Schools: Owen's School

Pages 310-311

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 her youth Alice Wilkes narrowly escaped death in the fields at Islington when a carelessly discharged arrow pierced her hat. In 1608, ten years after the death of her third husband, Sir Thomas Owen, a judge of the Common Pleas, Alice founded almshouses for ten poor widows in gratitude for her escape many years earlier. In 1609 the charity was vested in the Brewers' Company, of which Henry Robinson, her first husband, had been a member. (fn. 1) In 1610 she obtained from the Crown a further patent to establish a free school on the same site and in 1613, a month before her death, Alice made rules for the almshouses and the free school. The schoolmaster was to have a house and £20 a year for teaching grammar, writing, arithmetic, and casting accounts to 30 children, 24 from Islington and 6 from Clerkenwell. The original building stood on the east side of St. John Street until 1841; part of Alice's own memorial, removed from the church of St. Mary, Islington, in 1751, is preserved at the school. (fn. 2)

One of the early masters, William Smith (1666- 78), was involved in the Popish Plot. The Lords did not accept the evidence against him, but nevertheless his licence to teach was revoked. (fn. 3) In the first few years of the 18th century there was local criticism of the administration of the charity, but in 1717-18 a prolonged lawsuit brought by the Islington vestry was decided in favour of the Brewers' Company. (fn. 4) Nevertheless the school suffered a number of misfortunes. Thomas Dennett (master 1717-31) ran away, leaving the boys to their own devices, Henry Clarke (1731-8) retired through ill-health, Richard Shilton (1738-50), although at first successful, had disputes with the Company, the almswomen, and the boys; but under David Davies (1750-91) the school flourished, bringing the master the reward of an annual gratuity of ten guineas. Alexander Balfour (1791-1824) at first maintained his predecessor's high standards, but soon there were complaints of inattention, irregularity, over-severe discipline, and the neglect of foundationers in favour of fee-payers. (fn. 5)

In 1818 the Charity Commissioners found that there were 30 foundationers and 25 private pupils, two or three of whom boarded with Balfour. The private pupils were taught Latin and French; Latin was also available for the foundationers, but none required it. The school was in good order and Bell's monitorial system had lately been introduced; Church of England prayers were read every weekday, but on Sundays the schoolroom was let to the Baptists for £20 a year, an arrangement apparently made by Balfour and which he was subsequently required to discontinue. In his evidence Nicholas Charrington, Junior Warden of the Brewers' Company, agreed that the school was going well and that the boys knew the catechism, but he hinted that Balfour's conduct was not always considered satisfactory, for which reason the customary ten guineas gratuity had been withheld the previous year. The master's salary was £30 with house; direct expenditure on the school in 1816-17 was £84, the total income of the charity being £453 and expenditure £294 a year. (fn. 6)

The increased value of the property enabled a new scheme to be drawn up in 1830 under which a larger share in the income was allotted to the school. Ten years later a new almshouse and school for 120 boys was erected in Owen Street at a cost of over £6,000, and the original buildings were demolished. (fn. 7)

John Hoare (1833-79) was a good disciplinarian and a successful organizer. The governors' appreciation was shown in the rapid increase in his own salary and gratuity, although later his efficiency seems to have declined. (fn. 8) In 1865 there were 100 boys from Islington and 20 from Clerkenwell, all aged between seven and fourteen. The school was understaffed, since there were only Hoare and his son to take six classes; visiting French and drawing masters taught 40 and 16 boys respectively. The pupils were weakest in the elementary subjects, but results were 'pretty fair' and there was certainly keen competition to get in-44 candidates for 7 Islington places and 16 for 4 Clerkenwell vacancies. The master received £200 a year, his assistant £150, and books and stationery cost £36. (fn. 9)

In 1878 a revised scheme was drawn up. John Hoare and his son were both retired on pension, the school was enlarged to take 300 boys for each of whom a fee of about £3 a year was to be paid, and the almshouse was demolished to provide space for a playground, the former inmates receiving pensions by way of compensation. The new headmaster, John Easterbrook (1881-1909), proved to be a second founder, establishing high academic standards, a wide curriculum, and firm discipline. Further extensions in 1895 enlarged the school to take 420 boys. A new development in 1886 had been the opening of a girls' school in Owen's Row, with Miss Emily Armstrong as headmistress. (fn. 10)

R. F. Cholmeley (1909-27) acquired playing fields at Oakleigh Park, where he also established a camp school in half-a-dozen army huts; throughout the year groups of boys received lessons in the morning there and played games in the afternoon- a system which continued until 1939. The crowning achievement of his headmastership was the new Assembly Hall, opened in 1927. The Revd. H. N. Asman (1929-39), who was promoted from second master, both maintained high academic standards and encouraged music, art, and drama. O. W. Mitchell (1939-48) faced the problems of wartime evacuation to Bedford, during which the school acquired a new sport, rowing, and of return to empty and battered buildings. (fn. 11) In 1951 the school was granted voluntary aided status. In 1963 there were more than 600 boys in the school, of whom over 100 were in the Sixth form. (fn. 12)


  • 1. D.N.B.
  • 2. 1st Rep. Com. Char. H.C. 83, pp. 190-1 (1819), x-A; W. J. Pinks, Hist. of Clerkenwell, 473-8.
  • 3. L.J. xiii. 312, 332, 334; W. Smith, Intrigues of the Popish Plot Laid Open (1685), 8-14; Jane Lane, Titus Oates, 131.
  • 4. Guildhall MS. 5492.
  • 5. R. A. Dare, Hist. of Owen's Schools, 42-46.
  • 6. 1st Rep. Com. Char., p. 191, App. 313-17.
  • 7. City of Lond. Livery Companies Com. [C. 4073-I] H.C., pp. 33-34 (1884), xxxix (5); Pinks, Clerkenwell, 477.
  • 8. Dare, Owen's Sch. 59-61.
  • 9. City of Lond. Livery Companies Com., pp. 35-36; Schs. Enquiry Com. [3966-XI] H.C., p. 70 (1867-8), xxviii (10).
  • 10. City of Lond. Livery Companies Com., pp. 38-43; Ret Endowed Char. Lond. H.C. 252, pp. 164-6 (1900), lxi (3).
  • 11. Dare, Owen's Sch. 83-86, 97, 102-9, 111-25.
  • 12. Ibid. 182.