I had the life-changing good fortune to pass my eleven-plus exam, which was my free ticket to a grammar-school and university education.
I attended Swanwick Hall Grammar School, Derbyshire, from 1959 to 1966 – a pivotal period in the history of the school.
When I arrived it had recently lost its headmaster, Herbert Scarborough, who resigned during a public controversy over the County Council’s plan to turn the school into a comprehensive – a transition that eventually began some years after I left.
I enjoyed history consistently through school (though I read English at university), and in the sixth form my circle of friends took an interest in the history of the building – a brick-built Georgian villa with Victorian extensions – and the family that lived there.
We were actually in search of the Grey Lady who glides – as the big kids always told the little kids (and do to this day) – down the main staircase at dead of night.
In the absence of any kind of digital technology, we pieced together what information we could from local churchyards, books in the local branch library and then visits to the Local History Library in Derby.
In Derby Art Gallery we found Joseph Wright’s portrait The Wood Children (1789), which had hung in the Hall, and eventually found a real live member of the Wood family, who had been a girl when the house was sold to become the School in 1920. She put us in contact with another family member who had other portraits, none of them attributed to Wright.
Decades later, we discovered from the writings of the Derby historian Maxwell Craven that the Hall was designed by a prolific local architect, Joseph Pickford (c1734-1782), for Hugh Wood (1736-1814).
The family had owned coal-bearing land locally for centuries, and their social status rose gradually from yeomen to gentry.
At the end of the eighteenth century Hugh Wood’s older brother, Rev John Wood, was chaplain to the Duke of Devonshire, which helped Hugh’s eldest son, another Rev John, to two livings, Kingsley in Staffordshire and Pentrich in Derbyshire, a mile or so away from Swanwick. It can’t be accidental that the Bachelor Duke appointed Rev John Wood to be Vicar of Pentrich in 1818, the year after the abortive Pentrich Rising.
One of the younger Rev John’s sons, Edward, was a lieutenant in the army of the East India Company and was killed at the Battle of Miani in 1843. His memorial is in the chancel of Pentrich Church.
His youngest brother, William, emigrated to Canada, settling at Nanticoke on the shores of Lake Erie. Members of subsequent generations of the family went to join their Canadian cousins.
Terry Thacker and I wrote up our researches which the School published as The Story of Swanwick Hall (1972).
We have a possible candidate for the identity of the Grey Lady, but we see no reason to provoke a new generation of Swanwick Hall students to embark on extracurricular ghost hunts – as we did in the late 1960s.