It might have been an inspiration for Alice in Wonderland; it was certainly the alma mater of a former Prime Minister. Their ghosts haunt the corridors of the abandoned grammar school at Richmond – but Lewis Carroll’s old classrooms may soon become possibly the country’s biggest village hall.
The last pupils moved from the old building on Station Road in 2012, and since then it has begun to fall into disrepair.
However, Richmond has a successful track record in preserving its past. Its old railway station, just across the River Swale, is now a thriving art gallery, café and community venue, and the group that saved it is hoping that history will repeat itself. Only £840,000 by next June stands in their way.
It was in 1844, some 21 years before he chronicled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under his pen name, that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson began his studies there.
His father was a local rector and it has been speculated that some of his characters were inspired by stories he had heard in the area.
The school already counted a Prime Minister among its old boys – the Whig Charles Grey, Viscount Howick, had served between 1830 and 1834 and had overseen the abolition of slavery in Britain.
“It’s quite extraordinary that we have all these connections in such a small area,” said Marcia McLuckie, whose children went to the school and who now chairs the fund-raising group dedicated to saving it.
The campaign has come under the umbrella of the Richmondshire Building Preservation Trust, which was behind the project to restore the Victorian station. The two buildings were the work of the same architect, the former Sheriff of York, George Townsend Andrews.
A first found of funding has already been secured to pay for the production of detailed plans for the building, but not for the restoration itself, which will cost around £2m. The proposals involve turning part of the building into 20-bedroom hostel for cyclists and walkers, the creation of a wedding venue and function room in the old school hall, and a centre for community activities.
“It will be like a village hall inside a big building,” Ms McLuckie said.
Beneath the main hall, the cloistered offices of former headmasters – including the enlightened early 19th century educator James Tate, who preferred kindness to the cane and sent 21 fellows to Cambridge – will be a second hand bookstore.
“The deadline for the second round of funding is in June and we need to have raised the £840,000 by then,” said Ms McLuckie.
“We are hoping that three local councils will support us. It’s in their interest really, because the building is obviously deteriorating and everyone would like to see it up and running again.
“Even then, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done and there is no guarantee we will get the money.”
The group is also offering sponsorship of the bell tower and has published Godliness and Good Learning, a fund raising book on the school’s history.
The building could open in 2021, if lottery funding is approved next year.
The school can trace its origins back to 1361, but the Grade II listed building under threat dates from 1850 and was home to the boys’ grammar until 1971 – after which it remained in use as a lower school for 11-year-olds. It is estimated that some 10,000 children passed through it. A more modern school building next door was sold in 2012 to Richmondshire Council, for offices.
The town’s MP, Rishi Sunak, has said: “The structure has to be a focal point for the Richmond community.”