When Orbell Ray Oakes, eldest son of Bury banker James Oakes, purchased Nowton Cottage from farmer John Drinkmill in 1802, he probably had no idea it was to grow into the large country house it is today, as much as he would like to have thought so. Not quite as munificent as his father, his ambition was to be a landed country gent.
To these ends in 1832 he purchased (3 years after the death of his father) the Manor of Nowton from the Marquess of Bristol for the enormous sum of £10,000. He was to enjoy all this only for another 5 years as he died aged 69.
His son Henry James, also involved with the family banking business, immediately started to enlarge the house. He employed a 35 year old architect from Leytonstone, George Russell French.
Finally it was left to Henry’s son, James Henry to remodel the property further in the 1880’s, eventually removing the remnants of Nowton Cottage that had been incorporated in French’s build.
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 over one million people were in service, with such a large house to maintain it required several servants for all domestic needs including kitchen staff. The cook had to prepare for ordinary days a menu consisting of entrees and at least three other courses. Wages were poor and hours long. With the coming of the First World War domestic staff was hard to come by and as the century progressed so did the costs of running a large house like Nowton Court.
In 1946 the then Orbell Oakes decided to rent Nowton Court out as a school. The tenants were Charles and Neville Blackburn and their sister Elizabeth known as “Betty”. Their father was the Dean of Ely Cathedral.
Nowton was a private school with 30 borders initially; all boys aged 8-13. 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 Blackburns were “luvvies”, great supporters of the theatre. Old boy Nigel Havers the actor quoted them as his best teachers!
When the Blackburns retired in 1979 a former pupil, who had become the salaried headmaster (Anthony Desch) took over. He expanded the school admissions including 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 schools he regrettably closed the school in 1989.
St Edmundsbury sold the school and grounds to the Matsuzato Corporation but retained Nowton Park, a wonderful amenity enjoyed by thousands today.
An amazing refurbishment with sympathetic extensions was undertaken by Hutton Construction from Colchester and no expense was spared!
It was the intention to open a Japanese finishing school here called St Edmundsbury Ladies College but a downturn in the value of the yen meant it never realised its ambitions.
Keio University, the oldest western style university in Japan, then acquired it. Keio had been experimenting with the digitalization of ancient books and a facsimile was produced of the Bury Bible, a wonderful medieval illuminated book. Unfortunately Keio also failed to attract any meaningful numbers to the school.
It then passed onto Euronite who have now reconfigured some of the bedrooms into apartments becoming an upmarket retirement centre known as Nowton Court Village incorporating the Heritage Wellbeing Centre.