Origins of formal education in Forest Gate

Monday 18 January 2016

Although various charity schools were established in England before the nineteenth century, the major push towards providing formal schooling, particularly for middle and working class children, came with the development of two, competing, institutions in the nineteenth century.

The Church of England began to sponsor an organisation, The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, that built schools which were popularly known as "National Schools".

Non-conformist churches, in a bid to win the hearts, minds and souls of the young, sponsored a competing network of schools, via an organisation formally known as the British and Foreign School Society. These were popularly known as "British Schools".

The rivalry was fierce, and when one of the organisations appeared in an area and sponsored a school, the other often popped up to provide some competition. And so it was in Forest Gate.

Both adopted the monitorial system, where the older pupils often taught or supervised the education of the younger ones, in huge classes.  There were very often few, if any, trained teachers in these institutions.

Other schools, such as Catholic schools, independent schools, "Dame schools" and the famous Earlham Grove Music Academy also prospered in Forest Gate in the latter years of the nineteenth century. This post weaves its way around the story of these early local educators.

As we have already considered (see here), the first traceable "school" in Forest Gate was a British school; initially in the grounds of the Eagle and Child pub, and later, more formally, at the junction of Woodgrange Road and Forest Lane, in what is now an empty building (see below). 

Forest Gate's first school, at junction
 of Woodgrange Road and Forest Lane,
 which now stands empty,
 seeking a new tenant/redevelopment

The school shared the premises (on weekdays) with the Congregational church. The school became the sole occupiers of the building in 1856, when the church moved to larger premises.

The "British School's" roll was around 80 at this time, although this dropped to 65 by 1871.

The first burst of real growth of Forest Gate's population came in the decades after the establishment of the British school - mainly as a result of the development of the railways. Many of the newcomers appear to have been Church of England members, as indicated by the growth of CofE churches in the area (see a later post).

The first "National" school to be established in Forest Gate was built on land donated by Samuel Gurney, just a little north of the British school, on Woodgrange Road, in 1853. (see extract from 1867 OS map, below, for respective locations). It was known as the National Emmanuel School, because of its close relationship to Emmanuel Church on the corner of Woodgrange Road and Upton Lane.

1867 OS map, showing close  proximity of
National and British schools (top, centre)
 in Forest Gate at the time

Government building grants were received for the school in 1854, 1861 and 1867. In 1871 the average attendance was 141. In 1884 the school was handed over to the vicar of St Saviour's in nearby Macdonald Road, when that church was established.

The Education Act 1870 established School Boards in every district of the country, to be paid for from local rates - the origins of the 'nationalisation' of the British education system.

Forest Gate was covered by the West Ham School Board, which took over the local British (i.e. non-Conformist) school and maintained it until it closed, following the opening of the Odessa Road Board school, in 1874. Odessa became the area's first truly state school, with places for 703 pupils.
An early photograph of Odessa Board school,
 Forest Gate's first "state" school
Miss Cocksedge's class, Odessa School, 1885

Rapid population growth saw the school extended in 1880 and 1889, to accommodate 1,312 pupils.

A fully developed Odessa school,
 before its demolition in 1971

The 'National' schools found the prospect of  "state" opposition a threat to their control over the minds and education of the young (see reproduction of poster, below) , and fought the establishment of a local School Board energetically, as the poster indicates. They feared secularisation, and  the influence of "ungodliness".

Fierce resistance from the local Church
 of England towards the establishment
 of Board Schools in West Ham, 1870

Once it was clear the church had lost the battle over the establishment of state schools, they responded by the founding  the St James' National school, to compete with the almost adjacent Odessa school, in 1874.

St James' National school, now replaced
by rebuilt junior school

It was founded by William Bolton, the vicar of St John's in Stratford, with a roll of 395 pupils. The original Emmanuel school, now called St Saviour's, suffered as a result, and eventually closed in 1894.

Mass migration to Forest Gate in the last quarter of the nineteenth century further increased demand for school places in the area. The West Ham School Board responded with the construction of the Godwin Road school in 1885, providing facilities for 1,000 new pupils. The school, of course, survives, in a much modernised form, today.

An undated photograph of the original
 Godwin school - Forest Gate's second "state" school

The School Board also opened the Whitehall Place school, in 1896, to provide for a further 1,400 places. This survived into the second half of the twentieth century, when it was demolished, to be replaced by what is now Forest Gate Community School, on Forest Lane.
Children from Godwin school, July 1898

The first traceable Catholic school in West Ham was established in Stratford around 1815, and in Forest Gate in 1862. In that year four Ursuline nuns arrived in Upton Lane from Belgium, and as their order required, began supervising the education of young Roman Catholics in the area, and operated a boarding school. We will return in greater depth to the history of the St Angela's school they established, in a later post on this site.

Boarders at St Angela's, 1890's
By 1902 St Angela's had been recognised by the state's Board of Education as a public secondary school. A preparatory department was opened in 1903.

Boarders' study room, St Angela's c 1890

In common with other areas of the country, the East End of London saw the emergence of a number of "independent" schools in the nineteenth century, they were fee paying and some offered a reasonable standard of education and other, "Dame Schools", we often little more than child-minding bodies for working parents.

First assembly hall at St Angela's - photo pre 1914

These schools were unregulated and required no permission to establish. They were not inspected or controlled and standards were often shocking, as Dickens testified in many of his writings.

This lack of registration means that it is difficult to establish accurate numbers of these institutions  at any time, and certainly before the 1870's, to have any idea of how many children they catered for.

It was estimated, however, that there were 13 private schools in the West Ham Board area in 1904.

One of the most successful of these was the Forest Gate Collegiate School for Girls, founded in 1874 on Romford Road. This was taken over in the early years of the twentieth century and became "Clark's (private)High School for Girls and Kindergarten and Preparatory Class for Little Boys" - as a close examination of the 1910 photo, below shows!

Forest Gate Collegiate School for Girls,
established 1874, later became Clark's (private)
 High School for Girls and Kindergarten and
 preparatory Class for Little Boys - photos c 1910

Although it moved premises a time or two, it was still operating along Romford Road until the early years of World War 11. Its fate is unknown.

Neither do we have much information about the local "Dame Schools", although adverts relating to two of them survive.

One, The "Woodgrange Academy for Girls", based in Claremont Road, was sold in 1889, as indicated by the advert, although no details of fees or services offered are available.

Advert, showing change of ownership
 of Woodgrange Academy for Girls,
 Claremont Road, 1899

The second, the "Ladies' College and Elementary School" of Earlham Grove had termly fees of around £1, and offered "Special attention being given to those who are delicate or backward"!, around the year 1900.

Ladies College and Elementary School,
 Earlham Grove c 1900

We have covered the history of the Earlham Grove Music academy, and its influence beyond the area's boundaries in some depth in this early post on this blog.

Future articles in this blog will look at post 1900 education in Forest Gate and examine the history of one or two specific local schools.


  1. I have been doing some research of the local area and a school appears at the north end of St James Road (it is present in maps around 1894). Does anybody have any information on this school? I can't find anything anywhere!

  2. My name is john, and I went to st James rd primary school which I do believe used to be a work house in the 1800s

  3. Looking at the picture of the fully developed Odessa Road school, this was taken from the boys' playground. The wall on the right hides the girls' playground and the building on the right end of the wall was, in the period 1950 to 1956, my era, the boys' toilet. Between the two blocks there was an iron staircase that led directly into one of the first floor classrooms. This gave access to the other classrooms in both blocks. Under the staircase, to the right of it, was the entrance to a corridor leading to the headmaster's study, the school hall, and another classroom. Out of shot on the left there was an internal staircase leading to a classroom over looking the cemetery. Happy days ? Mostly.

    1. I was there about the same time. I've tried to remember a few things about it, but no luck. And I've no class photoes so its a bit of dead end. After taking 11plus there I went to South West Ham Tech school, Canning Town.

  4. Seems to be no mention of Whitehall School situated on Forest Lane. Remember there was a playground on the roof. Was there in 1957 for one term before going to boarding school.


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