Dickens and London
     East End Schools

Until the late 18th century a few children were educated in charitable schools funded by philanthropic foundations.   The picture shows the pretty little predecessor to the Christ Church primary school founded in 1708 and illustrated on a plaque on the later school in Brick Lane.   An unknown but probably larger number went to informal dame schools which were wholly funded by fees.  The government was nervous about mass education.  In 1807 an MP warned that ‘Giving education to the labouring classes of the poor would teach them to despise their lot in life.  Instead of teaching them the virtue of subordination it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets and vicious books.’  Nevertheless from around 1900 the churches started to provide mass elementary education, often in Sunday schools since poor children started work very young.  The curriculum aimed at inculcating discipline and piety, teaching children to read and training them to become good servants. 

Plaque on Christ Church School, Brick Lane

Ex Durward Street School, E R Robson, 1877

From 1870 the government made elementary education compulsory for all children and it was free from 1893.  There was a major drive to find sites and put up buildings in the congested East End, where the need for new schools was great.  The illustration shows the one time school in Durwood Street Whitechapel, with a playground on its roof.  It has large windows, to symbolise enlightenment as well as to aid teaching, and a decorative feature on the roof to convey the idea that education in uplifting.  Such schools were the norm when the former deputy editor of The Times Louis Heren started school in the East End in around 1923.   In his autobiography, Growing Up Poor in London, he described his first school, Highway Elementary in Shadwell (now demolished), as ‘of red and yellow brick with tall windows in a large asphalt playground’. 

Former Raine’s Foundation School, now Tower Hamlets College, Herbert Ellis, 1913  

Former St George’s Central School, T J Bailey, 1899  

From 1895 secondary education was planned for around one child in a hundred, to ‘correspond roughly to the gradations of society’.  Initially it was only available in charitable grammar schools which charged fees and offered a literary, non-vocational curriculum.   But local authorities developed free selective higher elementary, or ‘Central’ schools, with a vocational curriculum.  In 1907 the government offered grants to grammar schools subject to their offering a quarter of their places free to elementary school pupils.  Heren’s older brother and sister both passed the ‘scholarship’ exam, the precursor of the 11 plus, and went to Raine’s Foundation School in Arbour Square.

But when Heren reached 11 the world was in economic depression and the government had replaced the free grammar school places with ‘special’ places with fees geared to parent’s incomes.  Heren’s mother turned down the place he was offered at Raine’s and sent him to St George’s Central School.  The now dilapidated building, labelled Cable Street Schools, survives next to Hawksmoor’s St George-in-the-East. Like Durward Street School it is an attractive building, albeit less aspirational than the ‘Wrenaissance, Baroque and Palladian detail’ of Raine’s.  Heren was inspired by enthusiastic and helpful teachers there.

Teachers may matter more than buildings, but there is a continuing belief that good school architecture facilitates good education.  Swanlea school in Whitechapel was the first new secondary school in London for a decade and features ‘humane school design, planned around the central spine of a glazed two-storey mall covered by an exciting and showy glass roof’.

Swanlea School Brady Street, Sir Colin Stansfield Smith, 1993  


Susan Gane
First published London Society Journal No 455, Summer 2008