The ‘Old’ Frenchay School: Some Legal Context

Old Frenchay Primary School

This article is intended to explain some of the legal history of the former school premises, now empty, and awaiting a future yet to be determined. It does not purport to be a definitive explanation, as all the facts and documents are not available to the writer, but it hopefully provides some context for understanding what might happen from here.

The key starting point was an Act of Parliament, the School Sites Act of 1841, which allowed landowners to sell or donate up to an acre of land to charities for the provision of schooling ‘poor persons’. The intent of the legislation was to extend the availability of education, the need for which was recognised as the Industrial Revolution took the country into a new ‘modern’ era. There was also a distinct moral motive in seeking to counter what was perceived as the lawlessness and ‘loose living’ of what was termed as ‘the labouring classes’, and the Churches were at the forefront of this movement to provide to provide facilities and structure for education. It is also important to understand that this was a statutory scheme, and the later legal issues need to be viewed in that context, rather than in broader charity law.

Accordingly, in 1842, Hannah Rooke, a widow who lived in Frenchay, donated half an acre of land on Frenchay Common, for the purposes of the 1841 Act, “to be applied as a site for a school and for poor persons of and in the said Parish of St. John the Baptist Frenchay and for the residence of the School master and School Mistress of the said school and for no other purpose whatsoever.” The land was conveyed to seven local trustees and who included the then Rector of Frenchay.

The 1841 Act also contained provisions for the reverter of the land to the heirs of the donor in the event that the land ceased to be used for the defined purposes, and much later there were some technical alterations made to those provisions through the Reverter of School Sites Act 1987.

So what was to happen when a site ceased to be suitable for purpose and it was desirable to move a school to a new site altogether, as indeed arose in Frenchay? Such a situation applied in many places across the country, and one such instance in Oxfordshire led to litigation contested all the way through to the Supreme Court in 2021, in the landmark case of Rittson-Thomas and others v. Oxfordshire County Council. In the Court of Appeal, the descendants of the Donor had succeeded in claiming that the site reverted to them following closure of the donated site: but this was reversed in the Supreme Court. Reverter was avoided if the Council could demonstrate that it had a clear intention throughout to apply the proceeds of sale of the former school site to improve the adjacent new school premises. It was not necessary to sell the site first and then use proceeds to build a new school, as argued by the contesting family based on a strict interpretation of the reverter provisions of the 1841 Act. The Court ruled that the interpretation required “a broad and practical approach” to give effect to the intentions of the original legislation.

So where does that leave the premises now? A spokesperson for the Diocese of Bristol has confirmed that the old school buildings are now in the ownership of the South Gloucestershire Council adding that “We have asked them to use it for community or education use (such as a nursery or community museum /facility) but we hold no rights as to its use going forward.” That future use therefore remains to be determined.

Meanwhile, the old school buildings are looking a little sorry for themselves, abandoned and deserted, rather like the Marie Celeste: but, in this instance, at least we know where all the people have gone!

Ed Allingham