Billionaire James Dyson makes 'biggest ever' donation to Norfolk private school Greshams

Sir James Dyson.
Credit: Dyson
James Dyson, centre, with the school's headmaster Douglas Robb, right, and chairman Michael Goff. Credit: Dyson

Billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson has donated £35m to his former school to fund the building of a new prep school and buy 85 acres of grounds.

The handout from the James Dyson Foundation to Greshams School in Norfolk is thought to be the largest ever made to a single school, and comes four years after he gave it £18.75m.

It will be used to restore Grade II-listed Holt Hall and buy 85 acres of land, where a new prep school will be built with facilities for Steam studies - science, technology, engineering, arts and maths - for pupils aged seven to 13.

Sir James, one of the UK's richest men, with a fortune estimated at $9.5bn by Forbes magazine, started as a boarder at Greshams as a nine-year-old in 1956 and studied there until 1965.

Sir James said: “Holt Hall is a magnificent setting and when it came up for sale we had the extraordinary opportunity to rescue this Victorian hall, to provide a new setting for a cutting-edge prep school for Gresham’s pupils.

James Dyson, centre, with the school's headmaster Douglas Robb, right, and chairman Michael Goff. Credit: Dyson

"As the son of a Gresham’s teacher, I had the free run of Gresham’s grounds and playing fields in the school holidays – but the arcadian park of Holt Hall was out of bounds.

"The architecture and design of the new wing – with a mirrored external surface – will reflect the ancient woodland, allowing it to blend into its stunning setting.

"We will also restore the Victorian building and protect the surrounding ancient woodland for Gresham’s pupils to discover and learn in, adding state-of-the-art facilities.

Sir James received a bursary so that he and his brother could continue studying at the school after the sudden death of their father Alec, the school's head of classics.

The artist's impressions of the new Greshams prep school at Holt Hall. Credit: Dyson

He added: "It is so important to inspire young people through problem-solving and discovery. I’m forever grateful for the generosity Gresham’s showed me when my father – who was head of classics at the school – died when I was nine.

"Logie Bruce-Lockhart, the headmaster, allowed my brother and me to continue our studies with a bursary, when it would otherwise have been impossible.

"I’m so pleased to be able to support the school and to see it shaping incredible young people who go on and flourish.”

The new school will include a new building next to the historic hall, and will have environmentally-friendly measures including solar panels, rainwater irrigation, and a ground-source heat pump.

Money will also be invested into a management plan for the ancient woodland in the 85 acres of grounds, the removal of invasive plant species and the restoration of a walled garden.

The Steam Building at Greshams, which was funded by an £18.75m Dyson donation in 2019. Credit: Dyson

A field studies centre will be set up, supported by an outreach programme for nearby schools, including outdoor activities and residential stays at Holt Hall.

The hall had been an outdoor education centre run by Norfolk County Council for more than 70 years until 2021, when the council decided the cost of maintaining it had grown too high.

Douglas Robb, Gresham’s headmaster, said: “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rescue Holt Hall and breathe new life into its grounds. We are enormously grateful for the generous donation of Sir James Dyson and the James Dyson Foundation.

"The natural setting of Holt Hall and its ancient woodland will be the new home for Gresham’s Prep School – currently a superb school limited by its cramped location at acrossroads.

"No land will be sold off during this development and we will repurpose the Prep School’s existing site to expand the senior school facilities.

"I am particularly grateful that Sir James has chosen to further enhance the school’s facilities and build on the tremendous success of the Dyson STEAM Building.”

In 2019, Sir James donated £18.75m to Greshams for the construction of a new Steam building, which opened last year. Around 1,000 children from local schools have also used the building in workshops put on by the school.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know