Antigua Grammar School for boys was founded in 1884 and presided over for more than 40 years by the venerable and venerated Reverend (later, Archdeacon) Samuel Edmund Branch. It was founded as an Anglican school and run on British public school lines, though from the beginning was partly government funded. Parents paid modest fees, affordable for the island’s coloured middle class as much as by white colonial servants and planters who were initially its main patrons. Indeed, the school owed its existence to the Middle Class Education Act of 1882, albeit as an Anglican institution. In the early 20th Century it was open to accusations of discrimination by reason more of religion than by race or skin colour, though Catholic pupils were admitted and exempt from morning prayers. From an early stage a majority of its boys were black or coloured.
The school initially occupied a house in St John’s High Street, which later became the Treasury. By the early 1900s, it moved to its present site in the area known as Lady Nugent’s, on a small hillock overlooking the Old Parham Road. My grandfather, George, my father, Oliver, and two uncles all attended the school.
My father started his schooling in England, at Caversham, Reading, near his birthplace of Peasemore, attending Balmore School at the age of 8. When George and Gladys, my grandmother, moved the family back to Antigua in 1925, Oliver was enrolled at Antigua Grammar School aged 9 ½ joining class 2. His younger brothers Kingsley Osbern George (known at school as George) and Nicholas Ronald joined the school in due course. Total enrolment at that time was 70 or 80 boys who were taught in five ‘year’ classes. Sport, including cricket, football and shooting, was a compulsory activity. The boys went boating and swimming at St James’ beach. At school they wore uniform in the school colours of dark green and black as well as straw hats or ‘boaters’. Later, in the 1940s, clothing better suited to Antigua’s tropical climate was introduced.
All my father’s brothers and sisters went on to schools in Britain, as was
Antigua Grammar School survives to this day, indeed it flourishes, on the same Old Parham Road site, with a reputation for excellence well beyond Antigua, true to the school motto, Semper Virens, Always Flourishing. From the early days it had accepted boarders from the French and Dutch Antilles, Danish (later US) Virgin Islands as well as from the British Leeward and Windward Islands. One old boy recalls wartime contemporaries from as far away as Czechoslovakia and India.
A sister school, Antigua Girls’ High School, was opened two years after the boys’ school in premises near St John’s Cathedral. This was attended by my great aunts, Monica and Gertrude (sisters of George), my aunts Monica, Peggy and Joyce (sisters of Oliver, Osbern and Nick) and Gertrude’s daughter Phyllis Howell.
(Sources: Semper Virens by E.T Henry-Museum Newsletter 1992; ‘Antigua Then’ by Margaret Lockett; ‘A History of Education in the British Leeward Islands, 1838-1945′ by Howard A Fergus; ‘A History of Antigua’ by Brian Dyde; School group pictures: Nugent family papers; Classroom photo: Jan Augustin.)