On 6 June 1557 Sir John Port of Etwall passed away without a male heir and his bequests included funds to provide almshouses at Etwall but also the means to found a "Grammar School in Etwalle or Reptone", where the scholars every day were to pray for the souls of his parents and other relatives.
In 1559 the executors of Sir John Port's will purchased from the Thacker family, for £37.10s (£37.50), the land which had once housed a twelfth-century Augustinian Priory, and the accompanying buildings which had survived Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequent upheavals, namely, the Guest Chamber and Prior's Lodging (which as the Old Priory currently houses the School Library and Common Room), Overton's Tower (now part of School House), the Tithe Barn, and the Arch, which is all that now remains of the priory's original gatehouse and which helped inspire the School's motto: porta vacat culpa.
The School gradually grew in numbers and success, combining local scholars, whose schooling was paid by the Endowment, and the sons of fee-paying parents from further afield. However, the history of the school was not one of uninterrupted progress and at one time during the headmastership of William Bagshaw Stevens the school roll seemingly dropped to a single boy!
The School's fortunes had been significantly restored under the Headmasterships of Sleath, Macaulay and Peile but it was Steuart Adolphus Pears who, as Headmaster between 1854 and 1874, did more than anyone else since Sir John Port to create the conditions conducive to Repton's success, and for that reason has become honoured as the school's "Second Founder".
In the autumn of 1854 when Pears arrived as Head Master of Repton, with a salary of £360 pa, he found a handful of staff, and just 48 boys. By the Tercentenary of the School's foundation in 1857 numbers had more than doubled, more staff had been taken on and Pears had begun the process of investing in various improvements to the fabric of the School.
These changes included the purchase of the land which became the site of the School Chapel (opened 1859) and Orchard House (which opened in 1857 but moved to its present site in 1860). Boarding house accommodation was further increased with the opening of Latham House in 1858, the Mitre in 1865 and Brook House in 1869. More classrooms were also built.
Pears was fortunate to be able to exploit mid-Victorian prosperity and improved communications (with the construction of the Willington Bridge and opening of the Willington Railway Station) but the School's reputation also rose in line with Pears' own. In short, under Pears Repton attained the status, which it has never lost, of a leading public school. Hence his invitation to give evidence in 1865 to the Schools Inquiry Commission, and his attending the first Headmasters' Conference in 1869.
Believing that "healthy exertion of body and spirit together, which is found in the excitement, the emulation and the friendly strife of school games", Pears may also be said to have laid the foundations for Repton's reputation for sporting excellence.
Not least amongst his achievements was his ensuring that Sir John Port's vision of the school was revitalized, so that fee-paying boarders helped subsidize scholars and Repton became what is technically an elevated Grammar School rather than merely a charity school.
Much of note has happened at Repton in the later decades of the 20th century, most notably the successful integration of girls, first into the Sixth Form and then to make Repton fully co-educational. However Pears’ vision of a place of learning, with up-to-date facilities for living, working and the pursuit of excellence in extra-curricular activities continues to inspire. Perhaps our founder’s greatest legacy to Repton is the School's continuing mission to detect and encourage the talents of its students wherever they may lie.