The Benedictine monastic Community of St Edmund’s was founded in Paris in 1615. A boarding school was created at La Celle on the outskirts of the city, and the first recorded pupil is from 1622, but education remained informal and irregular. Following the French Revolution, the Community disbanded.
St Edmund’s Priory was re-founded in 1818 in Douai, in north-east France. A more recognisable modern school (St Edmund’s College) was established alongside it, and by 1823 there were 28 boys on the roll. Connections with the English Church remained crucial and the “Bishops’ boys”, whose fees were paid for by the Catholic dioceses, ensured a diverse demographic among the pupil body. In 1899, Douai was elevated to the status of an Abbey.
At the turn of the 20th century, the monks and boys were against forced from their home, this time due to the French government’s anti-clerical laws. In 1903, the Abbey moved to Woolhampton in rural Berkshire where it merged with a tiny diocesan boarding school called St Mary’s College.
While many boys continued to be admitted to Holy Orders, an increasing number were entering secular life. Gradually, the school (now called Douai School) adopted the culture of an English public school and was admitted to the Headmasters Conference in 1920. It still retained some aspects of its French heritage, and in this sense was always unique among English schools. For example, it was not until 1951 that the House system was introduced.
In the 1960s, the first day boys started and in 1993 Douai became coeducational (there had been a brief experiment with girls in the 1970s). However, throughout its history, Douai remained tiny in size, never holding more than around 330 pupils, even at its peak. As numbers dwindled, it was perhaps just a matter of time before the school was forced to close again, in July 1999. The Abbey remains active.
Old Dowegians (as they are known) can join the Douai Society, which provides social and sporting events throughout the year. In 2017, the Douai Room opened on the site of the old playing fields, as a museum to the school and a war memorial to the Old Boys who fell in the First World War.