As we prepare for that red letter day in this school’s corporate life, Founders’ Day there is an opportunity to think about and express something about the people and places which establish such an important framework to the identity of this school. They provide something of the warp and weft of our lives here. There is one of those splendid late nineteenth century pieces of English hymnody, written by the Reverend Henry Draper, which captures it nicely. The first lines of the hymn, usually sung to the wonderfully sentimental tune St Catherine’s Court, run as follows:
“On this day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer
for the saints who before us have found the reward;”
Bishop Christopher Chavasse and Lady Elena Bennett, were probably not ‘saints’ to those who knew them in their lives. They certainly have not been through the rigorous process of canonization which the Catholic Church uses to recognise the exemplary lives of some Christians, many of which are recognised as such across the Anglican Communion. Nonetheless, I do believe that in the act of founding this school, they can certainly be said to be examples to us now. Chavasse’s vision of a Christian school serving the West Kent community and Lady Bennett’s generous donation deserve our recognition and an occasion of thanksgiving. It is genuinely exciting that Bishop Chavasse will be commemorated more overtly when the Tenax Trust opens its new school in Tonbridge.
The school has been delighted recently to secure Lady Bennett’s Red Cross medal, which recognises her considerable service to that organisation throughout her life. In the First World War she joined the Red Cross V.A.D in December 1915 as a Sister at Bidborough Court, V.A.D. Hospital, and served until 1918. Accounts also survive of Lady Bennett throwing open her home ‘The Friars’ in Matfield to be used as a collection station for linen and fabric for the Red Cross, as they prepared for the contingency of the Second World War. Compassionate service, as exemplified by Lady Bennett’s commitment to the British Red Cross is one of the four cardinal values of the school today.
Places matter too. Nobody who has taught or learned in M7, one of the classrooms in Bennett’s ‘mansion’ building, can think it is an ideal space for that purpose, but I would not sacrifice it for a gleaming glass and steel classroom block. I wouldn’t say no, of course, to a brand new building, built in an ecologically and aesthetically sound way alongside the mansion, but our school buildings carry with them the story of our foundation. They root us strongly in this community and contribute powerfully to our distinctive identity. The way in which they are adapted and reconfigured to reflect changing priorities acts as a palimpsest of our evolution as a school. Former students, returning, delight in observing both change and continuity. We are looking forward to throwing open our doors to alumni later this academic year, with an event being planned in the New Year.
Having said that people and places play an important role in framing the identity of this school, I should balance this by stating unequivocally that our school ethos adds up to very little unless it is actually lived out by the people who are part of the school: students, staff and indeed beyond that parents and former students, all of whom are touched in some way by what this school seeks to be. At our Founders’ Day service Bishop James will bless a new cross for our Sixth Form centre pictured here. The cross, was fashioned by Bennett students working alongside disabled workers this summer at the Neema Crafts centre in Tanzania. Our ongoing relationship with Neema Crafts and our partner school in Tanzania, Mwanakianga Secondary School is just one expression of that living identity, one where there is a genuine commitment to mutual flourishing. The words carved into the cross in Swahili and Latin attempt to capture this, “SEMPER UJAMAA”, meaning “always together”.