Town's Dick Whittington who never forgot his roots

THE story of Robert Smyth is that of a local Dick Whittington who went to London to seek his fortune – and returned to Harborough to become one of the town's greatest benefactors.

The seeds of today’s modern Robert Smyth School were sown 400 years ago – at the cost of 20 – a paltry sum now, but the equivalent of thousands of pounds then.

Robert Smyth was the son of a poor Harborough tailor who left the town for London in the mid-16th century aged 15. Legend has it that he walked from Harborough to the city.

By 1580 he had become an under-clerk of the Lord Mayor of London’s court where he dealt with the ancient records of the City of London.

He rose through the ranks to, in 1598, become comptroller, similar to a Chancellor of the Exchequer role for the City of London. He was active in the mayor’s court as an attorney and as a keeper of records.

He founded Market Harborough Grammar School in 1607 as one of his many charitable gifts to the town.

He gave 20, the interest from which was to be used for the education of “poore boys in Harborow”. Smyth proposed setting up a preaching minister at Harborough who he wanted to act as a schoolmaster. Edward Still was licensed as the first school master in 1607.

In accordance with Smyth's instructions, the first proper school house was built in 1614 on wooden posts in the market place, which would double-up as a shelter for market traders.

The building, now referred to as The Old Grammar School, still stands today and is now looked after by the Market Harborough and the Bowdens Charity. It still hosts functions.

During the 17th and early 18th centuries the school was in general open only to boys who were Anglicans, could read English well and who required training in classical languages.

George Periam, a student of Christ Church, Oxford, was appointed master in 1752 but in January 1755, several people complained to the Court of the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of London that Periam had neglected his duties.

In the 19th century an attempt was made to open the school to all denominations to stem falling numbers but this failed and eventually the Charity commissioners issued a new scheme for running the school and the building was restored by public subscription.

A new school was commissioned in Coventry Road in 1892 and the county council then built a new-look grammar school, called the County Grammar School of King Edward VII in Burnmill Road in 1909.

The 1940s saw the school change its name to Market Harborough Grammar School. School fees were abolished in 1944.

In 1978 the name changed again to The Robert Smyth School.

The present Robert Smyth School has a total of 1,354 pupils.