A History of the School

A brief history of the St.Paul’s School

by Rev.  Hugh Mead

Medieval cathedrals were supposed to maintain a grammar school.  There was one at St.Paul’s at least as early as the twelfth century and perhaps much earlier.  It may have educated both Thomas Becket and Geoffrey Chaucer.  By the sixteenth century, however, it was decayed – ‘obviously’, as John Colet, Dean of St.Paul’s wrote, ‘a school of no importance’.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 11.18.00 John Colet

He acquired its site, on the north side of the cathedral, for his new school.

Colet was well qualified to found a school, being not only learned and devout but also rich and well connected.  His father, Sir Henry Colet, was Lord Mayor of London and a leading member of what was then and still is the premier City Livery Company, the Mercers.  All his many children, except the Dean, died young.  His large fortune was thus available for the endowment of the school, as John Colet, being a celibate priest, had no children of his own.

He was able to make St.Paul’s the largest school in England and to pay its staff well, the High Master receiving 13s.4d (66p a week), a much better salary than the Head Master of Eton.  Colet entrusted the government of his school, and the management of its finances, to the Mercers’ Company.  They still form the major part of the governing body and administer his Trust.

Colet intended his school to provide a Christian and humane education.  He was helped and advised in his planning by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most famous scholar of the day, who wrote text books for Pauline use and tried to recruit for the staff.  William Lily, the first High Master, was also a distinguished scholar: St.Paul’s can claim that in his day it became the first English school to teach Greek.

Under Colet’s statutes there were to be 153 scholars (a reference, almost certainly, to the miraculous draught of fishes – St.John xxi 11) in eight forms.  They were all taught in one large room, sometimes divided by curtains, the forms, or benches, rising up in tiers on either side of it.  They were to be taught free, but each boy was required to bring his own (expensive) wax candle, a rule that was enforced until 1820.  Colet intended them to be ‘of all nations and countries indifferently’; but in practice, as St.Paul’s was a day school, they were mostly Londoners.  They were not to be admitted until they could read and write.  They studied Latin and were mostly taught in Latin by the three masters – High Master, Surmaster and Chaplain.  Exhibitions for Paulines, tenable at Oxford and Cambridge, were endowed by the governors and other benefactors; they were essential to ambitious young men without means, for whom the Church, with its exclusively graduate elite, was almost the only ladder to success.  The names of most early Paulines are lost; continuous registers date only from 1748.  Yet we know that before the death of Henry viii the school had educated a Lord Chancellor (Southampton) and a Secretary of State (Paget).  John Milton was at St.Paul’s from about 1615-24.  He made a lasting friendship with the High Master’s son, Alexander Gill, whose conversation he thought better than any to be had at Cambridge.

The first building was destroyed in the great fire of 1666; but the school was rebuilt on the same site in 1670 and again, when the second building became obsolete, in 1824.

The late seventeenth century was something of a golden age for St.Paul’s.  Samuel Pepys, who was a boy there c.  1649-51, seems to have played truant to attend Charles I’s execution and later watched his old school burning.  He became an enthusiastic Old Boy.  The great Duke of Marlborough was said to have learned the rudiments of strategy while still a boy at St.Paul’s from a book in the school library.  He has, perhaps a better claim to be considered the only Pauline Prime Minister than Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington, who was First Lord of the Treasury for the last few months of his life.  Edmund Halley was Captain of the School in 1673 and already ‘very perfect in celestial globes….if a star were misplaced in the globe he would presently find it.’

Relations between the Mercers’ Company and the High Masters were sometimes stormy.  The Mercers inspected the school annually, at Apposition (a ceremony that continues to this day) and claimed the right to dismiss or reappoint the staff in accordance with their findings on that occasion.  In 1559 they removed High Master Freeman, officially for lack of learning, but probably in fact for holding the wrong religious views.  In 1748 they removed High Master Charles, who, it was alleged, had threatened to ‘pull the Surmaster by the nose and kick him about he school.’ Worse still the number of boys had fallen to thirty five.  The governors objected, from time to time, to the High Masters’ taking in boarders and accepting presents and fees.

Although the school recovered quickly from the disastrous High Mastership of Charles, by the early 19th century it was clear that its premises were inadequate.

The rebuilding of 1824 was on a larger scale ; but the only play-ground was a semi-subterranean basement.



School, in 1827

School in 1827

There were no organised games: Colet had forbidden ‘cockfighting’ and ‘riding about of victory’ which he thought nothing but waste of time.  John Sleath, High Master from 1814 to 1838, declared that ‘at St.Paul’s we teach nothing but Latin and Greek’: but he said so not complacently but with ironical regret: he had tried and failed to get the governors to appoint a master to teach writing and arithmetic.  In a reforming age St.Paul’s was going to have to change.

Pressure for radical change came from the Public Schools Commission of 1861 and later from the Charity Commissioners; but in any case High Master Kynaston was keen to increase the staff and broaden the curriculum.  His successor, Frederick William Walker, (then High Master of Manchester Grammar School) was appointed in 1877 to carry out the major changes that were needed if the governors were to defend their stewardship to the satisfaction of the Victorian public, and if St.Paul’s was to remain a great public school in the heyday of the ‘Public School System’.  It had already been decided that the school must move out of the City.  A sixteen acre site, between what are now the Talgarth and Hammersmith Roads, was bought for £41,000 and Alfred Waterhouse, already famous as the architect of the Natural History Museum (1881), built on it the handsome gothic edifice of red brick and terra-cotta which was to house St.Paul’s from 1884 to1968.

Under Walker the school grew rapidly in numbers (211 boys in 1884; 573 in1888) and reputation.  If he was right in seeing the attainment of entrance scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge as the touchstone of success, then in his day and beyond St.Paul’s was far the most successful school in England.  Other Victorians, however, believed playing fields to be every bit as important as lessons.  Though Walker certainly did not, the new site enabled the school to compete athletically as well as academically.  St.Paul’s was already a founding member of the Rugby Football Union (1871) though games did not become compulsory until 1897.  Boarding, which had disappeared early in the nineteenth century, was revived at Hammersmith.

In 1909 a science block and in 1934 new biology laboratories were opened; yet, despite the steady broadening and modernising of the curriculum, it was on the humanities and especially the classics that the fame of St.Paul’s in the first half of the twentieth century mainly rested.  Every High Master until 1962 was a classicist and the best known among Paulines of this period are predominantly men of letters: G.K.Chesterton, Leonard Woolf, Compton Mackenzie, Edward Thomas, Lawrence Binyon, Eric Newby.  But there were artists too, such as Paul Nash, who was unhappy at St.Paul’s, Eric Kennington and Ernest Shephard, who was happy there.  There was also Bernard Law Montgomery.  It was in Walker’s day that St.Paul’s began to admit non-Christians: the majority of these, and some of the most distinguished of Paulines, such as Sir Isaiah Berlin, have been Jewish; but Aurbindo Ghose, who entered the school in 1884, is now venerated by thousands of Hindus as a saint and a sage.

Montgomery, except at cricket, rugby football and swimming, was not a distinguished school-boy: he remained a private in the school’s Cadet Corps.  In the months before D-day however, as General commanding 21st Army Group he returned to its headquarters in the school buildings to plan the invasion of Europe.  The school itself, meanwhile, had been evacuated, largely by bicycle, to Crowthorne, in Berkshire.  There, until 1945, masters and boys lived in the village, lessons took place in a nearby country house, Easthampstead Park, and Wellington College lent playing fields and laboratories.

It was not only the dilapidation and shabbiness inflicted by the war on the Hammersmith buildings – seven hundred windows had been broken – that made the school authorities begin thinking about yet another move.  The broadening of the Talgarth Road took a slice off playing fields that were already inadequate; boys had to travel on the Piccadilly line to play games at Osterley.  Art school, science labs., swimming pool – none could really match what most public schools were beginning to offer.  But a move must not be so far out that it would seriously weaken the historic links of St.Paul’s with London.

In 1968 the move across the Thames to the present site took place.  Its forty five acres, formerly a waterworks’ reservoir and filter beds, provided ample space for St.Paul’s Preparatory School, Colet Court, to move too.  There was some talk of moving St.Paul’s Girls School (founded in1904 and endowed by the Colet Foundation as our sister school); but in the event the girls remained at Brook Green.

New Site

  The new buildings, designed by Bernard Fielden, on the CLASP system, now appear as characteristic of the brutalist nineteen sixties, perhaps, as Waterhouse’s gothic pile appeared grotesquely Victorian to our grandparents in the nineteen thirties.  They have been somewhat mellowed, however, by addition, modification and vegetation.

School and site, from the air

Notable additions include the magnificent Art School , the Design Technology Centre and the conversion of the central courtyard into the Atrium (all 1991); the complete refurbishment of the Theatre (1987) and of the Walker Library (2000).

Also in 2000 a Rackets court, the first in the school’s history, was completed.  Though St.Paul’s continues to offer boarding places, the demand is less than in the Hammersmith days and in 1999 one of the two boarding houses was demolished to make way for the new Music School and Wathen Hall, a department and concert hall of which any school could be proud.

Our thanks go to Rev.  Mead, not only for persevering with teaching us history but also for allowing the Lodge to reproduce this brief history of the school.