the MSCs remained to guide it safely into its new era and towards further exciting developments in the future.

I was therefore fascinated to find, held safely in our correspondence collections, a telegram from the Fernham community addressed to ‘Rev Father Superior and Community, Princethorpe College, Rugby’, wishing them ‘every success and blessing’. Although the telegram itself is undated, the letter of response held in the same file indicates that it had been sent to wish the MSCs well for the opening of Princethorpe College in September 1966. The telegram’s ‘glorious technicolour’ illustrations would certainly seem to date it around that time too! (see gallery for images of the telegrams)

The letter sent in reply to the Mother Prioress by Father John Kevin Fleming MSC, Princethorpe College’s first Headmaster, is both a wonderful source of information on the early days of the College, and touching proof of the great regard the Princethorpe MSCs and Fernham community had for each other. Father Fleming recounts his discussions with parents at the College’s Open Days which took place in late September: ‘Again and again I repeated “We have […] to thank the good Sisters who were here before us for all this.” ‘ (see gallery for copies of the letters)

Father Fleming’s letter also refers to the fact that the two communities have continued to pray for each other, and mentions his correspondence with Mother Walburga and Mother Scholastica at Fernham. Signing off, he asks Mother Prioress to ‘kindly remember me to Mother Procurator and all the good Sisters, and if we can be of any help at any time, please do not hesitate to let me know’.

This correspondence, bridging the two main eras of Princethorpe’s history, gives a real sense of the warmth, kindness, mutual respect and continuity of purpose which still infuse the Princethorpe ethos today. As a Foundation we have a strong sense of our wonderful heritage, and very much continue to thank those who were here before us, even as we look ahead to the future.

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A Fire Safety Visit Sparks Some New Research

While working in the archives strongroom over the Easter break, I was surprised to hear a knock at the door (an unusual occurrence in the holidays!) It turned out to be a specialist fire extinguisher engineer, who was in school for a routine visit to service all the extinguishers on site.

While he was there, I took the opportunity to ask him about a slightly more unusual fire extinguisher in our collections. This conical extinguisher, labelled ‘Minimax’, is one of the fascinating artefacts we hold in our strongroom, but unfortunately we have no information relating to it other than the details on the label. The engineer confirmed my estimate that it dated from c. 1930s – 1950s, and was so interested by it that he took a photo to share with his colleagues back at the office!

Once back at my desk, a little further research on the Minimax brand provided some additional details. Minimax Limited was founded in London in 1903 and quickly became very well-established; it even supplied fire extinguishers to King Edward VII for protection of his motor car. In 1911 it opened a new factory in Feltham, Middlesex, which became a local landmark thanks to its Art Deco design (the factory’s location details are just visible near the bottom of our extinguisher’s label).

You can see images of the Minimas fire extinguisher and its label in the galerry.

The conical design was unique to the Minimax firm, but it certainly would have been a familiar sight in the early part of the 20th century: initially producing over 1000 extinguishers a month from its Feltham site, Minimax’s production levels rose even more sharply during World War I. Minimax was purchased by The Pyrene Company Ltd in 1955, but several of its extinguishers – like ours – have survived the decades, with some still on display in National Trust properties.

From this confirmation of the dates, it seems very likely that our Minimax has been here since the days of St Mary’s Priory. Fire protection would have been of great importance for the Priory’s inhabitants, since for many years it was lit by acetylene gas which was highly flammable; electricity was not installed in the buildings until 1953.

In the gallery you can see an image of St Mary’s Priory gas works, where the acetylene gas was produced, c. late 19th century

As well as helping to date the fire extinguisher, the engineer was also able to confirm that it was very much decommissioned and empty – and therefore no chance of any leaks in the strongroom – which was reassuring news to an archivist’s ears!

If you would like to know more about any of the items held in our collections, or if you have any items from your time at school that you would like to donate to the Foundation Archives, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at

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Princethorpe Foundation Archives X Account Returns!

If you are an X (formerly Twitter) user, you may be interested to know that the Princethorpe Foundation Archives X account is back in action! Follow us at @PFdn_Archives for updates on what’s happening in the archives, and some wonderful photos and stories from our collections.

Earlier this month on @PFdn_Archives, we posted a photo of Princethorpe’s very own outdoor swimming pool which was in use from the late 1960s into the 1970s. Were you one of the ‘lucky’ students who got to experience its bracing temperatures? Feel free to comment on our X post to share your memories!

You can find the post at

Hidden Detail Spotted in Quad Brickwork

In recent months, our hardworking Estates team have been busy carrying out maintenance work on the exterior brickwork in the Quad. While doing so, eagle-eyed Senior Technician Dekk Brain spotted a detail which gives us another glimpse into Princethorpe’s history!

If you look carefully at Dekk’s photograph, just above the centre you may be able to see the perfect imprint of an ear of wheat in the brick. This detail takes us right back into Princethorpe’s past, since we know that these bricks date from the early 1830s, when the first building work took place at St Mary’s Priory.

Thanks to Princethorpe’s clay-rich soil, the bricks for these earliest buildings were created onsite: the clay was dug from the fields in the north of the estate, known as Wood Close and Wood Wallis, and the bricks were then fired in Brick Kiln Close. All the digging also contributed to another key feature in Princethorpe’s landscape, as the resulting hole in the ground subsequently filled with water and became what we now know as Switzerland.

We can safely guess that this particular brick was fired around harvest time – and given that it is located halfway up the building (at Lower Pugin level), the St Mary’s Priory labourers probably thought nobody would ever spot the wheat imprint all the way up there!

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1960s Prospectus Donated To The Archives

We are always grateful when Old Princethorpians send us archive material to add to our collection and were delighted when Adrian Charlton (Class of 1973) came up with the goods in the shape of a St Bede’s and Princethorpe College prospectus dating from the late 1960s. He had found the prospectus while sorting through his parents’ papers. The booklet was in excellent condition and has been passed onto our new archivist, Jo Wong, for safe keeping.

Its arrival was timely, as this year we have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jules Chevalier, the founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, the order of priests who ran St Bede’s and then Princethorpe up until the late 1990s. We have marked the occasion within school in a variety of different ways, including a display of archive material focusing on the MSCs longstanding connection with the College.

The old prospectus includes wonderful descriptions of the settings of both schools, it touches on the education provided, health and diet, physical training, the uniform and sportwear required. Admissions arrangements and vacation weeks are outlined and the Princethorpe fees are stated as 35 guineas per term for day pupils and 85 guineas for full boarders.

A huge thank you to Adrian for thinking of us and if like him, you are having a sort out and find anything you would like to share, do please get in touch, we can copy and return originals to you or add them to our archive if you are happy for us to do so. If you have any queries our archivist, Jo Wong, can be contacted at

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