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William Alder Strange

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William Alder Strange

1813 - 1874


(see long history)

William Alder Strange, headmaster of Abingdon School, was a great-nephew of John Alder, ‘the lucky cooper’, whose lottery win in 1767 funded his family’s social ascent. William Alder was born in 1813. Most of his school education was at Christ’s Hospital in London, but he returned to Abingdon in time to take advantage of Abingdon School’s scholarships to Pembroke College, Oxford. He matriculated in 1829 and took his B.A. degree in classics in 1833. With only fourth-class honours, his academic credentials were not outstanding.

He started his teaching career as second master at a school attached to the Royal Institution in Liverpool. While there, he also studied for the Anglican ministry, being ordained in 1837. This was somewhat paradoxical, since in 1836 he married Mary Elizabeth Davis, of an Abingdon Baptist family and sister of the artist Louis Davis. In 1840, he returned to Abingdon School as headmaster. The school had suffered from a succession of inadequate headmasters and at this time was quite small, with pupil numbers generally about twenty. Strange proved an effective teacher, liked and respected by his pupils. During his headmastership of twenty-eight years, aided by an expanding market for education, numbers went up into the sixties.

He became well known in the district, developing a local reputation as an occasional preacher at the town churches. In particular, he acted for a time as a sort of unofficial curate at the new church that had been built at Shippon, which could not afford regular clergy. He seems to have been appreciated as an effective parish priest, and when his functions there ceased in 1858 the parishioners clubbed together to give him a valuable gift. 

Serious career frustrations had begun in the 1850s. The Pembroke scholarships, which had long been an attraction to ambitious parents, ceased to be completely in the headmaster’s gift; the college now insisted on an entrance examination, and not all the Abingdon candidates passed. In 1860, there was a change in the governance of the school. The old board of trustees – who were the Mayor and Corporation of Abingdon – was replaced by a new board with the long-established Abingdon charity of Christ’s Hospital, now obliged by the courts to follow the provisions of its ancient charter, taking a major role. The purpose was to plan a reform of the school which would move out of the centre of Abingdon to new quarters provided by the Hospital in Albert Park. Strange doesn’t seem to have been involved in the planning.

In 1864-6, grammar schools throughout the country were subjected to a thorough inspection. The report on Abingdon School was highly critical. It supported the move to a new building, and called for a reform of the curriculum to emphasize modern languages, mathematics, and science over the classics. Since Strange’s second master was a classicist like him, one of them would have to go.

Fortunately, there would be no embarrassment. It happened that the current lord chancellor, Lord Chelmsford, had previously been Abingdon’s MP and was open to appeals for help. He had in his gift the vicarage of Bishop Middleham in Durham. It came with a very comfortable income. Strange was made an offer he could not refuse. He left Abingdon in September 1868 and remained in Durham until his death six year later. His remains were returned to be buried at Shippon near those of his first wife. Whether he had been able to repeat his successful ministrations in Shippon in a small northern parish is now impossible to ascertain. He was sufficiently well remembered in Abingdon for his funeral to be a civic event.

Strange was married twice. With Mary Elizabeth he had six children, three boys and three girls. One of the boys became, and two of the girls married, clergymen. The other boys became, respectively, a banker and an opal miner in Australia. The youngest daughter seems not to have married. Mary Elizabeth died in 1856 and in 1860 Strange married Martha Richmond, of a farming family in Drayton St Leonard near Dorchester, who was half his age. There were no further children. Martha was still living as a widow in 1881 but disappears from the records thereafter.

© AAAHS and contributors 2020


(see short history)

William Alder Strange was headmaster of Abingdon School for twenty-eight years in the mid-nineteenth century. He was born in 1813 into a family that had risen in the local world of Abingdon since his great-uncle’s lottery win in 1767. His father was a prosperous wine merchant – though later falling into bankruptcy.[1] He was educated at Christ’s Hospital in London (which is not connected with the institution of the same name in Abingdon) and then returned to Abingdon where he could take advantage of the long-standing arrangement by which pupils from Abingdon School had preferential access to Pembroke College in Oxford. He matriculated in 1829 and took his B.A. degree in classics in 1833, gaining only fourth-class honours. Nonetheless, in the same year he was awarded a scholarship in Sanskrit, which guaranteed him £50 annually for four years.[2]

Whether he ever seriously studied Sanskrit is uncertain, for in the same year he began a teaching career as second master at the Liverpool Royal Institution. He was ordained as a priest in 1837.[3] In 1840, as the Reverend Strange, he returned to Abingdon School as headmaster. The school’s reputation had suffered from a run of inadequate heads and it was Strange’s role to restore it. In this he was reasonably successful, and pupil numbers increased from around twenty in the mid-1830s to almost seventy in the 1860s.[4]

Strange himself gained a good reputation as a teacher of Latin and Greek, liked and respected by his pupils. In 1855 they even clubbed together to present him with an armchair.[5] At the school’s tercentenary celebrations in 1863 the ‘old boys’ gave him valuable testimonials of silver plate and books.[6]

He was also active in the wider community. He gained a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1843 and a doctorate in 1847 as mid-career qualifications, and was an occasional, and apparently very popular, preacher at both St Helen’s and St Nicholas’.[7] His churchmanship was of the evangelical variety, which gained him the esteem of the numerous Dissenters in Abingdon.[8] He was on the committee that erected the statue of the Prince Consort in Albert Park, and was prominent in a society that gathered funds for converting the Jews to Christianity.[9]

But his most noteworthy outside interest was the small parish of Shippon, just outside Abingdon. A church had been built there, but there was no money to pay a clergyman. For two and a half years Strange took on the role of curate, which must have been difficult to combine with his school responsibilities and was almost certainly unpaid. He took his duties seriously, leading services each Sunday, visiting parishioners at home, and setting up a Sunday school. When his task there ended in 1858 he was presented by the parishioners with a silver salver worth £20. He continued his connection with the parish: when it was short of funds, he came to preach; the church would be crowded and the collection plate filled.[10]

As time passed, Strange began to suffer frustrations in his career. Education was becoming a subject of active national concern. Following an act of parliament in 1854, the Oxford colleges began to take control over the closed scholarships which provided routes into them from particular schools. Hitherto the Abingdon School headmaster had been able to send pupils to Pembroke College effectively at his own discretion, but from 1856 candidates would have to take a college exam which not all the Abingdon entrants would pass. It was a loss of status for Strange.[11]

At the same time the Abingdon charity of Christ’s Hospital had new rules drawn up for it by the Court of Chancery and enforced by the Charity Commissioners. These included a duty of active support for Abingdon School. Accordingly, in 1860, the mayor and corporation gave way as trustees of the school to a new board of governors which included the Master of the Hospital, the current and immediate past mayor and the recorder of Abingdon, and three senior Oxford academics. Their immediate task was planning to move the school out of the town centre to new quarters on Hospital land.[12] Strange does not seem to have had their confidence. He applied for the Oxford professorship of Sanskrit, in spite of his complete lack of publications on the subject.[13] The position went to a more established scholar.[14]

Worse was to come. In 1866, the Taunton commission looking into grammar schools sent an inspector to Abingdon. He was thorough, sitting in on lessons and personally examining the boys. His report was bleak. The school was still in the top tier – those that sent pupils to university – but only just. The higher forms were too small for the boys to be stretched by competition, and there was no reason for there to be, as there were, two classics masters. English was badly taught by an unqualified person; French well, but by a foreigner. There ought to be less emphasis on Latin and Greek, and more on mathematics, physical science and modern languages.[15] This amounted to a recommendation that the school move down to the second division, not offering university entrance and with boys leaving at sixteen. It was a challenge to the governors. It seems they decided that Strange was not the man to rejuvenate the school in its new building and in the utilitarian spirit of the age. It may be that Strange agreed with them.[16]

Frederick Thesiger, Lord Chelmsford, was Lord Chancellor at the time and was well known in Abingdon, having been its MP from 1845 to 1852. The Lord Chancellor had in his gift the vicarage of Bishop Middleham in Durham. Strange had been earning £150 a year from the school’s endowment and £320 from fees, plus whatever he could make from his eighteen boarders; from this he had to pay the English, mathematics and writing masters. Bishop Middleham was a small parish, but the living came with a house and £300 per year from tithes after outgoings.[17] He would have a very comfortable, if distant, retirement.

He was exercising his new functions by the end of September 1868. He died in April 1874 at the age of 61 and his remains were brought back to Abingdon for burial at Shippon, close to his first wife who had been interred there in 1856.[18]  He had not been forgotten, and the funeral was a major occasion, with shops briefly shut and blinds drawn as the cortège passed.[19] He would long be remembered by many of his pupils, some of whom in 1883 presented the governors with a portrait of him by the Abingdon artist Henry Jamyn Brooks which remains at the school.[20]

Strange married in 1836 Mary Elizabeth Davis, sister of the Abingdon artist Louis Davis. This seems paradoxical, given that he was already an Anglican deacon and the Davises were a Baptist family. They had six children, three girls and three boys. Vincent Strange became rich mining opals in Australia, Lawrence was a banker, and Cresswell a canon of Worcester Cathedral and president of the Old Abingdonian Society. He arranged in 1893 that a new science laboratory at the school be named the Strange Room, in memory of his father. The oldest daughter, Mary, married a clergyman who ran a private school at Tunbridge Wells, Catherine another who had a vicarage in Cumberland, while the youngest, Francis or Fanny, born 1850, was unmarried in 1881 and disappears from the records thereafter.[21]

Mary Strange died in 1856 and in 1860 the widower married again. His bride, Martha Richmond, was of a farming family in Drayton St Leonard near Dorchester and was half his age.[22] There were no further children, but the marriage seems to have been successful; Strange made his will shortly before leaving Abingdon and ensured that Martha would be adequately provided for in widowhood.[23] She was still a widow when the 1881 census found her visiting in a household at Goring in Oxfordshire, but thereafter is lost to the records.

Strange was a capable headmaster, but was not fated to preside over the changes that the times required of the school. The impression is that he never developed an effective relationship with the trustees before 1860 or the governors after. The school’s historians describe him as ‘somehow rather passive’, and his former pupil A E Preston refrains from making any judgement.[24] His main legacy seems to have been in the respect of his pupils, as shown in their sponsorship of his portrait almost ten years after his death.

We thank Sarah Wearne, archivist of Abingdon School, for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this article.

© AAAHS and contributors 2020


[1] Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 23 May 1840, p.2.

[2] Durham County Advertiser - Friday 01 May 1874 p. 5; (accessed 17/06/2020).

[3] Nigel Hammond, A register of Old Abingdonians 1563-1947 (unpublished typescript), p. 171

[4] Thomas Hinde and Michael St John Parker, The Martlet and the Griffin: an illustrated history of Abingdon School (1997), pp. 81-7.

[5] Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 06 October 1855 p.8

[6] Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 13 October 1866 p. 6.

[7] Alumni Oxonienses, sub nom; Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 07 March 1868 p.8.

[8] Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 07 March 1868 p.8

[9] Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 24 October 1863 p. 8; Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette - Saturday 21 March 1868 p. 7

[10] Jackson’s Oxford Journal - Saturday 11 December 1858 p.8: Saturday 23 November 1861, p. 8.

[11] Hinde and Parker, The Martlet and the Griffin, pp. 83-4.

[12] M. St John Parker, ‘Abingdon School: Schemes of Government 1563-1992’ Unpublished typescript for the Charity Commission, 1992. We are grateful to Sarah Wearne, Abingdon School archivist, for a sight of this document.

[13] Jackson’s Oxford Journal - Saturday 09 June 1860 p.5

[15] HMSO, Report of the Schools Inquiry Commissioners (1868), Appendix XI, pp 393-400.

[16] Hinde and Parker, The Martlet and the Griffin, p. 87.

[17] HMSO, Report of the Schools Inquiry Commissioners (1868), Appendix XI, pp 393-400; Durham County Advertiser - Friday 01 May 1874 p. 5.

[18] Durham Chronicle - Friday 25 September 1868 p. 7; Durham County Advertiser - Friday 01 May 1874 p. 5.

[19] Reading Mercury - 25 April 1874 p.4.

[20] Reading Mercury - 04 August 1883 p.5; A E Preston, St Nicholas Abingdon and other papers (1929), p. 376. This is not the portrait above, which was of 1880, also after Strange’s death.

[21] Information from and Hammond, Register.

[22] Oxford University and City Herald - Saturday 30 June 1860 p. 11.

[23] Will of W A Strange, Principal Registry, 1874, Folio no 355.

[24] Hinde and Parker, The Martlet and the Griffin, p. 87; Preston, St Nicholas, pp. 373-6.



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