The story of St Angela's school

Monday 23 May 2016

Forest Gate's growing mid-nineteenth century population was added to by an influx of Irish economic refugees, fleeing the potato famine (see here for examples).

The then Strafford Catholic priest, James McCoin was on the look-out for help in educating Catholic children, as a counterweight to the CofE and Non-Conformist education provided by local charity schools (see here, for  details of these schools and early formal education in Forest Gate).

In February 1862 he invited a party of four Ursuline nuns from Belgium to visit the Upton area (the more developed part of Forest Gate, at this time). The Ursuline order was one largely committed to education and had been seeking a base in England for at least a decade. They had previously sought bases elsewhere, including in Walthamstow - but to no avail.

Following their visit to Forest Gate, they acquired a semi-detached house with a large garden in Upton Lane, then described as "in the country village of Upton". They bought the adjoining house the following year, which together, in the St Angela's story, became known as "The Old House".

Some of St Angela's pupils, pre 1887,
 when school uniform first introduced
The pair of these houses appears to have been built almost two centuries earlier, in 1684, although few details of their earlier history seem to remain.

Unfortunately, neither does there appear to be any surviving images of the properties, prior to very extensive later alterations by the Ursulines. The houses were, initially, to be the nuns' convent. The four original nuns were soon  joined by four more.

On 28 May 1862 Mother Agatha and Mother Victoire began to teach in two cottages in Sun Row, as Green Street was known.  The following year the nuns had the stables in the convent converted into a school - a big improvement on Sun Row - and moved the teaching there.

First assembly hall, 1889 - 1914
The nuns continued to commission building in 1872. The first wing included a study hall (later library) - see photo, with classrooms and a dormitory above. Boarders moved in, leaving the dozen or so day pupils in The Old House.

In 1874 Mass began to be said in the school, thus saving the local faithful a weekly trip to Stratford - and continued until the church of St Antony's was built a short distance down the road in Upton.

The chapel, as it was in 1884
In 1875 a boys school - St Bonaventure's - was opened a few yards away
In 1882 a new wing was started at St Angela's and included a chapel and more classrooms.

1884 convent building
As an aside, it is quite remarkable how an area such as Upton, for so long a home to wealthy Quakers (the Fothergills, Frys, Gurneys, Pellys, Listers  etc - see later posts for details and their full widespread impact), within two decades had become the centre of a thriving Catholic community - spawning two schools, a convent and a church.

Sporty boarders at St Angela's, post 1887,
 but pre 1900 - note cricket bats on far left of photo
This small strip of land provides, in microcosm, the traditional role of the East End: a host to successive waves of immigrants and other outsiders, with one community - usually seamlessly and peacefully - replacing another. The "displaced" communities, typically, move on, usually in a diversified way, to more established and often more affluent areas elsewhere.

An early pupil described arriving at the school:
My first sight of Forest Gate was when the train drew up at a wooden platform, backed by a hedge, which displayed a placard: 'Forest Gate'. There was nothing to be seen but trees and a country road. Only one house did we pass on the way to the convent, and everything was still and silent.
The school building, itself, was homelike ... there was nothing but a notice-board to indicate it was a school.
Boarders' study hall, built 1884
 The school soon became a success - by 1893 it had a roll of 229 - which was quickly replicated elsewhere. So, in 1892, four of its nuns moved to Wimbledon to establish a school there, and in 1899 the convent took charge of the parish school of SS Peter and Paul in Ilford for a decade or so, and supplied nun/teachers to it for almost half a century.

The convent, photo 1902
The Upton convent spawned another successful school in Brentwood in 1910 and others followed in Billericay, Palmers Green and Becontree.

St Angela's grotto, pre-1914
Success for St Angela's meant growth, locally, too. By 1899 it had grown further and took possession of another wing in St George's Road.

St Angela's assembly hall, pre-1914
Upton had a reputation for hosting fine gardens. Dr Fothergill's house (which later became West Ham Park - see later posts) being the most prominent. The convent, too, was noted for the splendour of its gardens.
Convent garden, 1910

Children's garden, 1922
The twentieth century continued to see growth and change for St Angela's. It appointed its first secular mistress - Miss Harrington - in 1903. The following year it became one of the first Roman Catholic schools in the country to gain recognition from the government's Board of Education.

First science laboratory, opened 1907
By 1921 the school had 700 pupils, when Mother Xavier, who first became headmistress in 1878, retired. Four years later the Rosary Chapel was built "in thanksgiving for protection in the world war". The boarding system was phased out from 1931 and the dormitories were converted to general school use and a dormitory for the sisters.

St Angela's prep school, 1914
Internal reforms within the Catholic church soon saw the convent's novice nuns being transferred to Westgate-on-Sea and the convent itself began sending out - and receiving - missionaries from Africa, Asia and South America.

With the onset of the second world war, the school and its pupils were evacuated to Thetford in Norfolk and Newquay in Cornwall and the "Old House" was used as a public shelter for local people during the hostilities.

St Angela's evacuees potato
 picking in Newquay during WW2
The 1944 Education Act meant big changes for the school; in conjunction with West and East Ham councils, it set about doubling its size. It became truly comprehensive for the first time (a status that was not officially confirmed until 1976) and attracted pupils from over 20 Catholic parishes, in the wider East London area.

Aerial view, 1953
With this growth, support and recognition came a greater "professionalism" of teaching at the school. The number of sisters who taught there declined considerably - to be replaced by lay qualified teachers, although nuns continued to hold non teaching roles in both the school and wider community.

By 1980 there were only about 20 nun/teachers at St Angela's.

On 16 March 1982 a fire swept the sisters' dormitory quarters on a day when the girls, or "Brownies" (so called because of the colour of their uniforms) were not present. The damage was substantial and many of the nuns had to be re-located during the extensive restoration process.

Tentacles spread into Ilford
In 1993 Delilah Smith was appointed the school's first lay head, and remained in post until 2009. During that time she picked up an OBE for her work and saw the number of sixth form pupils soar from 300 to 800, in a collaborative partnership with the near-by St Bonaventure's.

St Angela's continues to prosper today and is designated "Outstanding" by Ofsted.


  1. I was a pupil of St Angela's and proud to say I was. I am now 37 and still think of my days in school everyday and tell my children all about my time at school. I still find it weird when I see old students, seeing us all grown up with our own families and it only feels like yesterday we all left. I forget what I did last week lol but remember my days in that school so clearly. We had some amazing teachers that I wish were still around teaching. When I see schools now with police outside and teachers on radios watching the students it's really sad and scary, we never had that, we didnt need it, kids had respect. I was a student that never caused trouble, always done work and exams but I did fall pregnant in my last year and I was so scared of what the teachers would say or think about me but they helped me from day one and helped with every need, many of us hated the smell of the dinner hall so when I fell pregnant I would be sick! They sorted out getting my dinners to me so I didn't have to worry about not eating. When I had bad days and was sick or exhausted with my pregnancy the school nurse made up a bed for me and give me green tea, and should the bed from other ill children or staff. They were unbelievably caring and so helpful, I still get emotional thinking about what they done for me. I even done my exams in slow labour and a teacher stayed with me so I could complete my exams in my own room with pillows and my own space. I struggled with all my pregnancy and they helped me tremendously. A teacher come to see me at hospital and home when I gave birth to my son to discuss rescheduling my other exams but I did them 2 days after. They even invited me back to visit with my son and they were brilliant and I will be forever thankful for their support. I sent my son St Bonaventure's and he done amazingly in school. I wish I could go back one day and just walk around and relive my school days, not because I'm older now but St Angela's was and still is a stunningly beautiful school and the grounds are magical. Never forget that place. I made many memories and couldnt fault it xx

  2. I was a pupil of St. Angela's 1968 and Sister Mary told me once, that she had children, long before she became a sister.

  3. I found through research that my gt gt Aunt was a Sister of Mercy in Brentwood and have been intrigued to find her on the 1891 census at that appears to be the now St Angela's school? A portress appears to be a door keeper of some kind in a convent apparently.
    Ellen Mould
    CensusEvent Date: 1891
    Event Place: West Ham, Essex, England, United Kingdom
    Event Place (Original): West Ham, Essex, England
    Event Place Note:Upton Lane
    County: Essex
    Parish: West Ham
    Ecclesiastical Parish:ST EMMANUEL
    Enumeration District: 71
    Registration District: West Ham
    Marital Status: Single
    Birth Year (Estimated): 1875
    Birthplace:London, England

  4. I was there 1955 onwards. Mother Gemma was my form teacher and was amazing. I have fond memories of her and will always be thankful for the advice of which she gave to me.

  5. I was there from 1962 on my name was Jennifer Tewkesbury and I'd very much like to hear from friends of that time


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