From the archives: a look back at Kingswood’s House system

Investigative

Hufflepuff. Slytherin. Ravenclaw. Gryffindor. The fantastical houses of Harry Potter may seem strange and remote to the student body of a prep school in West Hartford, but, remarkably, Kingswood Oxford has a history of houses of its own.

The Kingswood School in Bath, U.K., which served as the model for the American Kingswood, has used a house system for hundreds of years. Boarding schools in England use houses—spaces where a randomly selected swath of the entire student body live together—to establish a sense of fraternity among a group of students at a larger school. Competition between houses in academics and athletics is fierce. 

Back when the American Kingswood’s founder George Nicholson attended the Bath campus, the school was divided into the two houses of York and Lancaster, so named for two rival families that famously fought for control over the throne during the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. Nicholson repurposed those names for his new school; his Kingswood School divided its student body evenly into York and Lancaster houses since its inception in 1916. 

These houses were certainly more rudimentary than the literal monolithic houses of yore, existing in a less concrete sense as Kingswood moved from building to building before settling down on its current campus in 1922, but they otherwise functioned like their counterparts. The houses would square off in sports such as squash and soccer to earn points, a particularly useful function of the system considering the lack of local athletic competition and the pain that traveling for events was in those days. Points were also earned through academic success, as is tradition.

The York-Lancaster system fell out of use in the Upper School by 1928. By that time, the school’s culture had largely shifted towards extracurricular clubs that incorporated members of the entire school and sports teams —varsity and JV—that had begun to compete on a more regular basis with other schools. Without the decades of tradition and robust social structure provided by houses at a traditional boarding school, the house system’s existence became difficult to justify. It lived on for a time through occasional sporting events in the Middle School, but without any strong forces of tradition in place, it ultimately fell entirely out of use.

The house system re-emerged briefly almost 90 years later during the 2013-2014 school year, when the Upper School student government of what was now Kingswood Oxford reinstated it that year to popular appeal. York and Lancaster factored into a variety of events in which members of the houses could earn points, such as a half-court shot challenge at a pep rally and the first-ever Upper School field day, which Lancaster won. The student government of the following year did not maintain the newly revived tradition, and a trophy intended to be awarded to the house that won the most points each successive year languishes in the archives.

Will the house system ever return again? Considering its two unceremonious demises, it seems as though the nature of KO as a small, tight-knit day school precludes it from effectively utilizing what is admittedly a rather aged institution. Perhaps this is actually a benefit; it may serve to demonstrate the inherent cohesion of our community that a system intended to break us in half lacked longevity. Regardless, the house system remains a unique, magical quirk in the history of KO, a reminder of the school’s British, aristocratic roots that seem so foreign today.