The Townsend-Warner History Prize, started 136 years ago, is one of the oldest institutions in the preparatory school world, older even than the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS), founded in 1892. It has proved endurably popular in encouraging the study of history. It is not linked to any national testing or examinations, but aims to provoke, through its two papers, interest and delight in historical reading, facts and analysis. It regularly produces winners of remarkable calibre, writing history of much flair and knowledge. The first fifty candidates receive generous prizes and the next fifty are sent cards of commendation.
The Structure of the Prize
The Prize consists of two papers. The first has 100 questions demanding one-word, or one-sentence, answers from world history, but a strong emphasis on British history. Many are straightforward, some a little more obscure. They give the chance for teachers in preparatory schools to have some fun going through the paper afterwards. Two hundred and fifty candidates now qualify from Paper 1 to sit Paper 2, which is in the form of essay questions, but allows candidates a very wide choice so that they can write on what they know, but also show analytical skill and historical imagination. The results and reports are sent to all the preparatory schools involved. The reports usually make entertaining reading, for the boys and girls always write in a most uninhibited and lively fashion, and sometimes produce unusual errors. The quality of the winning papers is often stunning, as can be seen in the section on the website of ‘special answers.’
The Harrow Connection
The Prize has a long history. In 1885, Mr E E Bowen, a distinguished and innovative House Master at Harrow School, contacted the Headmaster of Elstree Preparatory School offering his boys a prize in history, to be called ‘The Harrow History Prize.’ He was an advocate of the modern side and wanted to see an imaginative move away from the purely classical education still provided by most schools. The offer was accepted and ran until 1895 when The Dragon School joined in. Gradually the competition spread to include other schools. Mr Bowen, who used to take his boys from The Grove House to follow the path of Garibaldi in Sicily and gave the House their red shirts, died in 1902. Mr. Colbeck from Harrow School officiated until 1905.
Indeed, the Prize was one of the first matters over which preparatory schools had any communication, coming probably just after a lengthy correspondence on the most desirable size of cricket ball for inter-school matches.
In 1905, Mr George Townsend-Warner, the Head of History at Harrow School and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, took on the prize. He died in 1916, but not before he had awarded to one Arthur Bryant, not a prize, but a card of commendation.
Mr Henry from Harrow and Mr C Henry K Marten from Eton then agreed to take it in turns to set and mark the papers, and award the prizes. In 1922, they decided to change the name from The Harrow History Prize to The Townsend-Warner History Prize. They also changed the prize to its modern format of a qualifying paper of short answers and a paper 2 of essay questions. Mr Henry withdrew in 1938, and Mr Marten, by then Sir Henry Marten and Provost of Eton, in 1940. The competition nearly became a casualty of the Second World War, with the evacuation of many schools posing problems. However, Major CFC Letts of Oakley Hall, Cirencester came to the rescue and took over the organisation until his retirement in 1956. His assistants were Mr JVP Thompson of Radley College, Mr FBM Campbell and Mr PAM James. The prize has been under the auspices of IAPS since 1956. Various people were involved until 1964, when Mr RW Patullo took over the organisation until he retired in 1974; then Mr WH Gervis became the administrator until 1987. Patrick Gent was the administrator of the prize from 1988 to 2015.
The strong link with Harrow School revived, for many of the examiners over the last 40 years have come from Harrow School. Roger Ellis, later Master of Marlborough College, set and marked Paper 2, and was followed by Howard Shaw and then Tony Beadles, both Heads of History at Harrow. Howard Shaw also set and marked Paper 1 for a time and was then succeeded by Hugh Thompson. In 2016 Hugh took over from Tony Beadles as examiner of Paper 2, and Tony took over from Patrick Gent as the administrator of the prize. . Alastair Cook, who teaches history and politics at Harrow, is the present examiner for Paper 1.
Expansion over 136 Years
The number of schools involved rose dramatically: in 1905 it was 15; in 1940, 40; in 1950, 70 and in 1987, 130. Numbers of candidates rose from 39 in 1905 to 510 in 1950. From 1974, Hampton Gervis, a distinguished Headmaster of St Aubyns, Rottingdean, took over the administration of the Prize and devoted himself to its development for 14 years. The number of candidates rose again to 747 in 1980 and to 888 in 1989. From 2016 to 2020, the numbers have been just over 1,000. Hampton Gervis also involved the publishers, BT Batsford, as sponsors for the Prize in a ten-year period from 1981 to 1991. They awarded prizes and started a team prize, The Batsford Shield, still awarded annually to the school with the best all-round performance in the papers from their string of candidates.
In 1985, the centenary of the Prize was celebrated by a special extra competition. The top 80 from the Townsend-Warner Prize of that year were allowed to enter. They had to study one of five books – The Trial of Charles I by CV Wedgwood, The Popish Plot by JP Kenyon, Culloden by J Prebble, The Reason Why by C Woodham-Smith and The Last days of Hitler by HR Trevor-Roper. Five different papers were set for the candidates. It proved very popular; 75 of the 80 entered. It was won by Oliver Blackburn of The Hall; he beat the winner of the Townsend-Warner of 1985, A Ormond, also of The Hall. Harrow School contributed generous prizes.
In 2021, prizes in the form of book tokens, a total of £1,107, were awarded to the first fifty candidates, and cards of commendation were sent to the next fifty. The first prize was £60, the second £55, and the third £45. In 1930 the first prize was £1.10 shillings, the second £1 and the third 15 shillings!
The Present Administration
Tony Beadles, Head of History at Harrow School, and then Headmaster, first of King’s School, Bruton, and then of Epsom College until retirement in 2000, set and marked Paper 2 from 1972 to 2015. Hugh Thompson, recently retired from Harrow School, set and marked Paper 1 from 1986 to 2014, and has now taken over Paper 2. Alastair Cook, recently appointed to the History Department at Harrow School, now sets and marks Paper 1.
From 1988 to 2015 the administration was in the capable hands of Patrick Gent, formerly Assistant Head at Chafyn Grove. Tony Beadles has taken over this task. Entry forms are sent in the October mailing by IAPS.
Any queries and requests may be addressed to Tony Beadles, Chaff Barn, Compton Pauncefoot, Yeovil, Somerset. BA22 7EL. 01963 440461 firstname.lastname@example.org