A small advertisement in the Birmingham Daily Post of 16 August 1944 announced the imminent arrival of a new school in Fairford. The advertisement stated: “COMMONWEAL LODGE, from Devon, OPENING AS “WINGS” AT FAIRFORD, GLOUCESTERSHIRE, SEPTEMBER 1944. Progressive approved School for Girls. Individual Tutorials. Music, Riding included.” Commonweal Lodge had been founded by William Webb in 1916 on his estate at Purley in Surrey. In 1941 the school had to move to Ardock Lodge in Lewdown near Okehampton, Devon as its building at Purley were taken over by the military. Three years later the school took up residence in Fairford in the buildings of The Retreat, a privately-run asylum which had been founded by Alexander Iles in 1822 and was owned by Dr A C King-Turner when it closed in 1944. However, the advertisement is slightly misleading as “Wings” appears to have been an offshoot of Commonweal Lodge School which returned to its original home at Purley at the end of the Second World War and remained there until it closed in 2010.
As the advertisement mentioned, riding was a very important aspect of the school’s activities and many of the almost 100 pupils brought their own ponies to school. “Wings” sponsored the Fairford Horse Show and Gymkhana which was held in the grounds of Fairford Park on 21 July 1945 and several of the girls took part in the show. The event was organised by the school’s bursar, Major Frank Edwards, and the proceeds were donated to the Fairford Cottage Hospital. The event was repeated the following year and was even more successful. One of the young riders who achieved national prominence in the sport was 11-year old Patricia Moss who jumped at the London Horse Show in June 1946. She was an outstanding rider having competed at horse shows since the age of four and was frequently mentioned in newspaper reports on riding events. Pat Moss later turned her focus to rally driving having been taught to drive by her brother Stirling Moss, one of Britain’s most famous Formula One racing drivers. She became one of Britain’s most successful female rally drivers becoming European Ladies Rally Champion five times in the 1950s and 1960s.
Pat Moss was not the only pupil of “Wings” to appear in the local and national press. Sisters Patricia and Diana Selous were pictured in the Gloucestershire Echo of 19 June 1946 with a horse named Winged Pan which apparently walked into the music room when it heard the sisters playing the piano and violin! Diana Selous and Pat Moss both won prizes at the Gloucester and District Horse Show which was held on 27 July 1946 when Pat Moss was the only competitor to achieve a clear round. Unfortunately the month ended on a less happy note on the 31st when one of the horses was knocked down by a Royal Air Force lorry in Horcott Road; both rider and pony sustained injuries. The emphasis on horse riding was no doubt due to the influence of the Principal of the school, Mrs Joan Hilsden, who had previously been the proprietor of a riding school in Felixstowe. Mrs Hilsden as well as teacher Noreen Morley and pupils Pat Moss, Diana Selous and Pamela Trotman had all competed at the National Horse Show at White City in June 1946.
Sadly the success at horse shows does not appear to have been accompanied by financial success and in September 1947 the buildings were put up for sale; the sales brochure giving an indication of the size of the etsablishment. In 1948 the property was bought by Gloucestershire County Council and in August the Council requested tenders to build a new block and renovate the existing buildings. In December the Council announced that the site would become a special school for up to 80 residential pupils with learning and behavioural difficulties. The school opened in May 1950 as Coln House School which finally closed in March 2017.
However this was not the end of “Wings” as the school moved to Charlton Park near Malmesbury. Although still under the management of Mrs Hilsden there seems to have been less emphasis on equestrian activities and more on practical skills such as shorthand and bookkeeping. Post certificate and finishing courses were offered for girls up to the age of 19. Unfortunately the school failed to prosper for very long at Charlton Park and in November 1953 the Principal and two of her staff filed for bankruptcy thereby bringing an end to “Wings” School.