Schools: The Coopers' Company's School

Pages 291-293

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 1, Physique, Archaeology, Domesday, Ecclesiastical Organization, the Jews, Religious Houses, Education of Working Classes To 1870, Private Education From Sixteenth Century. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1969.

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In or before 1536 (fn. 2) Nicholas Gibson, Prime Warden of the Grocers' Company 1536-7 and Sheriff of London 1538-9, founded in Ratcliff Highway a school for boys (fn. 3) and an almshouse for men and women. On his death in 1540 he left his whole estate to his widow, Avice, on condition that she endowed the foundation. (fn. 4) Within a year Avice married Sir Anthony Knyvett (d. 1548 or 1549), a gentleman of the royal household, (fn. 5) and in 1552 settled the property upon herself for life and thereafter in trust to the Coopers' Company for the purposes of the charity. (fn. 6) Since the founder was a grocer it may appear surprising that Lady Knyvett preferred the Coopers as trustees. The only explanation for this choice that has been given is that the Coopers were her tenants in Ratcliff. (fn. 7) Lady Knyvett directed that the schoolmaster should receive £10 salary and the usher £6 13s. 4d., both being accommodated in the building. The older boys were to be taught grammar, the little ones spelling and the like. (fn. 8)

Among early masters were Richard Reynolds (1561-2), a scholar who wrote on rhetoric and Roman history, (fn. 9) and Thomas Ward (1562-71), dismissed for his evil demeanour and lack of diligence, (fn. 10) but remembered as the teacher of Lancelot Andrewes. (fn. 11) John Turk (1594-1613), alleged to have been lazy, insubordinate, and lacking in grammar, good letters, and manners, was dismissed with a pension and accommodation in the almshouse. His unlicensed successor was inhibited by the Bishop of London, so Turk took the opportunity to resume the duties of schoolmaster. He was expelled; by appeal to the bishop he recovered his pension and rooms, but failed in his claim for payment as master. The Company's next nomination also failed to satisfy the bishop, but finally Samuel Wilson (1616-18) was appointed, although he resigned after only two years as master. (fn. 12) A more distinguished appointment was that of Edward Howes, the mathematician, as usher 1643-6. (fn. 13)

In 1574 Henry Cloker, another grocer, (fn. 14) left to the Coopers' Company some London property, the proceeds of which were to be applied in part to the augmentation of the salaries of the schoolmaster and the usher; (fn. 15) with additional gratuities from the Company their salaries had risen to £23 6s. 8d. and £9 13s. 4d. by 1596, but for long after that date there was no further change and the holders had to rely increasingly on fees from private pupils and other perquisites. (fn. 16) About 1590 the permanent association between the Coopers' Company and the charity was symbolized by the removal of the arms of the Grocers' Company from the outer wall of the school-house and the substitution of those of the Coopers, an action deplored by Stow. (fn. 17) In 1654 it was decided that in future the thirty free scholars were to be chosen not by the schoolmaster but by the Company, and that admission fees were not to exceed 18d. Since it was claimed that the founder had intended that instruction should be limited to Latin, reasonable fees (fixed in 1674 at 12s.) might be demanded for teaching writing and arithmetic. Additional private pupils might be taken and the usher was permitted to continue the practice of teaching girls and 'incidental' scholars after school hours. (fn. 18) William Speed (1663-72), author of Juvenilia Epigrammata (1669), (fn. 19) pointed out that, as he was not in orders, it was necessary to hire a clerk to read prayers; for this purpose he was allowed £3 by the Company, but he was alleged to have made a profit of 10s. on the transaction. (fn. 20) A pupil of this period was John Lewis (born 1675), later to become the author of theological, biographical, and topographical works. (fn. 21)

In 1694 it was decided to rebuild the original almshouse, and in 1698 repairs and alterations were made to the school. (fn. 22) The Company threatened that if the parents of boys breaking windows did not make prompt restitution, the cost of replacement would be borne by the schoolmaster, Alexander Jephson (1689-1700). Perhaps on this account Jephson moved to Camberwell, taking with him, it is said, some of his Ratcliff pupils. (fn. 23) Strype gave a favourable account of the school; thirty foundationers, besides other children who resorted to the school for good learning, annually entertained the Stepney parishioners with speeches and verses in Latin and Greek, but they lacked exhibitions to take them to the university. There is no other reference to the teaching of Greek, and Strype exaggerated the salary of the schoolmaster, stating in one place that it was £30 and in another £36. (fn. 24) A pupil of the period was Charles Smith (1713-77), who later wrote tracts on the corn trade which were highly praised by Adam Smith. (fn. 25) In 1730, for unexplained reasons, it was resolved to restrict the office of schoolmaster to laymen, to demand of the successful candidate a security of £200 against his taking orders, and to make the appointment subject to annual election like those of the Company's other officers. (fn. 26)

In 1748, after complaints of irregularities in the management of the school, it was agreed to raise the salary of the schoolmaster to £60 on condition that he provided books, slates, and all other necessaries for teaching, to maintain the limit of thirty free scholars, to recognize the master's right to take boarders and private pupils, and to continue the existing arrangements for the usher and for reading prayers. (fn. 27) An inventory made at the time lists seats and desks for only 19 pupils and no books other than a Bible and a prayer book. (fn. 28) In 1786 the schoolhouse was rebuilt, but together with the almshouse and many other buildings it was destroyed in the disastrous Ratcliff fire of 1794. The erection of new buildings was completed by the end of 1796 and the school reopened. (fn. 29)

In 1818 the Charity Commissioners found that the whole income of the charity was £595 and expenditure £562, of which about a quarter went to the school; the income would have been greater but for the imprudent conditions of a lease of some of the Ratcliff property granted to the East India Company in 1770. Since 1813 the schoolmaster's salary had been fixed at 70 guineas with unfurnished accommodation and coals. No usher had been appointed for many years. There were 30 boys on the foundation and 8 or 10 private pupils who paid 8d. a week for reading and writing and 2d. extra for ciphering; these private pupils were generally elected to vacancies on the foundation as they occurred. Instruction was limited to the rudiments, the catechism, and a little history; no classical literature was taught. The pupils, at that time all sons of the working poor, were admitted at the age of seven and could stay until they were fourteen if their parents could spare them. (fn. 30)

During the 1820's the Company's interest in the school seems to have increased considerably. A separate minute book was kept, vacancies were ordered to be notified to the Clerk and advertised on the church door, and notice boards were erected. Expenditure amounting to £19 in 1829 and £21 in 1831 was incurred on quills, ink, copy books, slate pencils, catechisms, spellers, and the like. It was agreed to enlarge the school to accommodate 20 more boys, to set aside £150 to meet the cost of repairs, alterations, and extensions, and to erect a memorial tablet to the founder and his wife. (fn. 31) A committee appointed to inquire into the various documents relating to the charity reported with regret that the income from a property in Fenchurch Street, purchased with the proceeds of a bequest and let at that time at £163 a year, had since 1560 been credited to the Company and not to the charity. (fn. 32) In 1825 Edward Burrow was appointed schoolmaster; two years later his petition for a salary increase was ordered to lie upon the table, although a committee appointed soon after to inquire into the duties of the schoolmaster and the chaplain found fault only with the latter. Nevertheless, a later proposal to dismiss Burrow for improper conduct was defeated only by the casting vote of the Master of the Company. (fn. 33) For many years the schoolmaster seems to have acted as unofficial warden of the almshouse, being expected even to eject inmates on orders from the Company; these duties were recognized by a reference in the minutes to the schoolmaster as 'governor of the almshouse', but despite this his repeated petitions for an increase in salary were rejected. (fn. 34) During the 1840's petitions from the local inhabitants complained that the school was inefficient and no longer fulfilled its original purpose, but attempts to dismiss Burrow failed. (fn. 35) A revised curriculum was drawn up with the assistance of the headmaster of Mercers' School (fn. 36) and funds became available to put it into effect; the revenue of the school, it was estimated, would increase from £538 in 1847-8 to £810 in 1853-4, partly as a result of the satisfactory conclusion of a long lawsuit with the East India Company. Burrow, now nearly 70, professed himself too old to adopt new methods, but was prepared to retire on a pension not less than his salary. His illness in the spring of 1848 had the effect of reducing the number of pupils in the school to five, whereupon the Company pensioned off Burrow on his own terms and accepted the offer of Henry Hart, proprietor of a finishing academy in Stepney Causeway, to undertake the management of both the Ratcliff school and his own. (fn. 37)

The school was re-opened in July 1848 by J. B. Firth, the Master of the Company, who had taken a keen interest in the reorganization. (fn. 38) To the sons of 'respectable persons' it offered the elements of education, with book-keeping, English grammar, geography, and composition; no pupil was to be admitted who could not already read. The Company was to supply stationery, but parents were to purchase textbooks and to pay a fee of 5s. a quarter. (fn. 39) There was a rush of applicants and even before the official opening Hart had agreed to close his own school and become master of the Coopers' School at a salary of £180, from which he was to pay an usher. At Firth's suggestion, French and Latin were added to the curriculum. (fn. 40)

In 1854 the schoolroom was enlarged to take 175 pupils, the headmaster's salary was raised to £250 without house, and the staff increased to three. It was agreed to invest any surplus until £5,000 had accumulated, when a new school was to be built; the committee recommending this proposal expressed the hope that it might prevent the Charity Commissioners from inquiring too closely into the past administration of the charity. (fn. 41) In the event the report of the Taunton Commission was almost uniformly favourable. A staff of four masters, a visiting French master, and a drill sergeant taught 196 boys. The instruction was sound and suitable, but the premises were unsatisfactory, boys were still admitted with inadequate grounding, and few stayed beyond the age of fourteen. (fn. 42) In 1869-70 new buildings were provided for an upper school of 200 boys, all of whom should have reached the equivalent of Standard VI of the Revised Code; the old school was made a preparatory department for 100 boys. (fn. 43) Having re-established the school on a firm foundation Hart resigned in 1877 and was succeeded by Henry Pinder. (fn. 44)

In the late 1870's the Company began to apply some of the trust income to the education of girls, and on 1 July 1878 the Coopers' Company Girls' School was opened in rented premises at 141 Mile End Road. (fn. 45) So successful was Miss Chell, the headmistress, that in 1880 the school moved to larger premises at 86 Bow Road. All went well until 1886 when the Charity Commissioners demanded by what authority the girls' school had been founded. Although the expenditure had been included annually in the accounts submitted to the Commission, it appeared that these were never studied and only the failure of the Coborn Girls' School brought the existence of the Coopers' Company Girls' School to the notice of the Commissioners. (fn. 46) Towards the end of 1887 the Coborn governors wrote to the Coopers' Company suggesting that the two charities might merge. (fn. 47) The suggestion was rejected at the time, but under strong pressure from the Charity Commission the Coopers' Company reluctantly agreed to the amalgamation. (fn. 48) The scheme provided for the administration of both schools by a new body, the Stepney and Bow Foundation, of which half the governors were to be nominated by the Company and half by the local and educational authorities. The Ratcliff buildings were vacated and the boys moved into the former Coborn building at Tredegar Square; Henry Pinder, now ordained, continued as headmaster, with the former headmaster of the Coborn school as his chief assistant. The girls' school remained at 86 Bow Road with Miss Chell as headmistress, but was renamed Coborn School. (fn. 49) The association of over 400 years between Ratcliff and the Coopers' Company's School was still in 1963 commemorated in the names of Schoolhouse Lane and of the Nicholas Gibson L.C.C. Primary School.

S. Elford, headmaster from 1903 until his death in 1929, convinced the governors of the need to rebuild the school, a task carried out, despite financial difficulties, in 1908-9. In 1921 a higher scale of fees was introduced for out-county pupils, and as a result very few new boys came from Essex and the roll fell from almost 600 to 390 in 1927. Soon after the appointment of A. J. White, headmaster 1929-53, agreement was reached between the county councils and numbers rose to about 540 where, apart from the war years, they have remained. In 1954, when Mr. A. G. Standing succeeded White as headmaster, the school accepted voluntary aided status. The links with the Company remain strong; a senior boy is generally apprenticed each year to the Master of the Company, members of the livery are governors, more than forty old boys of the school are liverymen of the Company, and the Company continues to administer that part of the Foundation income derived from the original Ratcliff Charity. In 1963 there were plans to remove the school to a site in Essex.


  • 1. This account is based largely on Sir W. Foster, Nicholas Gibson and his Free School at Ratcliff (reprinted from Lond. Topog. Record, xvii), and The Ratcliff Charity 1536-1936. Mr. C. J. Hodge, a master at the school, has kindly helped in its compilation. The archives of the Coopers' Company, which are extensive, contain many references to the school; they are to be found in Guildhall, London.
  • 2. The date of foundation has often been assumed to be 1538, see, for example, memorial erected in Stepney church by the Old Boys' Association. This is probably taken from J. Stow, Chronicles of Eng. (1580), 1014. The date 1536 comes from Stepney court rolls, Guildhall MS. 7549, f. 7.
  • 3. Foster states that the number of free scholars was to be limited to thirty (Foster, Nicholas Gibson, 15), but although this limit was adopted by the Company the present writer can find no authority for it. Stow, Chronicles, 1014, speaks of a school for 'threescore poor men's children'.
  • 4. P.C.C. 12 Alenger (Nicholas Gibson).
  • 5. Foster, Nicholas Gibson, 17. Portraits of Sir Anthony and Lady Knyvett hang in the school hall and are reproduced in Foster, op. cit.
  • 6. Guildhall MS. 7549, ff. 13 sqq.
  • 7. Foster, Nicholas Gibson, 19.
  • 8. Guildhall MS. 5633, ff. 11 sqq.
  • 9. D.N.B.
  • 10. Guildhall MS. 5602/1, f. 21.
  • 11. D.N.B.
  • 12. Guildhall MS. 5602/2, ff. 123v, 131, 137v, 138, 139, 157, 158v, 159, 161, 177v.
  • 13. D.N.B.
  • 14. Sir W. Foster, Hist. Coopers' Company, 117.
  • 15. Guildhall MS. 7549, ff. 288 sqq.
  • 16. Foster, Ratcliff Char. 10.
  • 17. Stow, Survey, i. 116.
  • 18. Guildhall MS. 5602/5, ff. 20-20v, 178v, 180, 282.
  • 19. Ibid. f. 118v.
  • 20. Ibid. f. 74v; Foster, Ratcliff Char. 16. Speed became head of Oundle (Cooperian, x. 235).
  • 21. D.N.B.
  • 22. Guildhall MS. 5602/6, f. 569v; 5602/7, ff. 39-41v.
  • 23. Ibid. 5602/7, f. 42v; a glazier's bill for £6 10s. was paid, ibid. f. 45; D. A. Allport, Hist. Wilson's Grammar Sch. 63, 205.
  • 24. J. Stow, Survey of Lond. ed. J. Strype, i. 170-1; ii. 217.
  • 25. D.N.B.
  • 26. Guildhall MS. 5602/8, f. 256v.
  • 27. Ibid. 5602/9, f. 124v.
  • 28. Ibid. f. 127v.
  • 29. Ibid. ff. 158v, 294v, 334.
  • 30. 1st Rep. Com. Char. H.C. 83, pp. 185-7, App. 297- 303 (1819), x-A.
  • 31. Guildhall MS. 5604, 1 Jan. 1825, 3 Mar. 1825, 7 Mar. 1826, 6 Apr. 1830, 22 Mar. 1832; tablet at Tredegar Square.
  • 32. Ibid. 3 Jan., 7 Mar. 1826.
  • 33. Ibid. 7 June 1825, 3 July 1827, 5 Feb. 1828, 6 Nov. 1832.
  • 34. e.g. ibid. 7 Oct. 1828, 3 July 1834, 2 Dec. 1828, 5 June 1832.
  • 35. Ibid. 25 Sept. 1839, 1, 22 June 1841; ibid. 5602/14, ff. 154, 260, 270; 5602/15, f. 5.
  • 36. Ibid. 5602/15, ff. 5v, 54.
  • 37. Ibid. ff. 5, 35, 100v.
  • 38. Foster, Hist. Coopers' Company, 118.
  • 39. Guildhall MS. 5602/15, ff. 102v-104.
  • 40. Ibid. ff. 113, 133.
  • 41. Ibid. 5602/16, ff. 162-4, 170-6, 182-4, 186.
  • 42. Schs. Enquiry Com., [3966-XI] H.C., pp. 73-75 (1867-8), xxviii (10).
  • 43. Guildhall MS. 5602/18, ff. 112, 176, 195-6, 206-10.
  • 44. Ibid. 5602/19, ff. 446, 475.
  • 45. Ibid. ff. 509, 571, 621.
  • 46. Ibid. 5602/21, ff. 355, 406.
  • 47. Ibid. f. 520.
  • 48. Foster, Hist. Coopers' Company, 118.
  • 49. Com. Char. No. 664 (E.S. no. 954), approved 30 July 1891; cf. p. 290.