Many readers will be familiar with the luxurious Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa in Cuckfield, but few will know that the glorious Elizabethan building that forms the core of the hotel was once a boarding school for Jewish boys and girls.
|Macaulay House, painted by former pupil Frank Gusdorf.|
Photo courtesy of Cuckfield Museum.
The story begins in 1923 when a Mr Percy Cowen approached the agents of Sir Merrick Burrell, the owner, with a request that he might rent Ockenden Manor as a boarding school for Jewish boys, who as “the sons of influential people” would, he felt, enhance the neighbourhood rather than be an annoyance. Cowen worked as a private tutor and crammer for Jewish children in Hove, where he ran an establishment called Macaulay House and was able, when required, to provide sound, if hardly glowing, references.
It is interesting to speculate on the possible background to Percy Cowen and Macaulay House. There is evidence that another Cowen (or perhaps Cohen) was tutoring children in Sussex from a Macaulay House in the late 19th century. It may be that he chose Macaulay House as the name for his establishment in recognition of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the poet, historian and politician who used his maiden parliamentary speech to champion the cause of Jewish civil liberties. At all events, Percy was most insistent that, should he be accepted as the new tenant of Ockenden Manor, it would be renamed Macaulay House. After what must have been a daunting interview over luncheon with Sir Merrick himself at Knepp Castle, the Burrell family seat, Percy Cowen found himself the proprietor and headmaster of a small boarding school in Cuckfield.
The school’s opening was delayed for some months while Mr and Mrs Cowen wrangled over the terms of the lease. The takeover had coincided with the arrival of electricity and Percy required all the gas fittings and lights to be removed and replaced with new-fangled electric ones, but eventually all was in place and the agents were able to suggest the lease could commence at “half quarter day 1924”. For clarity, they explained that the date lay “mid-way between Christmas and Lady Day”!
|From the archives at Cuckfield Museum.|
Advertisements were placed in The Jewish Chronicle and the boys began to arrive. Of course, many would have been Percy’s own pupils from Hove, however they were joined by others from further afield and sometimes much further afield. One former pupil remembered boys of both secondary and primary school age coming from as far afield as Australia and South Africa, although perhaps these were the children of London’s business and diplomatic communities. Indeed, one of the Old Boys who was at Macaulay House for a brief period, at the very end of its life, does not accept that it was an exclusively Jewish school, because other religions were represented amongst the pupils at that time. The fees when the college opened its doors were £36 per term which, even at a distance of 80 years or so, sounds like good value compared with today, when a boarding term will cost around £9,000.
I like to think that all of the new and subsequent arrivals must have been surprised and delighted by the quintessentially English surroundings of their new home. Macaulay House College, about which they knew nothing, turned out to be a Tudor mansion with lush lawns, meadows and mature trees. Then, as now, the ground fell away to the playing field of Cuckfield Cricket Club and the pupils were treated to the stunning prospect of the Sussex Weald and the South Downs beyond. The reality of life at Macaulay House was not quite so idyllic.
Percy Cowen, a tall, imposing figure, was very intimidating and seems to have been something of a stern disciplinarian. Beatings were common and Percy kept a collection of riding whips in a stand for the purpose. The school might not have been the Dotheboys Hall of Charles Dickens, but Dr Gerald Goldberg – who went on to become Lord Mayor of Cork – and his brother were withdrawn from Macaulay House by their parents because of the severity of the punishment regime. All food had to be eaten, even the hated vegetables and breakfast kippers, regardless of how long the unfortunate boy had to stay at the table. Of course, this was in a time when discipline was regarded as a virtue and was much more highly prized in society than it is today.
There were good times too. Although the village of Cuckfield was off-limits without an escort, pocket money could be spent there on Saturdays. There were occasional outings to the cinema in Haywards Heath, even if the boys had to walk in a crocodile all the way there and back, and rare trips to watch Brighton & Hove Albion. When parents visited, the children could expect to be taken out to a slap-up tea, often in the Bolney Tea Rooms. One boy remembers “walking a lot in the fields around Cuckfield – walks that became lessons in botany and zoology. I really enjoyed them.” There was a variety of outdoor sports, all of which entailed driving rabbits, cows and sheep off the playing fields before play could begin. During the summer months it was regarded as a great privilege to be allowed to put up the scores at Cuckfield Cricket Club, not least because the boys so chosen were invited to share the cricketers’ tea.
And so life went on at Macaulay House College until, with Percy finding it increasingly difficult to meet his bills, he received a request to allow the empty stabling at the college to be used to house some polo ponies. No doubt the extra income would have been very welcome, but for some reason the plan did not go forward. The seed had been sown, however, and in 1934, 10 years after the school opened its doors to boys, the stabling was converted into a girls’ dormitory and Macaulay House became co-ed. The advertisement in The Jewish Chronicle announcing this change promised, among other things, “Open to Boys and Girls. Own Synagogue services, help for backward pupils, music, dancing and needlework.”
Mrs Cowen, who had to be called ‘Madam’, had always played a significant role in the boys’ lives, but she really came into her own when the girls arrived. One of her more interesting ways of exercising control was to employ a ‘flit’ gun filled with rosewater when she entered a classroom. One can see why. A former pupil recalls: “We were a smelly lot –
only one scheduled bath a week!” Specially favoured children would be allowed to walk her three cocker spaniels and help in the rose garden. Girls generally have fond memories of Macaulay House for its beautiful rural setting and the friends they made, whereas the boys are much more likely to remember hard work and canings.
Percy was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet, so he must have been relieved at the arrival, in the summer of 1939, of 25 Kindertransport children from Germany and Austria. These were the children of Jewish families whose parents had made the unimaginably painful decision to send them away to safety, after the dreadful events of Kristallnacht in November 1938 when Jews, Jewish businesses and synagogues were openly attacked throughout Germany. Great Britain had created 10,000 visas to support this exodus and the B’nai B’rith Jewish community service organisation sponsored the children at Macaulay House.
Tragically, of all the children who were successfully rescued, over 80% never saw their parents again. In the event, the Macaulay House children had only a few short months’ respite, but reading the diary of one of the girls, Lisl Schick, it was a very happy time for them. Poignantly, her father had written on the inside front cover of her diary before she left: “My beloved Lisl, at this very moment as you are starting a new life and a new diary, I wish for you with all my heart that your writings will contain only happy and lucky events. Your loving father. Vienna, April 13th 1939.” Lisl was one of the lucky ones and was reunited with her parents in due course.
At the end of 1939, the B’nai B’rith could no longer support the Kindertransport children and they were dispersed around the country. It signalled the end for the Cowens who simply could not meet their obligations. The school closed early in 1940 and for a little while nobody could find Percy and his wife. That summer they surfaced in Devon and were the subject of bankruptcy proceedings.
Macaulay House College had come and gone, but perhaps its legacy is best remembered in the words of one of the Kindertransport children writing from America in 1998: ”My stay at Macaulay House College was a crucial part of my life. It gave me temporary security, a classic English education and a sense of stability and order. The English people treated me with dignity and respect, they gave me life and liberty and I shall always love them for it.”
|Pupil at Macaulay House College.|
Photo courtesy of Cuckfield Museum.
In writing this piece I relied on the resources and enthusiastic help of the staff of Cuckfield Museum for which I am most grateful.
Queens Hall, High Street,
Cuckfield RH17 5EL
Tel. 01444 473630
Cuckfield Museum opens on Wednesday and Friday mornings from 10.00am to 12.30pm, and from 10.00am to 4.00pm on Saturdays.