College History

Peter Symonds College, an open access college since 1974, now caters for up to 4,400 students a year from all over central Hampshire as well as a catchment area of 8,000 miles, to include the boarders from the Falkland Islands. The origins of the former boys’ grammar school go back to the 16th century.


The Symonds family played a considerable part in the life of Winchester during the 16th and 17th centuries and earlier. William Symonds was three times mayor and the slab over his tomb is to be found in the north aisle of the cathedral. His brother, Peter, became a successful business man in the City of London and achieved membership of the Mercers' Company.

In those days, needy London boys were helped by the foundation of Christ's Hospital, of which Peter Symonds became a great admirer. He decided to give Winchester a somewhat similar foundation, and in his will, dated 1586, he provided for the foundation of an almshouse, Christes Hospitall, to benefit Winchester people across the whole age range.

Six aged brethren were to be supported in comfort at the hospital, two divinity students were to be assisted, one at Oxford and one at Cambridge University, and "four pore boys" to be taught, and, after leaving School, to be apprenticed.

The Alms houses, in Symonds Street, near the cathedral, built in 1607, were amalgamated with the St John Hospital charity in 1991 and still provide five rooms for "poor bachelors and widowers of good character of not less than 50 years". The trustees have moved with the times and wives are now allowed. They may stay if they are widowed.

Another request of the founder has been honoured. Every year an Evensong is held in Winchester Cathedral. Flowers are still laid before the clergy and congregation, but the brethren and students no longer wear the gowns of crimson grograyne with silver chains round their necks nor do the scholars wear "Crimson Sattin Night Caps." as in the past.


By the 1890s, enough money had been earned from the sale of land to the expanding railway companies for the Conservator and Gubernators, who looked after the finances, to increase the educational side of the foundation and establish a secondary school for Winchester boys.


Peter Symonds' School opened in May, 1897, at 39, Southgate Street.

Only six headmasters have been appointed in 102 years and the first two of these, Telford Varley and Dr Freeman, covered the first half-century between them. The ethos of the school has been greatly influenced by the personalities and achievements of these men.

Appointed in 1897 and ordained a priest in 1908, the Revd Telford Varley was a formidable first headmaster for the school. He was held greatly in awe by the boys; this was partly because of his manner; distant eyed behind his beard, he was capable of fearsome outbursts of temper and of designing strange punishments, making offenders feel very small indeed.

He caught a boy climbing through a classroom window and invited him to climb in and out of it 50 times after school while Varley himself sat in the room marking.

Slovenly pupils who slouched around with their hands in their pockets were paraded in Northbrook Hall at 4 o'clock and invited by Mr. Varley to "assume an attitude of hobbledehoy". They then shambled round the hall with hangdog expression until told to assume "the attitude of a gentleman", when they straightened themselves and marched smartly round and round.

During the pauses in this exercise, trains could be heard entering and leaving Winchester station, and, as many of the delinquents were train boys, this added to their discomfiture. "This is called the old game of keeping the headmaster in," he gloated. "That was the 4 o'clock to Eastleigh. There will be another at 5 o'clock..." His inspection report would meet with approval nowadays, his discipline methods less so!


The first annual examination and inspection in 1898 stated: "Here you have proof of three things: 1st, the energy and organising skill of the Headmaster; 2nd, the loyal co-operation of the staff; 3rd, the hearty obedience of the boys."


On December 21st, 1899, they moved to the present site off Cranworth Road. There were 87 boys on the register and the headmaster's salary was £100 per annum, plus £4 for each boy.


Varley retired in 1926 and was succeeded by Dr Freeman, a mathematics graduate, always known as "Doc". He dearly wanted to make Peter Symonds' into a public school and set about enlarging buildings and facilities. He had the swimming pool built and became a prominent figure in the community - an early president of Winchester Rotary Club, a Freemason and a Justice of the Peace. He threw himself into every aspect of school life and had boundless energy.

It was he who introduced rugby to the school in 1936 and encouraged continental holidays, such as cruises to the Baltic on the SS Neutralia.

During World War II, 450 boys were evacuated from Portsmouth and squashed into the school. One school held lessons in the morning, the other in the afternoon. As news filtered back of old boys dying in action, Doc openly grieved, announcing in assembly, sometimes in tears, the names of the latest to lose their lives in action.

They were added to the Board of Honour which stands above the fireplace in The Symonds Room in Northbrook, which had been built by the Old Symondians' Society in 1922 as a memorial to those who had lost their lives in the First World War.


John Shields took over as head in 1957 after the death of Doc and instigated the building of Varley Hall, the Gym and the Science Labs. When he retired in 1963 he had totally revitalised the school. Mr Shields had a strong vision on how schooling needed to change and develop as Britain entered the sixties. Alongside his role at Peter Symonds he was a member of the Government sponsored Pilkington Committee, which considered the future of the UK's broadcasting services.


John Ashurst was the head in the "swinging Sixties" and it fell to him to deal with its effect on the boys. Despite the fashion for the Beatles haircut, long hair was definitely not appreciated. He emphasised academic rigour and was a strict disciplinarian. When he left in 1973 to take up a new post at Hymer's College, Hull, his legacy of improved teaching standards led to enhanced A and O Level grades and a far higher number of students progressing to university.


The task for Ashurst's successor, Stuart Nicholls, was to transform a school with an outstanding reputation into a sixth-form college. In September, 1974, the first admissions were made. Girls were accepted for the first time, their mini-skirts causing consternation to pupils and masters alike.


There were 900 students on roll and the largest single intake of students came not from the local comprehensives but from the private sector.

The highly-regarded Hampshire Specialist Music Course began. Students go through a rigorous selection procedure which enables them to progress to the top music colleges in the country. Mr Nicholls cultivated the phrase which remains an unofficial motto of the college: "We count in ones". He served on several national education bodies and headed the Association of Sixth-Form College Principals.


In 1991, the Adult Continuing Education Centre (ACE), based in Stoney Lane, became a division of Peter Symonds. Using the facilities of the centre and the college they provide daytime and evening courses, as well as weekend courses, in a wide range of subjects.


Mr Nicholls left the college after 20 years to become a national inspector.


Neil Hopkins, who arrived in 1993, has seen the expansion of courses to include vocational course at entry and intermediate level as well the more traditional A-levels. Even they have changed with the introduction of modular courses and course work assignments and over 50 subjects are now listed in the prospectus. Several new buildings and facilities have been provided. The Science Centre was opened in 1996 by the Duke of Gloucester and, in 1998, Prince Andrew opened the boarding house Falkland Lodge and the Paul Woodhouse Centre.

The Paul Woodhouse Centre contains a cafeteria supplied by an industrial-sized kitchen, student services, student union and counselling services as well as a large room where the students can relax and meet their friends.


In April 2002 the guest of honour at the 'Topping Out' ceremony of the new Mercers' Sports Hall at Peter Symonds was Master Mercer, Mr Hodson who tapped the College and Mercer shields in place on either side of the building entrance.

In July the Mercers Sport Hall was officially opened by Mark Oaten MP. Howard Truelove, Chairman of the Education committee of the Mercers Company was amongst the guests. The sports hall provides the college with its own indoor sports hall which can be used for basketball, badminton, etc and can also be soundproofed at exam times. Upstairs there is a multi gym, and three classrooms. To meet planning conditions the building was sunk some three metres into the chalk slope so that its roofline did not overshadow or overbear neighbours and the excavated chalk has been used to create the popular external meeting place affectionately known by the students as ‘Hopkins Hump’.

In December 2002 John Morton writer of the acclaimed BBC series, ‘People Like Us’ and ‘Kiss Me Kate’, and former teacher at the college, was the chief guest at the Gala Opening of the refurbished Varley Theatre.


In September 2004 The John Shields building was officially opened by Master Mercer Charles Smith in the presence of two of John Shields’ daughters. This building offers 14 classrooms, work-rooms, staff offices and a shop, as well as a dedicated display cabinet for OSS memorabilia.

Over the summer of 2004 the Varley Sports Café was modified to include a mezzanine upper floor to supply more space for students to relax and meet their friends.


Wyke Lodge, once a boarding house, was refurbished to provide classrooms and teachers’ workrooms for the Travel & Tourism, Business and Psychology departments as well as IT support.


Spring 2006 saw the start of preparations for the build of the new Learning Resource Centre. The Ashurst Building, which is being built on the former site of Varley Lodge and Cottage, has an expected completion date of Spring 2007. Initially the LRC building will house the Library, Careers and Learning Resource departments as well as offering seven teaching rooms and ICT facilities.

During the 2006 summer break, and despite the reported demise of science subjects, the Physics department moved into the revamped ICT building beside Varley in order to free up space in the Science Buildings for the ever-increasing number of students wishing to study the Sciences.

The philosophy and care for students is still the priority for Neil Hopkins. "The students come first." he says firmly. "Despite our size, we still count in ones, valuing individuals, and I'm proud to be part of this vibrant place."


2007 marked the 400th Anniversary of the Foundation in 1607 when Peter Symonds’ wishes, as expressed in his Will of 1586, were fulfilled with the establishment of the Almshouses in Symonds Street.

To celebrate this landmark Anniversary a varied programme of activities was organised. It began with an inaugural lecture in Janaury: In Search of Peter Symonds by Dr John Hare, a history teacher at the college. Further events included the opening of the College’s 7Radio station on Valentine’s Day and a charity quiz night with Old Symondian Kevin Ashman in March. April’s event was a first for the college with The Gresham Lecture, held at PSC, given by Prof Michael Mainelli. There followed a 400k charity bike ride, a summer celebration ball and an Arts Festival Week including all the ‘Arts’ departments around the college.

The Founders Day Procession on May 16th was one of the highlights of the year with Old Symondians, dignitaries, current and past staff and students, as well some of the current occupants from the Almshouses joining the procession from the Symonds Street Almshouses to the Cathedral. Mrs Mary Fagan JP, HM Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire, joined 500 guests for a celebrationary service which was full of music, dance and song supplied by current students. A small reception followed with drinks and canapés.

On campus building work on the LRC continued to schedule with an Easter handover. In September the £4.2m building, named after former head teacher John Ashurst, was officially opened as the new Learning Resource Centre by Master Mercer Fredrick Hohler in the presence of its namesake. Governors, staff, guests and invited students were able to look around the new building and experience a Light & Sound A level project piece by U6 student Rodolpho Rodriguez.

Elsewhere works continued as Northbrook, emptied of staff, underwent extensive renovations and alterations to its interior, due of completion by January 2008.


Early in January a revamped Northbrook welcomed Mrs Mary Fagan, as its Guest of Honour in the Symonds Room for the official reopening of the building. Mrs Fagan unveiled the new Jubilee Triptych Window and the specially designed Wallhanging, both commissioned to mark the 400 year celebrations, before joining staff and guests at the reception party in the new staff room, on the mezzanine over Resources.

Northbrook now houses the main Reception as well as offices for the Principal and Senior Management team, Resources, IT Support, Personnel, Admissions, Exams, Finance, MIS, First Aid Office, Estates and Head of Boarding. Several small classrooms are located off the back corridor.

As ever standards remain high around the college as proven by various inspections throughout the year. The college received a congratulatory letter and certificate from "ALPS", the A level Performance Scheme, which analyses the A'level results of students at nearly 1000 schools and colleges from all over the country, in comparison to the GCSE results they had when they started A level.

In 2007 Peter Symonds was 38th out of 975 state and private schools and colleges, well within the top five per cent in terms of value-added; students at Symonds did better than would be expected from their GCSE results.

Principal, Neil Hopkins, said: "In many ways this least-publicised measure of success is the most pleasing we receive. It shows that we do not merely take in able youngsters and send them out with good results, as I suspect that many of our rivals like to believe, but that actually we send our students out with better results than 95 per cent of other schools and colleges would achieve with those same students. I am very proud of my staff."

They also received praise for top rate boarding house provision as well as excellent teaching levels – as acknowledged in a mini Ofsted, which allocated Grade 1’s across the board.