Historical material held in the Archives dates back to around the 17th century, with maps, documents, drawings and photographs chronicling the history of Hemsted House. The site on which the School stands is of great historical interest as both the parkland and woodland are mentioned in the Domesday Book: “Robert of Romney also holds Benenden [Benendine] from the Bishop of Bayeux”. Benenden had become sufficiently permanent by 1086 to have both a name and a church.
A Brief History of Hemsted House and Benenden School
The earliest records show that Hemsted Park was given by William the Conqueror to his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.
Robert of Hemsted built the first house on the site.
James de Echyngham from Sussex moved in. He is buried in Benenden churchyard.
The Manor was granted to William of Guldeford by Richard II.
House visited by Queen Elizabeth 1. Thomas de Guldeford, son of William, rewarded with a baronetcy.
The house was sold to Sir John Norris, Admiral of the Fleet and Vice Admiral of England. Sir John Norris planted conifers, which were grown from seed gathered on his voyages — hence Admiral’s Avenue. Foul Weather Jack was his nickname. His grandson, John, married Kitty Fisher who died from smallpox in Bath just four months later. She is buried in the Norris crypt in Benenden Church.
The house was owned by Thomas Hallet Hodges, who rebuilt it, filled in the moat and carried out improvements in the 113 hectare grounds including the digging of the lake. Thomas, his son, inherited Hemsted in 1801 and was responsible for extensive plantings at the property.
Gathorne Hardy, Lord Cranbrook, acquired the property for £157,000. Following the demolition of the existing Elizabethan house in 1860 he commissioned David Brandon, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects to design a new mansion on a site a little to the east, at a cost of £18,544. Traces of the old house and its surrounding moat still remain. William Broderick Thomas was the landscape designer responsible for laying out the elaborate gardens and new approaches to the mansion. The site included a pinetum begun in the early 18th century, and a lake at the southwest corner of Park Wood.
Lord Cranbrook also rebuilt much of the village of Benenden, restoring the church and clearing the village green of houses to create one of the earliest village cricket pitches.
Sir Vere Harmsworth, later Lord Rothermere, who purchased the estate and in 1912 called in Herbert Cescinsky to remodel the house into the Tudor-cum-Jacobean style we see today. As well as introducing old panelling from the original house and elsewhere he substituted crenellations for balustrading.
In April Miss Sheldon, Miss Hindle and Miss Bird, three teachers from Wycombe Abbey, announced the foundation of a new public school for girls. In July the first Council Meeting was held and twenty-four girls were registered. A furnished school in Bickley became the temporary home for the first term and then the trio set about finding a house with at least 70 bedrooms and large grounds - another challenge.
January: Hemsted Park was leased to the Founders, and the school was named Benenden School, to avoid confusion with Hemel Hempstead.
March: The Benenden School (Kent) Limited prospectus was issued at £10 each; five shares entitled the holder to give a nomination to the school. Every parent was encouraged to pay a year’s fees in advance.
September: There were 126 girls on the school roll.
New house names were chosen, with historical associations.
Norris House was established, in the building now occupied by Echyngham.
October: Benenden School purchased Hemsted House (Kent) Limited for £20,000.
The first Hobbies Display.
New House was built to accommodate first Medway and then Marshall.
The Parsonage was purchased.
In the Cloisters the pigsties and cowstalls were pulled down, to be replaced by classrooms. An outdoor swimming pool was built. Clevelands, opposite the Green, was purchased. The first General Inspection was made; Benenden was recognised as efficient. There were 200 girls on the school roll. Seniors Association established. School Magazine inaugurated.
School song: The School Upon the Weald; words: Miss Bird, music: Miss Lillian Wade.
Echyngham (now Norris) was built.
The Ballad of Benenden was written and performed for the first time.
Guldeford House study and the Dining Room were built.
The Hall was built, at a cost of £8,500.
3 September: Outbreak of the Second World War.
Benenden became a Charitable Foundation. The School was evacuated on the advice of the Council. The bank withdrew its overdraft facilities and the account moved to Coutts. The School moved to the Hotel Bristol, Newquay, Cornwall, with Miss Sheldon and Miss Bird. Miss Hindle stayed at Benenden to look after the estate. She persuaded the Ministry of Health to use Benenden as a Military Hospital. Enid Blyton’s daughters, Gillian and Imogen Darrell Waters joined Echyngham House.
Capitaine Jean Maridor, a French Free pilot died saving the School from a VI rocket.
Summer: The Hospital left. Considerable damage had been caused during their stay.
September: The ‘pioneers’ returned from Newquay to prepare the School for the rest of its members
The School returns to Benenden.
25th Anniversary service at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, drove through the School grounds and was introduced to members of staff during a visit to Benenden village. The Cloisters was extended to the fourth side of the quadrangle, to create a new form room and laboratory.
The Founders Retire.
The Benenden Angel and Other Fables published.
Miss Clarke became Headmistress. She had first come to the School as a teacher, but had subsequently left to study Law and was called to the Bar. Returning to teaching she had risen to become Vice-Principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
The new Library was opened (originally conceived as a Chapel).
The Chapel was built and dedicated by Archbishop Fisher.
Princess Benedikte of Denmark became a pupil.
The New Wing was built, with dormitory space that meant that girls no longer had to sleep at Parsonage and Somers. The Dining Room was extended into a courtyard. This released the Terrace Room, which became Guldeford House study.
Denim jeans were introduced as permitted uniform.
Princess Anne and Princess Basma of Jordan became pupils at Benenden.
The Parents’ Association was founded.
The Music Wing was opened.
A new house was built for the Headmistress, who gave up being a Housemistress. The West Wing was opened by HRH Princess Anne on 7 June. Miss Sheldon died.
The School’s Golden Jubilee, and an appeal was set up for new building. Founders’ Clock was unveiled and the Chapel Bell dedicated at Seniors’ Weekend.
Extensions were built at New House that meant no one now had to sleep at the Hospice (a sanatorium outside the grounds behind Beach Cottages).
Miss Clarke retired in December.
Miss Allen became Headmistress.
In March Miss Hindle died.
The Jubilee Wing was opened by Miss Allen and Miss Bird.
The Bernard Sunley Gymnasium was built. Founders’ House was completed (for Six Twos only).
Diamond Jubilee Service at Canterbury Cathedral
Mr Robin Dalton-Holmes became Bursar.
New classrooms (Far Pavilions) were built by Rose Walk. Miss Bird died on 20 December.
Miss Allen leaves Benenden School.
Mrs Gillian duCharme became Headmistress.
Guldeford House moved out of the main building to its new home.
The hurricane and the beginning of major re-landscaping. 250 trees had to come down in the parkland and 60 in the gardens.
Leelands, the new science and medical wing, was opened.
SPLASH (Swimming Pool, Leisure and Sports Hall) opened by Joan (Sunley) Tics N50.
Channel 4 “Cutting Edge” documentary portrait of Benenden.
Limes/Oaks opened by Liz Forgan (G61).
Miss Clarke dies leaving Benenden School a legacy of £3m after various life interests.
Jonathan Watts appointed as first Housemaster of an all-girls public school.
Elms completed between Beeches and Limes/Oaks.
Mrs duCharme appears in BBC programme "Back to the Floor" which created a link between Benenden School and Forest Gate School.
75th Anniversary service at St Paul's Cathedral.
Various lunches for Seniors at Benenden School, St James' Palace and Christie's.
Launch at Coutts bank of the Book 'Benenden: A Great Company' by David Souden.
School Play 'A Great Company' at Her Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket.
Mrs duCharme leaves Benenden School.
Mrs Claire Oulton, Head of St Catherine's, Bramley appointed as the new Headmistress.
Clarke Centre with the Eugenia Leung Library is completed.
Performance of 'Me and My Girl' at the London Palladium.
Norris development completed, creating seven new class rooms and second floor study bedrooms.
School Dining Room and Cloisters refurbished.
School website launched.
The New Stage Theatre Campaign launched.
Extension to Splash to incorporate a fitness gym.
Victorian Water Gardens refurbished.
'Cabaret' performed at the New Stage Ball at the Dorchester.
New School Rugby squad take part in the U18 Rugby 7s at Berkhamsted.
New Theatre is opened by Helena Bonham-Carter.
'Grease' first production staged.
School welcomes HRH The Princess Royal to Seniors' Day.
Refurbishment and installation of Seniors' window in the Chapel followed by rededication service.
'Leading the Field' Campaign launched at Olympic Games in Hong Kong in the presence of HRH The Princess Royal.
School participates in MUN.
Eco-Classroom opened, situated in the Victorian Water Gardens.
New School Cafe is opened.
New Science Centre is opened by HRH The Princess Royal in October.
Mrs Claire Oulton leaves Benenden School.