Celebrating our School’s Birthday

It’s always nice to celebrate a birthday, and the school’s birthday is a special day for all. This year we celebrate an incredible 145 years of Northampton High, 145 years of girls’ education! 

Today I spoke to the students, from Year 1 to Sixth Form, in assembly about our school’s rich history and proud legacy. Here’s a precis of what I told them:

At the beginning of the summer term 1878, at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, the doors of 83 Abington Street, Northampton were opened to twenty-nine pupils with the intention of providing them with ‘a thorough and systematic English Education at a moderate cost’. 

The school was founded in 1878 by a committee of local church people. On March 30th, 1878, the following advertisement appeared in the columns of both Northampton newspapers, the Mercury and the Herald: 

Northampton Middle-Class Girls’ School

Clevedon Buildings, Abington Street, 

Under the Sanction of the Northampton Church of England

Schools Managers’ Association

Headmistress, Miss Mary Pearson

(Certificate of the First Class) 

Object: To provide a thorough and systematic English education at a moderate cost 

The choice of name for the new school, with its suggestions of a quaint and by now out-dated snobbery, is a direct reflection of the state of female education in Victorian England. 

The school was fortunate in its buildings, situated in a central and convenient part of the town. Although no detailed records survive from these early days, it is possible to make a reasonable guess at the curriculum by looking at the timetables of comparable schools in the 1870s. Most schools of this type offered, in addition to basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, a range of subjects including English grammar and composition, literature, history, geography, Scripture, botanical studies, drawing and music. A good deal had to be learnt by rote, textbooks being comparatively few, and great attention was paid to standards of spelling and calligraphy. 

The school day was extremely long (as was the working day in shops, offices and factories) and it was not unusual for lessons to begin at half-past eight in the morning, and continue until six or seven o’clock in the evening. Morning school would be broken by a walk conducted in crocodile, with one mistress leading and another bringing up the rear. The luncheon break (for which pupils brought their own cold meats and pies from home, and were able to buy drinks of warm milk or cocoa to wash them down) was sometimes taken as late as half-past two. 

By the spring of 1879, just one year after opening, the school was renamed “The Clevedon School – A Church High School for Girls”, the ‘High’ fashionably emphasising that the school offered more than just an elementary education, and fees were 21 shillings per term for the under 12s and 28 shillings for the over 12s. Two or more sisters will be charged the lower rate, irrespective of age. 

The number of admissions was rising steadily, and by the summer of 1880 was not far short of a hundred. There was also a change of headmistress at Clevedon School. Miss Pearson left, and was temporarily replaced by Miss Collett for just one term. 

By the end of 1881, the school had its third Headmistress in the shape of Miss Waldron. Under Miss Waldron’s headship, the girls were prepared for the College of Preceptors’ examinations as well as the Cambridge Locals. Some examples of questions that can be found in the examination were: 

  • If 3000 copies of a book of 11 sheets require 66 reams of paper; how much paper will be required for 5000 copies of a book of 12 ½ sheets?
  • Mention some connective words which are not conjunctions.

The school was now advertised under the name of Clevedon Hall Church High School – it had become without question the ‘best’ school in Northampton, and its standards of discipline were extremely strict. No talking in the cloakroom or the corridors, no running anywhere, the stairs to be taken one at a time, and no girl ever to be seen out of doors without her hat and gloves; and failure to obey these and a great many other rules were punished by being kept in after school to write ‘lines’. Miss Waldron left the school after nine years and there was no doubt that it had prospered under her headship. 

In December 1890, Miss Alice Charlotte Straker became the Headmistress who led the school for 21 years, introduced the motto ‘‘The Utmost for the Highest”, and oversaw the name change to “Northampton High School for Girls” in 1898. Manners were of the utmost importance, and Courtesy Badges were awarded which the winners wore pinned to their blouse for a year; the highest award was the Good Conduct Medal, of which there was only one. Honour cards for work were given after termly examinations, and were taken home to show parents: white cards for the maximum number of honours, pink for several, and grey for those who achieved only a few. 

Miss Elizabeth Mary Wallace served as Headmistress from the autumn of 1912 and was the first of its leaders to hold the equivalent of an honours degree. She found new premises that would meet the requirements of the Board of Education and the school relocated to Castilian House, at the corner of Castilian Street and Derngate, for 5 years from 1914. 

Miss Wallace oversaw the school’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 1928 and on speech day, which was attended by H.R.H Princess Mary (later Princess Royal), and just one year after a visit from the Prince of Wales, she laid out her vision:

“I have dreamed of many things that I have wanted for our school: I am a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions; perhaps they are practical ones, or there is some magic in the school, for one by one they are being realised. When I first knew the school, it had no garden; and although we were about to lose even the building, I dreamed of a fair and spacious garden for it. Today, in the very heart of the town, we have a delightful home with beautiful grounds and a fine view over open country… ” – Miss Wallace, December 1928

This period brought new opportunities for women, and Miss Wallace wasn’t the only woman to benefit from the opportunity to pursue in-depth study via Higher Education. In a year that had seen all women in Britain gain equal voting rights with men, she added in her Jubilee speech that “the fight for equal opportunities for women and for men has been won: our girls have entered into a noble heritage, and men of vision help the work forward. The girls have won their freedom: we pray that they may use it nobly and well in the service of mankind.

1933 saw celebrations of a different type as the school celebrated Miss Wallace’s 21 years as headmistress. Old Girls provided a cake with twenty one candles and presented her with a gold watch. In turn, she presented the school with a striking clock, which stood in the front hall at 44 Derngate until 1992, when the school moved to its current site. The clock currently stands in the Edward Cripps Room (ECR), adjacent to the Senior School library.

As Miss Wallace finally said goodbye to the school and a job that had been her life on 28 July 1937, and leaving a substantial sum of money for the scholarship fund, the school had almost 200 pupils; by the time her successor, Miss Marsden (a Mathematics graduate from Westfield College, London) left, there were over 700.

The war years may have seen sandbags in the cloakrooms and regular ‘shelter’ practice for the girls but they were, thankfully, relatively untouched by the happenings in Europe and by the middle period events such as Sports Days and Open Days had resumed with the former seeing intense rivalry between the four houses (then St. Monica’s, St. Hilda’s, St. Elizabeth’s and St. Cecelia’s).

In the midst of this, the 1944 Education Act awarded Direct Grant Status, allowing free places for girls, should they reach the required academic standard. This Act, written 16 years after Miss Wallace’s comment that “the fight for equal opportunities for women and for men has been won”, also enabled female teachers to retain their teaching position after marriage for the first time. Despite this, it would be another 44 years before the school appointed its first married headteacher, Mrs Linda Mayne.

At Speech Day in 1986, the then-Head, Miss Lightburne announced that a donor had purchased a considerable number of acres of land in Hardingstone to build a complete new school, to house all the girls from the ages of 3 to 18 on the same site, together with a purpose-built sports complex. This was an amazing gift that turned out to be from the Cripps Foundation.

By January 1990, The Sports Complex on the new Hardingstone site was opened and girls were able to travel there to use the facilities for eight terms before the classrooms were ready for a permanent move on 8 September 1992. One month later, the site was officially opened by Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and 15 years later in 2006 we joined the GDST (Girls’ Day School Trust). 

It was a brave and exciting step for the school to move out of the town centre – and ever since, our school has inspired and supported our girls to take their own brave and exciting steps in their educational journey in School and beyond. 

Throughout its history, Northampton High School has undergone many changes, both physically and academically, and established a long and illustrious heritage in the town itself. We have a proud history of helping girls to learn without limits and our mission of shaping the future of girls’ education continues to burn brightly. The school has seen many changes since it opened to just 29 students 145 years ago, but it continues to move from strength to strength, with over 500 students currently filling the classrooms aged from 2 years in the Nursery to 18 years in the Sixth Form. 

Our 145th birthday is a cause for celebration and reflection. As we mark this milestone, we honour the school’s rich history and the thousands of young women who have passed through its doors, and we look forward to a future of continued excellence in girls’ education. Through the school’s modern motto, ‘We believe in our girls and they believe in themselves’, we hope that we remain true to the original spirit and ethos of the school. A school that proudly puts girls first and a place of diversity, inclusivity, and community. May our school continue to flourish and here’s to the next 145 years – Happy Birthday Northampton High!

Dr Lee