Wanstead High School

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The History of our school

Wanstead High School pupils have been investigating the history of our school, opened in 1924, as one of Britain's first co-educational grammar schools in Britian.

As part of the school's annual 'Creativity Festival' in which all students engage in extra-curricular projects in the last week of the summer term, a group of 11-17 year old students met with several 'Old Heronians', who came to talk about what life at the school was like when they attended. The current students were thrilled to hear about the school's past and to be able to ask questions about changes in education.

June Harrison came to tell students about her evacuation experience during the Second World War. She explained that in 1938, there were 720 students at the school and the threat of war meant that the students had to be sent away from Wanstead. On the 1st September, students who lived in the Ilford area were sent to Ipswich. Two days later, students who lived in Wanstead and Woodford were transported out to Maldon, Essex on a fleet of red London buses. The convoy was stopped on the way and a teacher announced that war had been declared at 11am. The students were moved from Maldon, later deemed too vulnerable to attack, to Newent, Gloucestershire and then three months later to safety in Chippenham, Wilsthire. The school was reunited at Wanstead in 1945. They celebrated their 21st birthday, but also held a memorial service for the 83 members of the school who had not returned from the war.

Old Heronians, Francesca Fenn and Lee Storey, attended the High School in the 1970s when Redbridge council decided that all but two of the grammar schools should become comprehensive schools. Current pupils were fascinated to hear from Mrs Fenn and Mr Storey about the changes that the school underwent at the time, including the introduction of new subjects like Design and Technology, Economics and Politics, changes to the school buildings, lessons and assemblies. They told their audience about the open air swimming pool - now the site of Wanstead Leisure Centre car park -which many Old Heronians remember as being extremely cold, even in summer!

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Pupils had an opportunity to explore the school's archives – comprising hundreds of photographs and artefacts including exercise books, sports medals, school registers, letters from the 1920s onwards, and the former uniform of black blazer and tasselled cap.

Head of History and Classics at the school Fiona Law said: "It has been wonderful to see our students engage with the very rich history and heritage of the school and the local area. This project has been an enormous success, and we hope to welcome many more Old Heronians back to the school as we prepare to celebrate the 90th anniversary of it's opening in 2014."

One of the first co-educational schools

It was on the site of the Old Rectory of Wanstead parish on Redbridge Lane West that the school was originally established and still stands today. In 1923, Essex County Council decided that, due to an increase in housing development around Wanstead, the existing secondary school provision was no longer sufficient. There had been small secondary schools on Wellesley Road and Woodbine Place, but these were deemed too small for growing numbers of young people in the area.

The Old Rectory, built around 1830, was bought for £4,400 by the council and converted, providing the students with a laboratory, and facilties for handicrafts and domestic subjects. The main building – still the largest part of the school today – was scheduled to open in 1925. However, it took two years longer than expected, with Scotland's first female MP, the Duchess of Atholl – who later resigned her seat in protest at Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement – opening the main building on 29 June 1927.

The Cearns building family, whose children had attended the school, donated an open-air swimming pool. It was built on the site of what is now Wanstead Leisure Centre car park. Unsurprisingly, many Old Heronians remember the pool as being extremely cold, even in summertime, due to its concrete changing cubicles that did not have a roof!

Wanstead County High School, as it was originally known, was one of the first co-educational schools in Britain. All academic classes were fully integrated, which made it a pioneer at the time. The school soon enjoyed a good reputation, both academically and in many sports.

Mr A.F. Joseph, or 'Joey' as he was nicknamed, was appointed as the school's first headmaster. Much loved and revered, he had read Classics at Oxford University and chose the school's motto 'Abeunt Studia in Mores', which still adorns the students' blazers today. The motto translated from Latin can be taken to mean that 'Education becomes the manners, or virtues, of life'.

To attend Wanstead County High, students had to pass a written examination. On 23 September 1924, 92 boys and girls aged 11 were admitted. Four other teachers assisted Mr Joseph. Until the 1944 Education Act, parents were charged £21 per year fees, but this was means-tested and was waived if parents earned less than £125 annually.

The heron was used as the school's badge from the beginning and the first edition of the termly school magazine 'The Heronian' was published in 1924. A school orchestra and drama productions were started in the first year and performing arts and music have continued to thrive here. The school has also held many sporting honours, including rugby, cricket and athletics – Bancroft's School were the great local rivals!

By 1938 there were 720 students at the school and the threat of war meant they had to be sent away from Wanstead. On 1 September 1939, students who lived in the Ilford area were sent to Ipswich. Two days later, students who lived in Wanstead and Woodford were transported out to Maldon, Essex on a fleet of red London buses. The convoy was stopped on the way and a teacher announced that war had been declared at 11am. The students were moved from Maldon, now deemed too vulnerable to attack, to Newent, Gloucestershire and then three months later to Chippenham, Wiltshire.

The school was reunited in Wanstead in 1945. They celebrated their 21st anniversary, but also held a memorial service for the 83 members of the school who had not returned from the war. In 1948, a war memorial was unveiled, which can still be viewed in the dining hall today.

When the Greater London Council was formed in 1965, responsibility for the school passed from Essex to the London Borough of Redbridge. In the early 1970s, Redbridge decided all secondary schools, except two single-sex schools, should be comprehensive, and in 1973 the school was renamed Wanstead High School. It combined with Aldersbrook Secondary Modern to take in 300 additional pupils. The leisure centre and a fully equipped theatre were also added.

Wanstead High alumni have found success in many areas all over the world, including Battle of Britain pilot Group Captain Tony Trumble OBE, rocket scientist Dr Geoffrey Pardoe OBE and two Olympians, pole vaulter Geoffrey Elliott and pentathlete Gerry Carr. More recent ex-Wanstead pupils are actor Nick Berry, snooker champion Ronnie O'Sullivan, actor Tony Robinson – who played Baldrick in the BBC sitcom Blackadder – and Conservative MP for Upminster Angela Watkinson. Ex-Wanstead academics now hold professorships at universities from Cambridge to Glasgow.

Fiona Law, Head of History and Classics, Wanstead High School