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The Official Opening of St Clement Danes School, 5 May 1978

Please find below a fascinating article written by our school archivist, Fiona Hirst, on the School’s formal opening at its current site in Chorleywood which took place on 5th May 1978.

The school in Chorleywood was officially opened by HRH The Duke of Gloucester on 5 May 1978. To mark the anniversary here is the fascinating story behind his visit.

In the summer of 1975 the Headmaster, Dr Tomkins, was already thinking about who should open his new school and he was set on having a member of the Royal Family to do the honours. But who should that be?

Dr Tomkins’ thinking was that the person should have a connection with Denmark to reflect the school’s historical connection with that country.

Mr Christopher Gregory, Clerk to the Governors, was tasked with the arrangements. He first approached HRH Princess Alexandra as she had opened the Holborn Estate alms-houses in Sydenham in 1969. The Princess was the daughter of Prince George, Duke of Kent and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark so was an appropriate choice. However, she declined the invitation. Another Royal he identified with a Danish connection was The Duchess of Gloucester who is Danish by birth but has no Danish Royal connections. Further research suggested that the Duke of Gloucester might be a better candidate as he is a descendant of King Christian 1X of Denmark.

So, in November 1977, he wrote to the Duke’s equerry to ask if the couple would attend the opening ceremony and set out the Danish connection in detail. This makes interesting reading.

“The school’s predecessor was founded in the Ancient Parish of St Clement Danes in London in 1862 – the Danes part of the title relates to the presence of a Danish colony on the north bank of the Thames in the ninth century AD and the presence of a Danish fleet in the Thames in the days of King Canute , whose son is thought to be buried under the present St Clement Danes Church. Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward V11 and a daughter of King Christian 1X of Denmark , took a lasting interest in the Danish community in London and in the church with its Danish connection. History tells us that the Queen, with her sister the Dowager Empress Marie of Russia, came to the Church in 1919 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the institution of the Danish flag. In 1920 King Christian X of Denmark and Queen Alexandrine attended a service in the church accompanied by Queen Alexandra. Queen Alexandra died in 1925 and since then the liaison between the parish and Denmark seems to have become less close. My Governors feel that the presence of Their Royal Highnesses as the guests of honour at the formal opening of the new school bearing the name St Clement Danes would help re-establish the historical link between a school based on the Ancient Parish and Denmark.”

The Danish appeal clearly worked and the Duke accepted the invitation. His Equerry contacted the local authority to ask if they had anything else he could open so as to make a full day of his visit to Hertfordshire so it was decided that he should spend the morning at St Mary’s Court, sheltered housing in Rickmansworth, and then have lunch at Watersmeet as a guest of Three Rivers District Council.

Mr Gregory got to work on the detailed arrangements for the visit in January 1978 and it is clear from his papers that protocol would be a major issue, in particular handshaking. The Duke’s Equerry suggested that 30 formal presentations in 90 minutes was about right. Mr Gregory himself recalled a visit by Princess Alice to his old TA headquarters during which she apparently shook hands 71 times in 45 minutes! A happy medium was called for. Mr Gregory was also advised that the Duke was keen on stand-up tea parties where he could walk around with his favourite tipple, a glass of milk, chatting to people.  That would preclude a lot of the handshaking!

The programme for the one-and-a-half-hour-long visit was drawn up by the beginning of March:

  • 2.30pm The Guest of Honour, HRH The Duke of Gloucester, GCVO arrives at the school. After presentations, the Chairman of the Governors will make a brief speech of welcome to which His Royal Highness will reply.
  • 2.45pm. His Royal Highness proceeds to the Dining Room where he will be invited to unveil a plaque commemorating the occasion.
  • 2.55pm. His Royal Highness begins his Tour of Inspection of the school buildings.
  • 3.35pm His Royal Highness returns to the dining room for tea.
  • 4.00pm. His Royal Highness leaves the dining room and proceeds to the main entrance to the school buildings.
  • 4.05pm Departure of the Guest of Honour.

 

The tour of inspection was based on the Duke being shown activities that would be of interest to him so it was planned that he should spend 5 minutes in each faculty. Special effort was to be made to point out items of architectural interest to the Duke who is an architect by profession. Teas were to be provided by the Schools Meals Service at 20p per head for the VIP teas in the dining room and 10p per head for teas served in the marquee lent by Burlington Danes School. No financial limit was set for the cost of the ceremony but the planners were urged to “exercise restraint “to avoid incurring heavy expenditure.

Numbers attending the ceremony were a thorny problem because of lack of space and a desire not to upset anyone by leaving them off the list! The final guest list had some 250 names on it and there were also the 450 pupils and a maximum of 700 parents, making a possible total of 1400 people. Mr Gregory expressed a fervent hope that the final number of attendees would not exceed 1100.

A further concern was the state of the school grounds – Mr Gregory wrote to Herts County Council to ask what their plans were for smartening up areas “which currently look like a Flanders battle field of the First World War “. He got a prompt reply confirming that HCC grounds staff would do their best in the time allowed. The council also confirmed that they would refresh the paintwork in certain parts of the school (in very bad repair apparently despite the school only being open for 3 years) and replace the “Royal “toilet seat.

The total cost of the opening ceremony eventually came to £752.

The big day finally came. Despite it turning out to be the wettest of the year so far it went smoothly and was a great success judging by the letters of congratulation sent by the guests afterwards – Mr Gregory must have slept well that night.

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