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By the time William Nightingale turned up to buy Embley it had been in existence for about a thousand years. Quite staggering. Clearly the most famous residents, the Nightingale tenure, is a blink in the eye of the history Embley has seen.

In the mid 850s, Embley or ‘Emelie’ was part of the Kings of Wessex estate, some two hundred years later it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It passes through various hands until in 1825 William Nightingale picks it up. He was looking for a residence for his family which was more conducive to family living than the estate in Derbyshire. It is quite likely that Mrs Nightingale was looking for an estate which would bring her children in closer proximity to the prospect of a good marriage, easy access to London and the social circle she aspired to. A place too where he could enjoy some good shooting and fishing. In every respect, Embley delivered.

The Nightingales were not long in residence before the home-improvement bug struck and they disappeared on a Grand Tour while the builders moved in. The West Wing we see today is their particular stamp on Embley, but the Nightingale influence goes much further.

Nightingale’s initials can be seen throughout both literally on the pipework and elsewhere as well as figuratively in the walks and the grounds. The family’s time at Embley saw the estate at the hub of social life in Hampshire. The great and the good of 19th century life came to Embley; everyone from their neighbour Lord Palmerston (Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister) to Elizabeth Gaskell, writer and mathematician Charles Babbage, not to mention social reformer Lord Ashley and Charles Darwin. Our own Nightingale Lecture Series has boasted an impressive guest list to date and follows on the line of luminaries entertaining and informing those who gathered at Embley.

Our Sixth Formers, unlike Florence who sat glumly enduring the round of social niceties, are far more engaged and much more involved. For all her social reforming zeal – indeed because of it – Florence struggled to put up with what in 19th century polite society was the ‘role’ of the young woman. She bristled at the fact that her presence and her sister’s presence at Embley social events were not for their own edification. A glimpse of her critique can be found where she writes:

“the family uses people, not for what they are, not for what they are intended to be, but for what it wants them for-for its own uses”.

Our focus on developing student leadership, indeed leadership in everyone, is in stark contrast with the social and intellectual passivity which was more the norm of the 19th century.  That said, Embley was critical to Florence’s development and shaped her mindset, regardless of how or where we might come to understand her calling to serve in the Crimea.

In a significant departure from convention, Florence’s father taught her Latin, Greek, Astronomy and History, as well as Philosophy and Mathematics. The training she had from her scholarly father would serve her later endeavours in good stead. Perhaps where Florence may have differed a little from her father was in the purpose of education. Nightingale saw the intrinsic value of learning, it was a good in itself. Florence challenged his sense of this in seeing education as an instrument for change.

I think we do both. Our own curriculum has seen considerable review, from the Stock Market Investment Club in the Prep school – which held an impressive annual report on Wednesday evening, to student-led initiatives and engagement with the Royal Institute, the focus on STE@M subjects, Humanities weeks and environmental awareness campaigns, as well as the adventure in learning typified through our sailing successes. The current experience at Embley is as cutting edge as Nightingale was and as focused on building the best in everyone. The wealth generated by the Stock Market Investment Club will be recycled to fund a bursary which will allow a student to attend Embley who would otherwise be unable to.

Our recent announcement about our change in name and visual identity is an expression of what St Augustine described as “beauty ancient and new”. In re-naming our school, we have reclaimed an aspect of our heritage that shares the values of being academically ambitious; encouraging an appropriate belief in oneself and being mindful that the world does not end at the tip of my nose and that happiness in life is through success in enriching the lives of others.

I have been bowled over by the extent and degree to which our new identity has been welcomed from every section of the school community. It is as if the whole had been straining at change and once released a weight was lifted. Unbidden and without prompt, Mrs Adam’s Year 1s addressed their postcards in space, ‘from Embley’. Mr Leatham sent a photo of the sand graffiti ‘Embley’ by his students, on tour in Newquay, after the announcement had been made.  

We are authentic inheritors of a noble past, stewards of that tradition for the future and responsible for making difference in the world. Florence waxed eloquently about the house and estate, but perhaps the last word might go to Flo’s sister Parthenope. I think she captures the essence of Embley where she writes “… Embley is a poetry ready made”.

Wishing all our pupils, their families and staff a relaxing and enjoyable summer. 

[Thank you to Dr Russ Foster for the historical detail featured in this piece.]

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)


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