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Notes from the Archives: A Foundation’s Summer Reunion

As we wave goodbye to those never-ending Spring showers and start hoping for sunnier days, Mill Hill is gearing up for a historical event. Anyone in our community probably already knows about Foundation Day, maybe you’ve even been to one. During, my time at Mill Hill, Foundation Day was always held in September, and had been for quite sometime before my arrival in 2012. But this year marks the beginning of seismic shift; Foundation Day has moved to June!

Cue gasps of shock – “but you can’t just move Foundation Day!”, “it’s a historic event!” I hear you cry. Truthfully as a true die-hard Millhillian, that was my initial reaction too. Therefore, you can only imagine my surprise when I found out that Foundation Day wasn’t always in September. Turns out, it was only shifted to autumn during the 1990s. And I’ll give you one guess as to when it was traditionally held…….

If you guessed June, give yourself a pat on the back – or treat yourself to some chocolate if you’re more into tangible rewards.

But now a new issue arises, I can picture it now, you’re really scratching your heads aren’t you? “Okay fine, June makes sense then I guess”, I hear you grumble, “but why did it move to September?”. Ah-ha! Here’s the million-dollar question: why did Foundation Day move? And hey, while we’re at it, does anyone really know what “Foundation Day” actually is?

Yes, yes we’re all familiar with the gist: Foundation Day is a time for students to bask in praise, nab some well-deserved awards, and indulge in delicious treats and pampering. But beyond celebrating everyone’s hard work, what’s the actual significance? Well, if you’ve got a bit of time to spare (don’t worry, I won’t subject you to a marathon read), grab a comfy seat and brace yourself for what might just be the most condensed history of a singular day spanning over a nearly two centuries.

Anyways, let’s begin! – wish me luck!

Let me take you back over 150 years, to 1868 and Mill Hill Grammar, as we were called then; and to be honest, things were looking dire for the school. Pupil numbers had plummeted to their lowest ever number since our opening in 1807, and we were struggling to bring in desperately needed new enrolment. Drastic action had to be taken to rescue Mill Hill, in fact, arguably the most radical steps an institution can take. In the Summer of 1868, the decision was taken to close Mill Hill Grammar for a year, to reorganise and restructure the whole educational and governance system. This was truly a make-or-break moment for our little school.

A year later, in 1869, we were able to reopen our doors, and under two new banners. We dropped the ‘Grammar’ and became “Mill Hill School”. And “the Foundation”, the new name relating to the governance and wider community. The Court of Governors, as we now know it was established to ensure proper oversight and prevent the errors of the previous year from recurring.

Right, now we’ve got the backstory, onto the main course!

Before 1869, there was a yearly event, a special day dedicated to Prizegiving, that consistently fell on the Wednesday nearest to 21 June (specific, right?). It was known as “Public Day”, though there are no records that reveal the origins of the name, so lord knows where it came from.

Now surely you can see where I’m going with this! If not, well sorry, but hopefully all will be made clear right now.

To commemorate the new “Foundation”, “Public Day” got a makeover and was rechristened “New Foundation Day” in 1869. Yes I know, not the most imaginative name, I’ll admit, but hey, it got the message across! Alongside the new name, “New Foundation Day” evolved into more of a spectacle than its predecessor, featuring speeches and distinguished Guests of Honour (although those oddly specific date parameters remained unchanged). In his diary entry of 1879, Prime Minister William Gladstone remarked on his experience as the Guest of Honour at Mill Hill at “New Foundation Day” that year, noting that the institution was now “strikingly alive.” Clearly, Mill Hill was on the rise, leaving the closure of 1868 firmly in the past!

Now, let’s fast forward to the 20th century; by the 1940s, the ‘New’ had been dropped from “Foundation Day”. Which, let’s be honest, was fair, considering that nearly 80 years later, the Foundation couldn’t exactly be called ‘new’ anymore. Not only had the name evolved, but so had the itinerary of the day. In addition to speeches, there were Corps cadet (like the CCF) inspections, impressive athletics displays, and even teachers donning costumes to compete in fencing competitions. Even whilst evacuated up the Cumbrian coast during World War 2, Foundation Day continued to be celebrated with as much zeal and enthusiasm as its forerunners. Gosh this is getting quite long now, and I did promise to be short; let’s speed this up ASAP!

Quickly skipping ahead another 40 years to the 1980s, we saw another significant change in Foundation Day. Despite being held outdoors on the Quad for over a century, persistent damp summers forced us to move the festivities indoors. Whilst we tried using the Large one year, the sheer size of the school population meant we had to relocate to the Sports Hall to fit everyone in. The 80s also marked the beginning of Foundation Day’s shifting dates. Initially it moved back to May, to allow exam-taking students to attend before heading off for their studies and summer breaks.

As the 1990s dawned upon Mill Hill, A-Level and GCSE exams moved to earlier dates in May, posing challenges for hosting Foundation Day during that month. So, under the guidance of Headmaster Alastair Graham, a decision was taken to shift Foundation Day entirely to September. This ensured that there would be no overlap with the crucial exams held at the end of the academic year. The September date would stick for the next 30 years, until now. Phew, made it – with paragraphs to spare!

So, while Foundation Day may appear to be on the move again, it’s really just circling back to its origins. Despite the differences between today’s celebration and the one in 1869, the core values remain unchanged. We gather on Foundation Day to honour our remarkable students, dedicated staff, and wider community. It’s a time to reflect and pay tribute to Mill Hill’s remarkable history, a testament to our resilience against all odds. From the brink of closure in 1868 to the recent challenges posed by Covid, we’ve persevered.

So, let’s unite once again to celebrate our extraordinary Foundation – we can’t wait to see you there!