Hoots from the Archive - What's in a Name?: The Curious History of the Official School Name

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 05 May 2022

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 05 May 2022

1960 school name

Although the precise name of their school is perhaps something which most pupils of MGS (as it is now most commonly called) would lose little sleep over, it is actually a subject with important historical ramifications and a fascinating - if somewhat elusive and confusing - chronology. Pictured below, for example, is the title of a legal mortgage document dating from 1771, addressed to the school Trustees from the High Master at the time, Charles Lawson, which clearly refers to the school as 'the Free School of Manchester', with no mention of the crucial word 'Grammar', (if the use of abbreviations were as popular in the mid-18th century as they are in the early 21st, the school would perhaps have been informally known as FSM, or perhaps MFS!).

This 'free' aspect of the school name resonates with Founder Hugh Oldham's original vision for the school in 1515 as an institution which would be free to all, whereby according to the original statutes: "no scollar or infaunt, of what country or shire soever he be of, beyng man-child, be refused."

In fact, if we trace back through the various documents held in the archive, it becomes apparent that there are at least seven - albeit sometimes very subtle - permutations of the school name, listed as follows:

  • The Manchester School
  • The Manchester Free School
  • The Free School of Manchester
  • Manchester Free Grammar School
  • The Manchester Grammar School
  • Manchester Grammar School
  • MGS

To complicate matters further, it appears that at certain times the school's formal 'official' name differed from the informal one which was generally used in common parlance, for example, at the time when the school was - according to all available in-house school documents - strictly referred to as Manchester Grammar School, the legend printed on the spines of many of the bound volumes of class lists reads 'Manchester School Lists'.

Similar variations are discovered when one examines the various histories of the school, and tracing the history of the school name through its published histories would perhaps seem the most logical approach, beginning with William Whatton's The History of Manchester School of 1828 and Jeremiah Smith's 1866 Admission Register of the Manchester School. In the following century, the name has changed again, but it seems as though a consensus has been reached, with R.D. Hodgson's 1905 account, A Short History of the Manchester Grammar School, Alfred Mumford's The Manchester Grammar School 1515-1915, Graham and Phythian's The Manchester Grammar School, 1515-1965, and James Bentley's 1990 Dare to be Wise: A History of the Manchester Grammar School. However, the most recent school history by Nigel Watson, published to mark the school's quincentenary, breaks new ground, proudly displaying the now ubiquitous abbreviated version in its title: MGS: A History at 500. Incidentally, it is also noticeable that since its inception in 1873 up to the present day Ulula has consistently been subtitled 'The Magazine of the Manchester Grammar School'.

Looking back on the school's long history, it's clear that a definite break in tradition - regarding both school name and school ethos - occurred in the year of 1867, when due to inadequate funding the school reluctantly - and with much local opposition - accepted a scheme for the admission of 'paying scholars', as described by R.D. Hodgson in 1905:

The school was no longer entirely 'free'. For three hundred and fifty years it had been known as the Manchester Free Grammar School, and was now to enhance its reputation under the name of the Manchester Grammar School.

Hodgson's assertion that the school had been known solely as the Manchester Free Grammar School from its inception in 1515 to 1867 is not quite as clear-cut as it appears, as we have already discovered. For example, in legendary OM Thomas de Quincey's celebrated autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), he refers to the school as "the Manchester Grammar School", a fact which would seem to skew the neat chronology outlined by Hodgson somewhat. De Quincey's choice of appellation, however, does beg the pertinent question of just when the word 'Grammar' was first used to describe the school, bearing in mind that the concept of Grammar Schools was first introduced in the 16th century. The answer to this question can easily be found by looking at the original statutes set out in the original Foundation Charter, which specifically describes the school in the English language of the time as a "Gramyer Scole", whose masters would accordingly "teiche childerne gramyer".

To conclude briefly then, in answer to the question posed at the top of this piece, it would seem that in fact a great deal lies 'in a name', behind which a substantial amount of history, facts and subjectivity hides, only serving to demonstrate how the act of naming a school can be an elusive and far from simple matter, affected by constantly fluctuating changes of attitudes, policy, ethos and economic structure, alongside the transient whims, and fashions of time.

Otto Smart




3 Likes Posted one year ago

Back in the late 1980s, there was a certain amount of debate as to how the school's name should be displayed, as “The Manchester Grammar School” was appearing under “T” in the ISC directory. Apparently this took several meetings to decide as to whether “The” should officially be dropped, to ensure we appeared under "M". The compromise was to list us as “Manchester Grammar School, The”, keeping our proper name without losing the definite article.

David Shaw 1972-8

1 Like Posted one year ago

I recently bought a map of the County of Lancaster published in 1762 by Eman Bowen ‘Geographer to His Majesty’ The notes about places include:'Here is also a Publick or Free School founded in 1519 by Hugh Oldham Bishop of Exeter having now 3 masters and good salaries with Exhibitions to the University of Oxford . And with regard to the Poor there's no place in England where they are better provided for than here' 

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