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Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor traces the history of well-known country house Nowton Court





A much altered country residence since it was purchased as a large farmhouse by Orbell Oakes in 1832, Nowton Court has to all intents and purposes been completely re-modelled and seen many changes over the years.

Those were the days of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, when everyone knew their place; the Oakes family were addressed as Master and Mistress, Sir or Madam, the children young master or young mistress. They were never to be spoken to informally.

In Victorian times, more than one million people were in service, and with such a large house to maintain, Nowton Court required several servants for all domestic needs including kitchen staff. The cook had to prepare, even for ordinary days, a menu consisting of entrees and at least three other courses. Wages were poor and hours long.

Nowton Court has changed completely since it was purchased as a farmhouse by Orbell Oakes in 1832
Nowton Court has changed completely since it was purchased as a farmhouse by Orbell Oakes in 1832

With the coming of the First World War domestic staff were hard to come by and, as the century progressed, so did the costs of running a large house like Nowton Court.

In 1946 Colonel Orbell Oakes, the then owner, decided to rent out Nowton Court as a school.

The tenants were Charles and Neville Blackburne and their sister Betty - their father was the Dean of Ely Cathedral.

The Blackburne family ran the boarding school for boys until they retired in 1979
The Blackburne family ran the boarding school for boys until they retired in 1979

The Blackburnes were ‘luvvies’, devotees of the theatre, especially supporting the restoration of the Theatre Royal in Bury. Nigel Havers, the actor and former pupil, quoted them as being his best teachers!

Nowton Court initially was a private school with 30 boarders, all boys aged eight-13. The classics, arts and sports figured heavily on the curriculum. Corporal punishment was administered; one Latin teacher used a ‘hangman’ on the blackboard, too many mistakes, the noose tightened and the cane ensued!

The school uniform, consisting of yellow jackets and caps, ensured that wherever and whenever the pupils were out and about they would be recognised.

When the Blackburns retired in 1979 a former pupil, Anthony Desch, who had become the salaried headmaster, took over. He expanded the school admissions to include girls, but when the Oakes family sold the estate - including the school – to St Edmundsbury Borough Council in 1984/5, the rent was increased. With competition from other private schools, Nowton Court closed in 1989.

Nowton Court was briefly run as St Edmundsbury Ladies College
Nowton Court was briefly run as St Edmundsbury Ladies College

St Edmundsbury sold the school and grounds to the Matsuzato Corporation, a Hawaiian based company, but retained Nowton Park, a wonderful amenity enjoyed by thousands today.

The house then had an amazing refurbishment with sympathetic extensions in the grounds undertaken by Hutton Construction from Colchester with local architects Driver, Prior and Theobald - no expense was spared. Many of the original features were retained and restored inside and outside of the main house..

It was the intention to open a Japanese finishing school here called St Edmundsbury Ladies College, but a downturn in the yen meant it never realised its ambitions.

Today, Nowton Court is an upmarket supported living complex
Today, Nowton Court is an upmarket supported living complex

Keio University, the oldest western-style university in Japan, then acquired it. They had been experimenting with the digitalization of ancient books and a facsimile was produced of the Bury Bible, a wonderful medieval illuminated bible. Unfortunately, Keio also failed to attract any meaningful numbers to the school and Nowton Court then passed into the hands of Euronite who then reconfigured some of the bedrooms into apartments to create an upmarket retirement centre.

Historian Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton
Historian Martyn Taylor. Picture: Mecha Morton

-- Martyn Taylor is a local historian, author and Bury Tour Guide. His latest book, Bury St Edmunds Through Time Revisited, is widely available.