A preparatory school attended by Diana, Princess of Wales, is to close this week due to ‘unprecedented financial challenges’.
Riddlesworth Hall School, between Thetford and Diss in Norfolk, opened in 1946 in a Grade II listed 18th century former country house.
It will shut its doors permanently on Friday after struggling from ‘the impact of the pandemic and the current economic climate’.
The young Diana Spencer was a boarder there from the age of nine to 12 – a formative time in her life as her parents had just divorced. She left in 1973.
A photo taken by her father, John Spencer, Viscount Althorp, showed her looking miserable in her red jumper and grey pleated skirt as she sat on a trunk with her tuck box preparing to go to the independent preparatory school for the first time.
Diana, Princess of Wales visiting Riddlesworth Hall School, her old school in Norfolk in April 1989
A spokesman said everyone was ‘extremely saddened’ by the decision to close
Riddlesworth Hall School, between Thetford and Diss in Norfolk, opened in 1946 in a Grade II listed 18th century former country house
She made threats including ‘If you love me, you won’t leave me here’ but eventually came to love the school, which was an all-girls institution at the time.
The Rev Reginald Sweet, a Latin teacher and chaplain at the school while Diana was there, said she was sad at first but settled in quickly and was popular with staff and other girls.
‘The great thing about her was she was always taking care of the little ones or any girl who was down or upset,’ he said in a 2017 interview aged 81.
‘The new ones who came in and were homesick, she would take care of them. She was always very popular in that way.’
Diana was not very academic, Rev Sweet said, but made her name in other areas, particularly in regularly winning the Legatt Cup, which was awarded to helpful pupils.
She also helped run Pets’ Corner, set up animals the children brought from home. Diana kept her beloved guinea pig Peanut there.
‘Diana used to help in the chapel laying up things. She was just a good all-round little girl who was anxious to please and help. Almost every term she would win the ‘most helpful girl’ cup,’ Rev Sweet said.
He also described himself as a ‘soft touch’ as the only male member of staff at the time. Girls would get him to post letters to avoid them being scrutinised first for anything ‘scurrilous’ – with Diana using the secret arrangement to ‘post her letters to her boyfriend without the staff knowing’.
Headteacher Patricia Wood with an old Riddlesworth Hall Prep school photograph featuring Princess Diana
Princess Diana ( middle row centre) in an old school photograph
She went back to visit her former school in 1989 – here she is pictured interacting with pupils
Her time there began in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, which came after her mother Frances left her father for wallpaper tycoon Peter Shand Kydd and moved out of the family home, Park House, next to Sandringham, to go to London.
Speaking about her memories of the school to royal author Andrew Morton for his explosive biography, Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words, she said: ‘I remember there being a great discussion that a judge was going to come to me at Riddlesworth (my preparatory school) and ask who I would prefer to live with. The judge never turned up.’
She described feeling ‘horribly different at school because we had divorced parents and nobody else did at that time’.
But the period probably helped create the compassionate woman she would become, as she added: ‘The divorce helped me to relate to anyone else who is upset in their family life, whether it be stepfather syndrome or mother or whatever, I understand it. Been there, done it.’
The young Diana Spencer was a boarder there from the age of nine to 12 – a formative time in her life as her parents had just divorced
The school, which more recently started taking boys as well as girls, joined the Confucius International Education Group in 2015 which runs international schools in China, Spain and the USA
The shy and retiring girl loved ‘the thrill of putting on make-up’ for school plays but refused any part that had lines.
She also won a sports cup for diving four years on the trot and other prizes for best-kept guinea pig ‘maybe because mine was the only guinea pig in the guinea pig section’.
Diana also revealed how she was nearly expelled after agreeing to take part in a dare by going to the end of the estate’s drive after 9pm to meet an outsider who was bringing sweets.
As she arrived at the gate, emergency services suddenly drove in and lights came on at the school.
‘I wandered back, terrified, to find that some twit in my bedroom said that she had appendicitis,’ she recalled.
‘Then they asked ‘Where’s Diana?’ ‘I don’t know where she’s gone’.’
Her parents were summoned but she was not told off as her father was ‘thrilled’ and her mother commented; ‘I didn’t think you had it in you.’
The school, which more recently started taking boys as well as girls, joined the Confucius International Education Group in 2015 which runs international schools in China, Spain and the USA. It was rebranded as Confucius International School-Riddlesworth Hall as a result.
Day pupils were charged up to £8,970 per year, with seven-day boarders paying £20,100.
A spokesman said everyone was ‘extremely saddened’ by the decision to close.
He added: ‘The school is no longer financially viable. The school has been facing unprecedented financial challenges for several years now which is due, in part, to the impact of the pandemic and the current economic climate.
‘Our priority now is to support our pupils and their families over the next few weeks to make sure that they are looked after during this unsettling period.’
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