A village, a school, and Jemima Puddleduck

LONG MELFORD IN Suffolk is a village that I have passed through several times. It was only during our most recent visit in August 2021, when we stopped there to see its church and Melford Hall that I realised that the place has a connection with Highgate School (in north London), which I attended between 1965 and 1970.

Melford Hall sits on land that was once owned by the abbots of St Edmundsbury. As with all monastic property, it passed into the hands of King Henry VIII when he ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The king with an eye to profit rather than the prophets sold the properties he had confiscated to wealthy buyers (nobles, merchants, and lawyers). Melford Hall and its lands were sold to a local lawyer, William Cordell (1522-1581). His father was a personal assistant (‘steward’) to Sir William Clopton, a lawyer and owner of Kentwell Hall at Long Melford. Young Cordell was sent to study law at Lincolns Inn and was called to the Bar at the early age of 22. An active politician during the reigns of Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I and a founder of the Russia Company, William Cordell acquired great wealth. It was he that bought the estate at Long Melford along with its stately home, Melford Hall. In addition, he married Sir William Clopton’s granddaughter, heiress to estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Cordell did not build Melford Hall, but he did modify it in various ways. However, he did build the nearby Hospital of the Holy and Blessed Trinity in 1573. Situated across from the cathedral-like parish church, this was an almshouse for 12 aged men and women. The Great Church of The Holy Trinity stands behind and above the almshouse. It is a superb example of 15th century gothic architecture and is distinguished by having a separate Lady Chapel, which cannot be entered from the church, at its east end. It is one of the only parish churches in the country, which was never part of an abbey, to have such a feature. Within this fine church, Sir William Cordell’s elaborate sculpted tomb can be found in the chancel to the right (south) of the high altar. He died childless.

Amongst other important roles, William Cordell became Recorder of London. He succeeded his acquaintance, another lawyer from Lincolns Inn, Sir Roger Cholmeley (c1485-1565). Sir Roger was the founder of Highgate School during the final months of his life. This is the school I attended many years later.

Thomas Hinde, author of “Highgate School. A History” wrote that after Cholmeley, William Cordell was the school’s greatest early benefactor. Connected with two other educational establishments, St Johns College in Cambridge and Merchants Taylors’ School, Cordell became a Governor of Highgate School in 1576.

When I was at Highgate, it only admitted boys. Some pupils, including me, were day boys, and others were boarders. The boarders lived in one of four houses: School House, The Lodge, Grindal House, and Cordell House. Grindal was named to commemorate Bishop Edmund Grindal (c1519-1583), who helped establish Highgate School and Cordell was named to honour William Cordell. Until We visited Long Melford, I had no idea about the reason for giving Cordell House its name.

Returning to Melford Hall, once the home of William Cordell, it has passed through many generations of the Hyde Parker family, who acquired the hall and its grounds in 1786 from a descendant of both William’s sister and his cousin, Thomas Cordell. In 1890. The Reverend Sir William Hyde Parker (1863-1931) married Ethel Leech (1861-1941) in 1890. Ethel had a cousin, who has become extremely well-known, the children’s author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). She used to visit the Hyde Parkers at Melford Hall, where she stayed occasionally. She used to draw and sketch many features of the hall and its grounds. We were shown one of the bedrooms in which she used to sleep. Nearby in a glass-fronted display cabinet, you can see a toy duck, wearing the outfit that Beatrix had created for it. This duck was the inspiration for her book “The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck”, which was first published in July 1908.

I had seen photographs of Melford Hall, which made me want to visit it, and I was not disappointed. However, I had not expected to learn that the Hall and the village have connections with both Beatrix Potter and one of the earliest benefactors and governors of the secondary school I attended in Highgate. Our visit to Long Melford certainly broadened our minds, as the popular saying goes. I will leave you with how GK Chesterton, who attended St Paul’s School rather than Highgate, expressed this idea in his “The Shadow of the Shark”:

“They say travel broadens the mind, but you must have the mind.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s