“In 1936 my Grandfather, the 5th Earl Fortescue, was also Lord Lieutenant of Devon and I believe he may have had an involvement with what was Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. I have been going through family papers recently at Castle Hill, the Fortescue family home near South Molton and came across this beautiful silver key with engravings relating to the School and my grandfather . I would love to give it back to the School for your archives as I suspect the present Schools origins were the Grammar School.”
Later the same week the Countess visited Queen Elizabeth’s School, met with the Principal and officially returned the key to the school. The key is 5 inches long, made of silver and decorated with the school coat of arms featuring Saint Boniface. Along the edge are just discernible the words ‘The Right Honourable Earl of Fortescue’ and a date, the 16th of June 1936.
Unfortunately, neither The Countess of Arran nor anybody at Queen Elizabeth’s had any information on the key. Why was the key given to Lord Fortescue? What did it unlock? Or was it purely ceremonial? There was some investigation to be done!
Several years ago, the QE School Librarian, Mr Logan, donated all of the school’s archives, dating back over hundreds of years, to the Crediton Museum in order that they might be professionally cared for and accessible to the whole Crediton community. QE contacted Crediton Museum to ask for their help in uncovering the history and significance of the key, which was now being referred to as The Fortescue Key.
The staff at Crediton Museum couldn’t have been more helpful , and after searching their extensive archives were able to provide a copy of the school newspaper ‘The Kyrtonian’ from 1936, and an electronic copy of a news article in ‘The Western Times’ from the same period, both of which supplied answers to the question of the Fortescue Key.
1936 saw the completion and official opening of a brand new building at Queen Elizabeth’s. After a ceremonial procession, led by the Queen Elizabeth’s School Cadet Core and Scouts which included every local dignitary from Crediton, Exeter the surrounding area, the 5th Earl Fortescue was presented with the silver key, with which he unlocked the door to the new buildings and officially declared them open; there followed inspirational speeches from The Earl and from Mr Frank Clarke the Headmaster of Queen Elizabeth’s at that time, and also a dedication from the Bishop of Plymouth.
At the time of their completion, the New Buildings, which are now called The East Wing, were the height of modern educational architecture. The buildings were the first in the school to have central heating, the classrooms were all wired to receive BBC radio broadcasts and two gardens were incorporated into the building in order to provide the students with “the healthful and delightful influence of the environment”.
The Right Honourable 5th Earl of Fortescue had a distinguished military and political career, serving under Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill as Lord in Waiting; he was made a Knight of the Garter in 1951, one year before his death. That such a distinguished person came to officially open the Queen Elizabeth’s New Buildings is testament to how important this modernisation was to the school, and how all those involved felt it to be truly a historic moment.
The mystery of the silver key solved, it has now been framed in the Queen Elizabeth’s School colours of black and gold, and will be proudly displayed in the main Reception on the Western Road Campus.