School History

Prior’s Field School was the fulfilment of a dream for Julia Huxley, granddaughter of Dr Thomas Arnold, the reforming headmaster of Rugby School and niece of poet Matthew Arnold. Married to Charterhouse schoolmaster Leonard Huxley, she had long cherished an ambition to open a school of her own. She bought a five-acre plot and a moderate sized house on the outskirts of Godalming and, in January 1902, opened her progressive school for girls with just six pupils and her seven-and-a-half-year-old son, Aldous.

A brilliant scholar and gifted teacher, Mrs Huxley had advanced and original ideas about education. She brought subjects alive by taking her pupils out of the classroom and into galleries, concerts, theatres and museums. She allowed the girls an unusual freedom of thought and expression and encouraged a love of books, culture and solitude. Prior’s Field pupils could choose whether or not to go to church and could explore the countryside in pairs without supervision.

Prior’s Field attracted the attention of many of the intellectual and cultural elite of the country; Arthur Conan-Doyle, Professor Gilbert Murray and Alexander Siemens were among those who sent their daughters to be educated in the new experimental style by Mrs Huxley. When she died in 1908 aged only 46, she had established a thriving and successful school. She was succeeded by Ethel Burton-Brown and in turn by Ethel’s daughter Beatrice Burton-Brown who was Head Mistress at the time of Prior’s Field’s Golden Jubilee in 1952. Together, these formidable women created a unique and distinctive school whose ethos of joy in learning and ambition for girls continues to this day.

The Huxleys and Prior’s Field

Julia Arnold met Leonard Huxley when they were both studying at Oxford in the 1880s. Julia and Leonard married in 1885 and moved to Godalming where Leonard had been appointed a junior classics master at Charterhouse.

The Huxley’s marriage brought together two of the most pre-eminent intellectual families of late Victorian England. The Arnolds and the Huxleys were numbered amongst and elite group of thinkers and scientists at the forefront of discovery and philosophy.

The founder of the Huxley dynasty was the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley who defended the theory of evolution published in The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. T H Huxley had little formal education and taught himself Latin and Greek; he became a distinguished professor and president of the Royal Society. His interests were not limited to science and he was a keen advocate of literature and the arts being taught in schools.

Thomas Henry’s son Leonard was to become a renowned editor and literary journalist after many years of teaching. As a school master at Charterhouse he was noted as a “kindly and sympathetic man” unlike many of his contemporaries. At Prior’s Field, Leonard and Julia created a home as well as a school and Leonard was well known to the staff and girls. After Julia’s untimely death he retained his connection with the school for the rest of his life.

Julian and Aldous Huxley

Julia and Leonard Huxley’s children grew up in a home where thought about science, religion and education informed family life. Two of their sons were to become world famous. Sir Julian Huxley was a scientist, Director of UNESCO and founding member of the World Wildlife Fund. Aldous Huxley was famed as a writer, philosopher and novelist. Aldous wrote numerous novels, plays, short stories and poems. His dystopian novel Brave New World includes many references to the Godalming area of Surrey where he grew up.

The private house in which Julia Huxley opened Prior’s Field School was designed by renowned Arts and Crafts architect Charles Francis Annesley Voysey. Originally called Prior’s Garth, it was built in 1900 for a colleague of Leonard Huxley’s who never occupied it. The Huxleys acquired it in 1901 and Julia obtained permission to use it as a ‘high-class school for girls’.

The rooms of the original house are still in use by Prior’s Field School and are fondly remembered by all who lived and worked in them. When Voysey designed Prior’s Garth, he was at the pinnacle of his career in creating attractive, homely, yet very modern houses for discerning clients. The building is typical of his work with cottage-style characteristics, roughcast exterior walls, steeply pitched roofs and prominent chimneys. Inside the house, the Oak Hall with its fine dominant staircase, panelling and deep tiled fireplace exemplifies his austere but cosy style. Many of Voysey’s favourite motifs of hearts and birds are evident on fire surrounds, air vents and door furniture throughout the building.

The garden laid out by Voysey which features dry stone walls and a dipping pond fed by rain water, was planted in a Gertrude Jekyll inspired design with roses, lavender and herbaceous borders. Both Julia and her husband were keen gardeners and Leonard brought many plants for his rockery back from his trips abroad with his sons.

The school quickly outgrew the house and an extension was commissioned in 1903 from Thomas Müntzer, a pupil of CFA Voysey. These additions were faithful to Voysey’s principles; Müntzer’s exteriors create a unified design and his interiors continue Voysey’s use of enclosing upright bannisters, green tiled fireplaces and exposed woodwork in the attractive and practical rooms. Müntzer did further work in later additions which carried on the established style. Later buildings of the twentieth century and those of more recent years have faithfully echoed and re-interpreted Voysey’s work to give Prior’s Field a particular charm and attractiveness, true to its arts and crafts roots.

In 2002, to coincide with the school’s centenary, Margaret Elliott wrote a hugely enjoyable account of the school’s history.


‘Prior's Field School: A Century Remembered 1902-2002’

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