First Day at School

Parents up and down the country are this week experiencing for the first time that rite of passage known as ‘First Day at School’. Their little darlings, clad collectively in their brand new school uniforms, clutching – some apprehensively, some in fevered excitement – their school bags, are being deposited at school gates. It might be small steps for little legs but, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong, it is one small step for a child, one giant leap for parenthood. Parents watch in astonishment as their tinies take their first steps away from them and many of the tears shed are actually those of the parents who can’t quite believe that those helpless little babies who needed them for everything are the same people now skipping gaily across the playground.

From a different perspective, there are probably a number of schools taking in pupils for the very first time this week, either because they are brand new schools or because they are taking younger children for the first time. For those establishments, it is also a time of trepidation. Will all the planning come to fruition? Will everything work as it should? Will the logistics all come together?

Wind the clock back 228 years and the very first pupils were embarking at a school in a house in Somers Place East with, in the minds of the steering Committee, many of those same worries. After a year’s intensive planning, a new school came into existence that still operates today. The Royal Cumberland Freemasons’ School officially began in 1788 but the first pupils entered the school on 5th January 1789. The Morning Herald of Thursday, January 8, 1789, stated:

It must have made an interesting spectacle for a (probably) grey January day. There must have been a goodly number of carriages. There were fifteen pupils, presumably the Matron (although she could have been waiting at the school to receive them – the records do not indicate), the gentlemen of the Committee and possibly some of the ladies and subscribers who appear to have witnessed the event.

The actual route is unknown but it is likely to have passed the area where the National Gallery was later to stand (built 1824), along past the British Museum (built 1753 so it may have been a witness) and up to what is now Euston Road but what was then known as the New Road. The gentlemen of the committee retired to dine at St Alban’s Tavern but the new pupils stayed at the school. And unlike today’s mummies and daddies waiting at the school gates at home time to hear all about the experiences, these little girls remained in the school house until they were old enough to leave school aged 15.

The School went on to have more First Days as it moved house three times. In 1795, it moved from its home in Somers Town to Southwark. It moved without any ceremony. In fact, the only reason any date is known is because the Minute Books of the Committee record that the meeting was held in ’the new School House’.

By 1852, the School had long outgrown its allocated space and so it moved again – to Clapham.

This was accompanied by a little more pomp and ceremony. £400 was put aside “so that everything might be done with grace and splendour” (G Blizard Abbot, Royal Masonic Institute for Girls from 1788 to 1900) – the equivalent today of £16,500. On August 2nd, visitor numbers were estimated to be between 3000 – 4000. Amongst other ceremonial events, one of the pupils, Caroline Rhoda Davies, recited a poem especially composed for the occasion. Nine hundred dined and, as this was presided over by the Grand Master, it can be assumed that they were all Freemasons. There was also dancing in the grounds to a quadrille band and other military bands and the last visitors left shortly before midnight. And the pupils in all this celebration? Well, sadly, they were still at Southwark because they didn’t actually move until December 9th!

For the next 80 or so years, the School remained on its third site with a variety of adjustments and expansions to accommodate the growing numbers. One of these adjustments was the Junior School disappearing into Surrey. In August 1918, the younger pupils had their next First Day when they moved to Weybridge. There were 45 pupils which included 20 pupils for whom this was same school, new site and fifteen for whom it was entirely a new school. But the Clapham site continued to be crowded and eventually it was realised that, not only was a bigger site required but that it was highly unlikely to be in London. In 1926, Rickmansworth Park was found. The new buildings were ready by 1934 and on March 24th 1934 the doors of Clapham were locked for the last time (the honour went to Eileen Hones, then the youngest member of staff) and staff and pupils went off for their Easter break. When they returned almost a month later, it was the First Day of all First Days and almost 400 pupils and all the teaching staff, domestic staff, ancillary staff and maintenance staff found themselves in grounds and buildings that were as yet unfamiliar. A pupil who was there at the time commented later on the way many staff and pupils kept getting lost. But then, as well as being a new set of buildings, it was also huge. The old school, including the playgrounds, would have fitted inside the Garth of the new one – and the Garth is approximately 1.5% of the total acreage! It is a tribute to the leadership of Bertha Dean (Headmistress) and Florence Mason (Matron) that it all went so smoothly. As a member of staff at the time commented: “We had moved house that was all: the meals were on time and the bath water was hot …” In June 1934, the site was officially opened by Queen Mary.



The weather, as it so often is in British summer time, threatened to be inclement (and it did rain earlier in the day) so the route to be taken by the Queen was considered. As the parquet floors were thought to have a risk of being slippery if wet, it was decided to lay a temporary rubber matting down over the very slight slope in the corridor between the Great Hall and the Dining Hall. Naturally, it was red in colour. And this temporary matting was still there fifty years later!

The School has now been on this site for the greatest length of time it has been anywhere – 83 years and counting. In that time, not only has it seen 83 First Days – one for each year – but it has also seen younger and younger pupils having their own First Days. Each September, there are new pupils joining the School community and when you are a Newbie and it seems as if EVERYONE else knows exactly where they are going, it can be a little daunting. In recent years, a new style First Day has been trialled. Known as Focus Days, the entire school participates in activities on a theme. As, then, it is a new experience for everyone, it has the effect of putting even the most bored teenager (hey ho, another year) on her mettle as she does not know quite what to expect. In the last decade or so there have been, to name but three, Chevalier Day (2013), Environmental Day (2012) and 1934 day (2009) as the School celebrated its being on the site for 75 years. Below are the staff on two of the Focus Days.

These are First Days to remember. But then, whatever their format, your First Day at School is always important.

Coffee anyone?

Now places to obtain a machiatto, ristretto, leche y leche, dopio, chai latte or mochaccino (and other equally wonderful names encountered when one wishes to buy a coffee), the modern coffee house is just that: a house where one buys a coffee. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was much more.

The Vertue of the Coffee drink

‘The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink.

First publiquely made and sold in England, by Pasqua Rosée. THE Grain or Berry called Coffee, groweth upon little Trees, only in the Deserts of Arabia.’

(From a handbill published in 1652 to promote the launch of Pasqua Rosée’s coffeehouse telling people how to drink coffee and hailing it as the miracle cure for just about every ailment under the sun … It is held in the British Museum.)

‘A coffee-house the learned hold,

It is a place where coffee’s sold;

This derivation cannot fail us,

For where ale’s vended, that’s an alehouse.’

From The Early History of Coffee Houses in England by Edward Forbes Robinson (1893)

The history of the coffee house is a very rich one and makes fascinating reading. Try, and, of course, Wikipedia to learn more about them.

The connection of such coffee houses to the history of the School lies merely in their use as providers of meeting rooms before the School buildings were large enough to provide a suitable meeting space within. The earliest Minute Book records that the meetings of the Committee establishing the school took place in The Oxford Coffee House, in the Strand. They also used the Thatched House Tavern in St James, St Albans Tavern, in Pall Mall, and the Free Mason’s [sic] Tavern.

On 14th October 1788 (i.e. nearly 3 months before any pupils started at the School), a meeting was convened at the Thatched House Tavern. This was run by a man called William Almack who had been profitable in business and erected ‘the large assembly-rooms in King Street, St. James’s, by which he is chiefly known.’ ( Opened in 1765, the inaugural reception was attended by the Duke of Cumberland who was, a couple of decades later, to be the Patron of the School. However, there had clearly been an inn in this area and carrying the same name for some considerable time, the name probably deriving from its appearance. Jonathan Swift in Journal to Stella (1711) writes of ‘having entertained our society at dinner at the Thatched House Tavern.’ The area in which it stood began to become more important when the Court of St James was sited here. As a result, what had started as an alehouse began to attract a different clientele, ‘had grown into a recognized rendezvous of wits, politicians, and men of fashion’ (Wikipedia) and had developed into one of the most important taverns of the area, making it a likely proposition for Almack to build some assembly rooms attached to it. ‘… Pall Mall and the immediate neighbourhood of St. James’s have been for a century the headquarters of those London clubs which have succeeded to the fashionable coffee-houses, and are frequented by the upper ranks of society …’ (1) (

Exterior & interior Thatched House Tavern

(Exterior image from; Interior image from

There is some confusion about what happened to the tavern. One source indicates that it was pulled down in 1814 and another states that it was demolished in 1843 to make way for the Conservative Club. If this were the case – and there is disagreement about dates so there is an element of doubt – then it existed at 74 St James St.

Con Club
74 St James Street today

(Image from

Wherever it was, the Thatched House Tavern was clearly in existence in 1788 as the next meeting for the Committee also took place there. Later in the same month (30th October 1788) they met at the Oxford Coffee House, Strand. This may simply have been from expediency as a few months’ later, the Thatched House was their meeting place again. However for the remaining meetings of 1788 and until a meeting in March 1789, the Oxford was the venue they used mostly. John Feltham’s The Picture of London for 1809 stated that the Oxford and Cambridge Coffee House in the Strand was ‘frequented by gentlemen belonging to the theatres and Somerset place.’  ( Coffee houses became associated with different groups of people: the literati favouring different ones from businessmen, for example. ‘As might be expected, Whigs and Tories patronised different coffee-houses, the Whigs choosing the St. James’ The most famous example of a coffeehouse giving rise to particular group is the one run by Edward Lloyd in Tower Street in 1688, then in Lombard Street near to the Exchange, which gave rise to the Institution now known simply as Lloyd’s of London.

The Committee meetings were convened several times in 1788 and 1789 at the Oxford coffeehouse in the Strand but it has been difficult to pin down any information about it other than the passing reference in Feltham’s book. It is possible that it traded under a different name and was simply known as the Oxford coffeehouse. It may well have been the British Coffeehouse at which a meeting was convened to form the Oxford and Cambridge Club in 1830 for those graduates of the Universities who were in London, or it may have been a coffeehouse that had begun in Oxford itself and then migrated to London. Wherever and whatever it was, meetings were held there and here such decisions were made as to the names of the first candidates as pupils and the appointment of the first Matron.

At the same time as Committee meetings were being held in the Oxford coffeehouse in the Strand, we also have the first mentions of St Alban’s Tavern in connection with the School. It was from here on 5th January 1789 that ‘many of the Governors met … and went in procession from the Treasurer’s House with the Children clothed in the dress of the Institution to the School where they (Children) were delivered in the Care of the Matron.’

Morning Herald, January 8, 1789

After the children were ‘delivered’, the gentlemen returned to the tavern to dine. Of the tavern itself, there is little information although it did give its name to a political group who met there and ‘who aimed to bring about a reconciliation of William Pitt the Younger and Charles James Fox in a unified Ministry. They were named after the St. Alban’s Tavern where the members met from January 1784.’ (Wikipedia) Another group that met there was the St Albans Medical Club, a London dining club which met until 1797. ( The Tavern had been named for the place it was situated but the street was demolished to create Regent St (although there is still a St Albans Street, it is not the original one). The ‘old’ St Albans Street ‘was described by Strype in 1720 as ‘handsome [and] well built’, and ran from the north side of Pall Mall up to the market place.’ (2) (

The regular meetings continued to vary in venue between the Oxford, St Albans and a third place – the Free Mason’s Tavern. At the meeting on 30th April 1789, ‘The Secretary read a Letter which he had received from Mr White the Grand Secretary, purporting that the Hall Committee had Granted the Use of a Room in the Free Mason’s Tavern for the Meetings of this Institution during the time the Tavern may be untenanted.’ The Minute Book ends shortly after this entry so it is not clear whether the meetings continued to be peripatetic or whether they moved to the Free Mason’s Tavern until 1795. In June of that year – and it is indeed the only way we know when the School had moved to its second, larger and purpose-built site – other Minutes record that the meeting was at the new Schoolhouse in St George’s Fields. (Image from

The Freemasons Tavern

In 1774, the premises of the Free Mason’s Tavern were occupied for a short time by Mary Robinson. Her own account says: ‘On our return to London after ten days’ absence, a house was hired in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was a large, old-fashioned mansion, and stood on the spot where the Freemasons’ Tavern has since been erected.’(3) ( The tavern was built in 1786 by William Tyler so one presumes that its being untenanted was due to its newness rather than any other cause. But the fact that it was in Great Queen Street will ring bells with those associated with the School. Not only is it where Grand Lodge is to be found but it is also the home of the organisation that formerly supported the School (1788-1978).

Quite amazing the history behind such simple statements as where meetings were held! Time for refreshment, methinks. Mine’s a regular cappuccino please.


  1. Edward Walford, ‘Pall Mall; Clubland’, in Old and New London: Volume 4 (London, 1878), pp. 140-164 [accessed 19 February 2016].)
  2. ‘St. James’s Fair, St. James’s Market and Surrounding Streets’, in Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30, St James Westminster, Part 1, ed. F H W Sheppard (London, 1960), pp. 215-222 [accessed 17 February 2016]
  3. ‘Freemasons’ Hall’, in Survey of London: Volume 5, St Giles-in-The-Fields, Pt II, ed. W Edward Riley and Laurence Gomme (London, 1914), pp. 59-83 [accessed 19 February 2016].