Campaign to save Dorchester school's historic oak screen from auction

By Trevor Bevins - Local Democracy Reporter

16th Sep 2023 | Local News

The oak screen as shown on the Cheffins website
The oak screen as shown on the Cheffins website

A campaign is underway to save an ancient oak screen, which for decades was on display at the Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester, and before that at the old grammar school.

The 16th century screen, said to be from a Spanish galleon wrecked on the Dorset coast, is being offered for auction in the coming week.

Former pupils at the school, including the Old Hardyean Association, are questioning why this has been allowed to happen.

It is unclear who is offering the historic item for sale. Both the school and the auctioneers have yet to respond to the question, although it is widely assumed that the school has put it up for sale.

The panel, described in the auction catalogue as 'The Great Oak Screen' is expected to fetch between £3,000 and £5,000 – although those associated with the school are more worried about what they see as the potential loss of one of the town's great antiquities, which should be kept in the county town.

The screen was originally placed in a re-built school where Napper's Mite now stands in South Street in the early 1600s. following the 1613 Great Fire of Dorchester.

After further moves, the screen was displayed in the present school theatre in Queen's Avenue until 2021, when during refurbishment, it was removed.

One former pupil says he can only speculate why the screen is being offered for sale in Cambridge rather than locally.

Measuring 4.5 by 6 metres it appears the panel has now been taken to pieces.

Said a concerned former 1970s pupil, Neil Matthews: "Apparently it is now too heavy for modern building materials and the school has decided it can go. Except, that is, for a small door which they have kept. So this piece of the school's heritage isn't event to be kept in one piece – it has been dismembered.

"When I was a pupil at the school in the 1970s the screen stood in the library in the previous building at the top of Culliford Road. My father's initials were carved on the screen when he was a pupil in the 1940s. You see it has very strong associations for me and my family.

"But beyond this, the screen dates from the 16th Century when the school was founded. It was placed in the old school building (now the site of the Hardye Arcade in South Street). 

"Surely this artefact is too valuable to be lost to the town. Not only is it part of the school's heritage: it is a testimony to the first school established by charter in Dorchester, but it is part of Dorchester's heritage and Dorset's too."

The view is shared by Old Hardyean's resident Damien Lewis, who has already raised the issue with the school and the auctioneers and will hold a discussion about it at a meeting of the association council on Monday.

Said Mr Lewis: "Needless to say we have raised this issue with the auctioneers in question, and I have again chased them today seeking greater clarity regarding provenance and their intentions."

Several local councillors have been asked to get involved and offer what help they can to ensure the panel stays in the town.

Auctioneers, Cheffins, were emailed questions about the sale on Monday but have not responded. There has also been no response yet to similar question put to the school.


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