Henry Morris and The Establishment of The Village Colleges


Talk by Keith Dixon, 8 March 2016

What an extraordinary character the founder of Cambridgeshire’s Village Colleges was!  As the young and cool say (or said; I might not be completely up to date), ‘Who knew?’  Keith Dixon does, and told the Society all about him at our March meeting.  This was an almost-rags to educational riches story, of someone who was born in 1889 into a large family in Southport whose mother died when he was young and who had to work against all the odds to get accepted at Oxford University, but had to leave for war duty in WWI.  Returning as a captain he found himself so devastated by the loss of many friends there that he switched to Cambridge, and devoted himself to the cause of improving standards of education for all.  Keith briefly outlined the history of education in England, and what Morris found was needed: more inspired teaching, better buildings, involvement of the whole community.

Appointed Secretary for Education in Cambridgeshire in 1922, by 1925 he had evolved the idea of the Village College, and set out to find the money.  The Atlantic was no barrier.  He made several trips to America, and with his charismatic personality he became ‘an expert in begging’; he ended up advising President Roosevelt and addressing the Canadian Parliament.  I knew that Sawston Village College was the first he got off the ground, but not that he managed to inveigle the then Prince of Wales into officially opening it, in 1930.  It seems the future Edward VIII had the idea it was a new Cambridge university college he would be opening, and was somewhat disgruntled to find it was a mere secondary school, but he did the job!  And Morris got the publicity for his scheme, and the other village colleges opened over the following years, as well as new and attractive primary schools and the idea of the Regional College, which only opened after his death.

Morris had a great cultural and intellectual hinterland and his friends included such 20th-century giants as sculptor Henry Moore, archaeologist Jaquetta Hawkes and her husband the writer J.B. Priestley.  Impington Village College is now a Grade 1 listed building because Morris got the Bauhaus modernist architect Walter Gropius to design it – and the Chivers family to fund it from the proceeds of their jam-making business!  It was sad to hear that this marvellous man ended his life suffering from dementia, in 1963.  But what a life, and what a contribution to education, here in Cambridgeshire, and more particularly to our neighbouring Sawston Village College, and around the world!

Maureen Street