Schools: Highgate School

Pages 302-304

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 1565 a free school for the education of boys and young men in grammar was founded in Highgate by Sir Roger Cholmeley, Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench. The right to frame the statutes was reserved to the founder, after whose death supplementary statutes might be made by six governors with the advice of the Bishop of London. Nothing, however, was to be enacted which conflicted with the wishes of the founder. (fn. 2) Sir Roger's gift was confirmed by the Crown, and the governors were incorporated and given the right to co-opt new members upon a vacancy. (fn. 3) Bishop Grindal of London granted the chapel and former hermitage of Highgate, with other lands and rights on his manor of Hornsey, for the use of the school. (fn. 4) The Crown's rights, which had come into private hands, were purchased for the school in 1583. (fn. 5) Sir Roger never lived to frame the statutes, which were drawn up by the governors with the advice of the bishop in 1571. The number of free scholars, drawn from Highgate and the surrounding villages, was fixed at forty. A competent schoolmaster was to instruct the boys 'in the A.B.C. and other English books', in writing, and in grammar 'as they shall grow ripe thereto'. The schoolmaster was also to read the services in the chapel, which was to serve virtually as a chapel of ease for Highgate. (fn. 6) This regulation was almost certainly included at the wish of the bishop, who was anxious to provide for the spiritual needs of the village, which lay at a considerable distance from the parish churches of Hornsey and St. Pancras. In 1578 a new schoolhouse was erected and the chapel rebuilt. (fn. 7) There were further enlargements in 1616 and 1623. (fn. 8)

By 1711 the chest which contained the deeds and charters of the school had been lost. (fn. 9) Apart from recording the appointment of new masters, references to the school in the first minute book of the governors are sparse. In 1594 the schoolmaster was removed for neglecting his duties. (fn. 10) In 1615 the villagers complained that the master read the service inaudibly in the chapel. (fn. 11) In 1644 the Committee for Plundered Ministers deprived Thomas Carter the schoolmaster for alleged drunkenness. (fn. 12) He had been imprisoned in 1641-2 for 15 months for continuing to use the Book of Common Prayer in the chapel and for speaking against Parliament. (fn. 13) Carter had told his congregation that those who read the Commons' order on innovations were mad, and that none but fools would take the Protestation. (fn. 14) He was restored in 1660. (fn. 15) During the Interregnum John Ireton had become one of the governors. In 1677 the Bishop of London, claiming that Ireton was prevented by the Act of Oblivion from exercising his functions, tried unsuccessfully to have his place on the governing board declared vacant. (fn. 16) By 1670 the schoolmaster had acquired the assistance of an usher. (fn. 17) In 1712 he was permitted to take a maximum of ten boarders, (fn. 18) and this was increased to 15 in 1714. (fn. 19)

As the school chapel was used as the chapel of ease for Highgate, the governors began to look upon themselves as the administrators of a charity whose objects were not limited to education. Benefactions began to be made to the chapel rather than to the school, whose affairs took second place at the meetings of the governors. In 1719-20 the chapel was rebuilt and enlarged, and by that date the Cholmeley Charity was also supporting almshouses and a school for poor girls. (fn. 20) Such work could only partly be supported from pew rents and benefactions to the chapel. In the 17th century the school probably gave a classical education to its pupils. A catalogue of books in the school library (1673-7) contains Greek and Latin dictionaries together with works by Cicero, Erasmus, and Bodin. (fn. 21) By the late 18th century, however, the needs of the school were being neglected. In 1771 the schoolmaster protested against the misuse of school funds, which were being appropriated for the expenses of the chapel and for the benefit of the poor, (fn. 22) but in spite of his opposition the chapel was extensively repaired in 1772 with money from the school estate. (fn. 23)

By the beginning of the 19th century the Cholmeley school had become an elementary school for 40 poor boys in the village. In 1819 the Brougham committee found that there was scarcely enough room for them all in the school-house. The boys, who were frequently unruly, were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by the chapel sexton. The master declared that he had never known grammar to be taught in the school. He did not teach there himself but superintended the conduct of boys and usher. He was fully occupied with his pastoral work, and confined his teaching to four young men who lived with him and were being prepared for the universities. These pupils had no connexion with the school. (fn. 24) In 1819, shortly after the committee's inspection, a new school-house was erected with accommodation for 120 boys. The 'Madras' system was introduced and the school was run like a National school. (fn. 25)

By this time the chapel was too small for the growing population of Highgate. The governors launched an appeal for funds to build a new church, and a parliamentary grant was made. In 1821 the governors introduced a private Bill to confirm their title to the chapel and to create a new parish at Highgate. (fn. 26) These plans were opposed by a party in the village which claimed that Sir Roger Cholmeley had founded a grammar school and that the funds were being misused. The controversy was conducted with great bitterness on both sides. (fn. 27) The party of reform was able to block the governors' Bill in Parliament (fn. 28) and began proceedings in Chancery in 1822. The court was petitioned to declare the objects of the Cholmeley trust and to remove the governors for perverting them. The judgement of Lord Eldon in 1824-6 was that Sir Roger Cholmeley had founded a free grammar school for teaching the learned languages and that the master was obliged to teach there in person. There had been no legal authority for changing the terms of the trust; since the governors had acted in good faith they were not culpable and should not be removed, but the master was instructed to make a report on the lands and revenues of the charity and to make suggestions which would form the basis of a new scheme for the foundation in keeping with its character as a grammar school. (fn. 29) Meanwhile the school and chapel were separated. The governors had the old chapel pulled down, and the materials were sold and the proceeds added to the fund from which a substantial grant was then made for building a new church on a different site. (fn. 30)

The new statutes for the school were approved in 1832. The boys were to be instructed in Latin and Greek and the principles of religion according to the teaching of the Church of England. Forty boys were to be educated free, but the master was to be allowed to take as many 'pay-boys' as he liked, and he was to appoint all the ushers and assistant masters. (fn. 31) The first years of the school under the new scheme were not prosperous. The master continued to devote most of his time to pastoral work, as he was the first rector of the new parish of Highgate. Although there were 32 boys at the school in 1833 by 1838 there were only eighteen. (fn. 32)

In 1838 John Bradley Dyne, a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, became the new headmaster. He was young, energetic, and not encumbered with parochial duties. He started the school library and broadened the curriculum by adding mathematics and modern languages. (fn. 33) He founded boardinghouses and acquired a cricket field. Above all he established the school as an institution in which boys were prepared for the universities and the professions. (fn. 34) In 1865, when it was inspected by the Taunton Commission, there were 80 day boys (including 40 foundationers) and 50 boarders. All were taught religion, classics, English, mathematics, and French. German, drawing, and surveying were optional and charged separately. During the winter visiting teachers gave occasional lectures on natural science. About five pupils a year went to one or other of the universities. The headmaster was assisted by six masters. The parents of boys belonged mainly to the professional classes or had independent means. (fn. 35) By 1866-7 the school had outgrown its accommodation and a new school-house and chapel were built. (fn. 36) Dyne was an early member of the Headmasters' Conference, which in 1871 held its third meeting at Highgate School under his presidency. (fn. 37)

By 1874, when he retired, Dyne had acquired the reputation of being the school's 'second founder'. His achievements are undeniable, but his personality is more difficult to evaluate. Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was a schoolboy under Dyne from 1854 to 1863, considered him a tyrant. (fn. 38) Hopkins's friend C. N. Luxmoore, who became an assistant master at Harrow, wrote in 1890 'blustering Dyne's argument was always "hold your tongue Sir", his firm conviction that a boy must always be wrong, and his appeal never to reason always to force . . . a man whose logic was comprised in the birch, to whom an answer, however respectful, was at least mutiny, if not rank blasphemy'. (fn. 39) On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of expressions of affection made to him at the annual reunion dinners which he held for his old pupils (fn. 40) or the marks of respect paid to him upon his retirement. (fn. 41)

The school continued to grow after Dyne's retirement. From 1875 negotiations were in progress with the Charity Commissioners to draw up a new scheme in keeping with the school's character as an important public school. The new arrangements came into force in 1876. The governing body was enlarged to include 12 members. The number of foundationers was no longer limited to 40, and there was to be provision for scholarships to help boarders. The Bishop of London lost his supervisory powers, and was given instead the right to nominate one of the governors. The headmaster was given greater powers in the internal running of the school. (fn. 42) A junior school was begun in 1889. (fn. 43)

The most important development of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the growth of the science and technical sides of the school's work. Under Dyne the arrangements for the teaching of natural science had been perfunctory (fn. 44) but by 1890 every class in the school was taught chemistry in a special room fitted up as a laboratory. (fn. 45) After 1897 a separate building-a former British school which stood adjacent to the main school buildings and had been acquired some years before to provide extra classrooms-was devoted to the teaching of science. (fn. 46) A new science block was built in 1928 to contain not only science and biology laboratories but also facilities for the study of engineering and aeronautics. (fn. 47)

Most of the school buildings were taken over by the government when the Second World War began. Teaching went on in those buildings that remained, but the greater part of the staff and pupils was evacuated to Westward Ho! (Devon). The boys lived and were taught in hotels and boarding-houses which had been taken over for this purpose. In 1943 the school was obliged for financial reasons to return to London, and its buildings in Highgate were returned in the same year. (fn. 48)

In 1963 the buildings of Highgate School formed a miscellaneous group on the top of Highgate Hill. The oldest part, built in 1866-7, consisted of a red brick Gothic chapel and the school-house, which contained the library and assembly hall. The hall was raised over a semi-basement which was divided into four classrooms. Until 1897 the library served as an additional classroom, (fn. 49) but in that year a Gothic extension was built which contained nine classrooms, a drawing studio, and a dining-room for the day-boys. These rooms were arranged in two storeys around a central hall, which was lighted from the roof, and the basement contained a kitchen. (fn. 50) The new building of 1928 practically doubled the area covered by the school. Built in neo-Georgian style, it contained not only facilities for science and engineering, but also extra classrooms, a new library, and a large lecture room. A quarter of a mile from the main buildings there were boarding-houses, a gymnasium, a cricket pavilion, and the Junior School, all grouped around the cricket and sports field. In 1963 there were 650 boys in the senior school and 270 in the junior school. (fn. 51)


  • 1. The writer is indebted to Mr. A. W. Palmer, assistant master at Highgate School, for his help and advice.
  • 2. Original charter of Sir Roger, penes Messrs. Bower, Cotton and Bower, Lond.
  • 3. Cal. Pat. 1563-6, 207.
  • 4. Original charter of Bp. Grindal penes Messrs. Bower, Cotton and Bower. The hermitage and chapel had escaped confiscation in the reign of Edward VI.
  • 5. Governors' Minute Bk., penes Messrs. Bower, Cotton. and Bower, i, f. 30v.
  • 6. Ibid. ff. 42-43.
  • 7. Ibid. f. 3.
  • 8. Ibid. ff. 4-4v.
  • 9. Ibid. f. 82v.
  • 10. Ibid. f. 49.
  • 11. Ibid. f. 53.
  • 12. Ibid. f. 62v.
  • 13. Ibid. f. 67; A. G. Matthews, Walker Revised, 259.
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. Governors' Minute Bk. i, f. 67.
  • 16. Ibid. ff. 74v-75v.
  • 17. Ibid. f. 72.
  • 18. Ibid. f. 207v.
  • 19. Ibid. f. 83.
  • 20. Ibid. ff. 84-92.
  • 21. Highgate School Roll (2nd edn.), 15.
  • 22. Highgate Chapel Reg., St. Michael's Church, Highgate, s.a. 1771.
  • 23. Ibid. s.a. 1772.
  • 24. 2nd Rep. Com. Char. H.C. 547, pp. 101-5, 272-84 (1819), x-B.
  • 25. A.G. v. Mansfield et al. 2 Russell, 501-38.
  • 26. Ibid.
  • 27. See A.Z., Epistle to I. G. the Author of a Pamphlet entitled 'Some Account of the Free Grammar School at Highgate', 1823.
  • 28. A.G. v. Mansfield et al. 2 Russell, 501-38.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ed. 27/3493.
  • 31. Ed. 27/3495.
  • 32. Ed. 27/3497; St. Michael's Parish Mag. May 1865.
  • 33. Ibid.
  • 34. Highgate School Reg. (4th edn.), 1838-1938.
  • 35. Schs. Enquiry Com. [3966-XI], H.C., pp. 34-40 (1867-8), xxviii (10).
  • 36. Ed. 27/3495, 27/3497.
  • 37. The Times, 29 Dec. 1871; St. Michael's Parish Mag. Jan. 1872.
  • 38. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. C. Abbott (1st edn.), 1-6.
  • 39. Ibid. 247-9.
  • 40. See, for example, St. Michael's Parish Mag. Aug. 1864, July 1865.
  • 41. The Cholmeleian, i, no. 3.
  • 42. Ed. 27/3501.
  • 43. Ed. 27/3515.
  • 44. See above.
  • 45. Ed. 27/3507.
  • 46. Ed. 27/3515, 27/3516.
  • 47. C. A. Evors, Hist. of Highgate Sch. (1949 edn.), 33-34.
  • 48. Ibid. 54-65.
  • 49. Ed. 27/3516.
  • 50. Ed. 27/3515.
  • 51. Pub. Sch. Year Bk. 1963.