Late in 2020, the team working on the extension to Radley College Chapel came to a milestone moment. The east end of the building was being extended to form a much larger sanctuary. The existing east window was to remain, but the wall below it had to be demolished in its entirety. Set into that wall was the dedication stone which had been consecrated and placed there in November 1893. The builders treated the stone with respect so that it could be replaced in the new wall. As they removed the brickwork around it, the top was revealed. There was a hollow carved into the stone: it contained a sealed glass flask like those used to store preserved specimens in school science departments of the 1890s.
The flask was carefully removed and stored in a cool place so that there was minimum change in temperature from its home inside a cold stone. Over a couple of months the temperature was gradually increased so that it could be opened without damage to the contents. One day in late February 2021, the Warden, John Moule, opened the flask and held the dedication letter written by his predecessor, Henry Thompson, more than a century before.
What would you put in a time capsule? In 2021, it might be examples of work by pupils, maybe a photograph of the whole school. But in a digital age it is harder to think about preserving physical objects for the future: we tend to believe the internet will preserve our handshakes for our descendants. In February 2021 the main preoccupation of the school was the Covid-19 pandemic. Should there be something specifically about that, maybe a mask or a vaccination form, a photo of a lesson via Teams? So, a time capsule tells the future about us: but only if we expect it to be found.
In 1893, this particular time capsule was located in a place that would only be exposed by a catastrophe or by a massive change to the building which its original depositors would never have imagined. And that belief that it would never be found must influence how we interpret its contents. This was not meant to be a handshake across time. It was put into its stone during (or just before) the ceremony in which the chapel building work was dedicated to God. Most of those at that ceremony may not have known it was there: it is not mentioned in any of the detailed reports boys and dons wrote for The Radleian. So even at the beginning, it was a secret.
It contained five documents. Only one of them is unique. The other four were all copies of printed leaflets that were widely circulated: we still have copies of each of them in the school archives. First was the school roll ‘Rotulus’, which contained the name of every boy in the school in Michaelmas Term 1893, arranged by class, with the name of their Social Tutor. Second was a copy of the school rules. Third a booklet laying out the powers and privileges of the prefects. Fourth the prospectus. Between them, these documents summarise Radley College – what it is, what it is for, who it is.
The fifth document is the unique record of this moment in history. It is a note written by Warden Henry Thompson about the dedication ceremony:
A.M.D.G. [Ad maiorem gloriam Dei – To the greater glory of God]. The Foundation Stone of this Chapel was laid on St Andrew’s Day 1893 by William Stubbs, DD, Bishop of Oxford and Visitor of this College in the presence of Henry Barnett Esq of Glympton Park, Chairman of the Council. The Lord Addington, the Revd W.W. Jackson DD, Rector of Exeter College, Oxford (members of the Council) and many distinguished guests. The Architect of the Chapel is Thomas Graham Jackson, ARA. The Builders Messrs Estcourt & Son of Gloucester. May God prosper the work to the increase of His Church. Henry Lewis Thompson, MA, Warden
This is the only record we have of the builders, Estcourts of Gloucester.
The documents are now in the College Archives. Is there a new time capsule? That’s another secret.
A guide to Radley College Chapel
Clare Sargent. February 2022