Cotton College has been a place of fascination since I was a very young child. Some of my earliest memories are of summer walking past the college and having picnics nearby both in the car park of the main college buildings and on the old cricket fields above the site. My nan and her family were originally from Cotton so the college would have been a big part of her upbringing and the local community even though she didn’t attend there as a pupil. I remember weddings and christenings here as a child and going around to the entrance to the church which can be seen in many photographs of the late 80s and early 90s.
Cotton College was a Roman Catholic boarding school also known as Saint Wilfrid’s College.
The school was founded in 1763 at Sedgley Park School, Wolverhampton by William Errington at the recommendation of Bishop Richard Challoner. In 1873 it moved to Cotton Hall. The school closed in 1987 due to financial difficulties and it has been left derelict and abandoned for the past 33 years. The school and its church (St Wilfrid’s church) are both Grade II listed buildings. The church, and smaller chapel next door were designed by the famous architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin who stated it would have ‘the only perfect chancel in England and with an East window he could die for’.
Cotton Hall, upon which the college buildings were centred, dates back to around 1630 and was most probably built by the Morrice family. Thomas Gilbert rebuilt the house in the eighteenth century. In 1843 Cotton Hall was sold to the Earl of Shrewsbury. The Earl, who lived at Alton Towers nearby, offered the building to a religious community under the leadership of Frederick William Faber.
Interestingly, a Saint once stayed at Cotton.
A Saint once walked these paths
From 30th August to 8th September 1847 a retreat was given at Cotton by Father Dominic Barberi who was an Italian theologian and a member of the Passionist Congregation prominent in spreading Catholicism in England. ‘Blessed’ Dominic Barberi is best known as the man who converted John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican, to Catholicism, and who then ‘received’ Newman into the Catholic Church. Newman went on to become a priest himself, and eventually one of the great cardinals of the Catholic Church.
Newman is now an official Catholic Saint and was canonised by Pope Francis on 13 October 2019, during an open-air Mass in St. Peter’s Square. The mass was attended by Prince Charles and tens of thousands of pilgrims.
Newman stayed at Cotton in 1848. It is remarkable to think that a Saint once wandered these grounds and walked through the very doors of this church.
On Easter Tuesday, 25th April, Father Faber’s church of St Wilfrid at Cotton was ‘solemnly opened’. Before a large congregation of priests and the local congregation, Bishop Wiseman sang the Mass and (now Saint) Newman preached. The founders, in addition to the Earl of Shrewsbury who gave £2,500 towards the cost of the church and £65 a year to the village school, were Fathers Faber, Hutchison, Mills and Wells. The architect, Pugin, was also present.
In October 1848 the whole community of Oratorians (The English Congregation of the Oratory had been formally set up by Newman in February 1848), more than forty in number, was removed to St Wilfried’s at Cotton. The superior, Father Newman, occupied the large room on the ground floor of the new building, now used as the Infirmary, and the Bursar’s sitting- room adjoining.
We have an account of the Christmas celebrations of 1848 in a letter written by Newman to Henry Wilberforce early in the morning of Christmas Day. ‘This blessed day, my first Mass at twelve (midnight) I gave to the Pope, my second at half-two to our Congregation, and my third at seven to all my friends and acquaintances who are still Protestants. The Midnight Mass was a high one and I communicated 120 persons at it. We have Masses going on literally through the night, thirty-six in all, as if in emulation of the Angels who sang through the night 1800 years ago, ‘Glory to God, peace on earth’. Some of us have not been to bed at all-we don’t expect many people this morning’
It is also at Cotton that Faber wrote the famous hymn “Faith of our Fathers” in 1849.
The site has been boarded up and no entry has been possible which has increased the allure of finding out more about the place and trying to have a look. I remember stories from childhood where friends had been inside the buildings and tables had suddenly flown into the air. These tales stoked the fire of intrigue and I have been interested in this place ever since. The old derelict rooms, with chalkboards and desks still in place from decades ago. If these walls could talk, what stories could they tell? The place feels like one which time has forgotten.
Another fascinating place is just over the road, down from the cricket fields is the old abandoned swimming pool which is now overgrown but still completely intact. My brother and I have visited this many times. In the complete silence and serenity of the surroundings you can almost here the excited chatter and echoes of voices using this place, decades ago. It is like a film reel from the 1930’s runs in my head and I can see a plethora of activity as people play and splash around in this now long deserted pool.
For a full view of what the internal parts now look like (As at August 2019) please see here –https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/cotton-college-staffordshire-august-2019.120634/
Interestingly, a former pupil, John Cornwell wrote a memoir in 2007 called Seminary Boy for which the college serves as a backdrop. Cornwell gives a detailed account of his time at the College and all that came with it. A short, fascinating overview can be found here – https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/seminary-boy-by-john-cornwell-415022.html
There is a fascinating, in depth account of the full history of Cotton collage written by F.G. ROBERTS which dates from around the 1950’s – http://www.cottoncollege.co.uk/cotton/pictures/cottonians/30.pdf