A Tale of Two Schools

Unlike the Dickens’ novel which the title references, this is not about two geographically distanced places (or schools). If it were, it would have to be ‘A Tale of Four or Five Schools’ which kind of dilutes the snappy title. No, this is the tale of two schools which, on paper, are seen as one when they aren’t. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the School’s history may have an inkling what is referred to here but for those without any pre-knowledge, this is just pretty riddling.

Allow me to explain. The School began in 1788 and the modern School is very proud of being one of the oldest girls’ schools in the country. It has been in continuous operation since its inception, on consecutively three sites in London and latterly two sites out of London. It has had the same name throughout – sort of. The Royal Cumberland Freemason’s School; The Freemasons’ School for female children; The Royal Masonic Institute for Girls; The Royal Masonic School for Girls; The Rickmansworth Masonic School for Girls and now RMS for Girls. You might detect one word that remained consistent: there was always a reference to Freemasons or Masonic.

It was established in the eighteenth century as a charity and school for the daughters of indigent freemasons and from the first, it provided totally for daughters deemed eligible. Not only did it educate them but it provided a home, food, clothing, medical care and the opportunity to be self-supporting beyond school age. A complete package. And all absolutely free of charge to the pupils and their families.

The first two school sites

The first site was a rented house in Somers Town and the second purpose built in St George’s Fields, Southwark. Girls who met the criteria were put forward to a ballot twice yearly, April and October. The lists were always over-subscribed requiring ever more ingenious means for selecting one candidate over another. Anyone who subscribed to the Charity by 1 guinea became an annual governor. Those paying 10 gns or more became Life Governors. All were entitled to vote in the ballots and there was a complex system of allocated votes: the more one paid, the more votes one was entitled to cast. These votes could be given all to one candidate or spread across several names.

Sample of candidates’ list

The number of places available at the School was ‘advertised’ and the votes cast. If there were [say] ten places, the ten girls with the highest number of votes got in. However, those that were not successful in one round could stay on the list for the next ballot carrying with them their accrued total. At the next ballot, any votes they received were added into their running score and perhaps this time they might be successful but no guarantees. Another candidate might appear on the list and leapfrog her way to the top and win the coveted place. A girl could remain on the ballot until she reached the age of 10½ (when she was deemed to be over age) so, if a girl had been added to the list aged 7½ (minimum age), she could be on four or five ballots and still not be successful.

Example of a ballot sheet cover

The subscribers casting the votes might know of the child and its case personally and want to cast their votes accordingly. They might also then try to persuade their friends with votes to do the same. Newspaper advertising in support of individuals was not uncommon although without detailed psephology it is not possible to say how successful this ploy was. A lodge or province may wish to vote for a candidate whose father was connected with same. Newspaper columns about masonic activities in provincial newspapers often carried the information with a sense of pride when ‘our girl’ was elected. Although some ballot papers carried just a list of names of eligible girls, others had short paragraphs relating to individuals and their perceived need. For example:

The candidate of the above petition was successful although the daughter of a widow earning a paltry living by needlework, and whose petition appeared on the same ballot paper, was not.

This additional information used language guaranteed to wring the hearts of the subscribers who may, after all, have no idea who any of these girls were so how could they decide who was more worthy of a place? These little paragraphs were later left out although probably only because the numbers on the ballot sheets increased as the School grew in size.

At this juncture it should be pointed out that children who were not successful in ballots were often found places in other schools of a similar nature so they were not abandoned to their fate. However, such were the advantages perceived to stem from a successful election that there was great care taken to ensure that this benevolence was not abused. If any strayed over the boundary of acceptable behaviour, there was the threat not just of expulsion but also being sent a bill for everything already received. Charity can be a two-edged sword!

This charitable status remained in place until 1978 and then everything changed. But at the same time, the School apparently continued unaltered. Indeed, a pupil present in the School pre- and post-1978 declared that she didn’t find out until about 2012 that the School was no longer operating in the same way. So it was the same but radically different. In 1978, the School ceased to be one funded entirely by freemasons and became a fee-paying independent school open to all girls. There had been some fee paying pupils creeping in by the back door, so to speak, since the early sixties. The back door in this case would be more aptly called the school gates as they were almost exclusively day girls living locally. Post-1978, there were also some pupils funded by a masonic charity and that continued, in diminishing numbers, until very recently. The School fees were paid by the charity rather than individual families but the pupils were externally indistinguishable from their school fellows. The biggest marker of the change was that the School became the Rickmansworth Masonic School for girls but as most of the pupils didn’t have the foggiest why the name had changed, even if they noticed to begin with, as a marker it was definitely a Failure.

Since 1934, the School has been on its present site so all the current Old Girls would have attended Rickmansworth, pre- or post-Masonic watershed.

When cross-generational Old Girls meet they find that the school they remember is not actually the same one others remember. The difference is most pronounced between pre- and post-1978 pupils. For the former, most arrived at the School having lost their fathers and, in some cases, their mothers too. The locals in fact referred to the pupils en masse as ‘the orphans on the hill’. The School was their alma mater in all senses rather than just, as it is usually used, to indicate an establishment with which one was formerly connected for education. The education they received was free, their clothing provided, their school books part of the package. One mother, asking what her daughter should bring with her, was told ‘a dressing gown, slippers and a teddy bear’. Everything else was provided.

In 1978, that all changed and whilst those girls remaining in the care of a masonic charity still had everything provided, all the other pupils were family-funded. From the 1960s, day girls were admitted tof a boarding school. Now, there are more day girls than boarders and even fewer full time boarders as there is both weekly and flexi-boarding available.

The pre- and post- schools occupy the same site and, at least outwardly, look the same but when present pupils take Old Girls round, there are frequent confusions about the names of things and their places. Statements such as ‘I was in Alex house’ and pointing west are gently corrected by current pupil pointing east and saying Alex is now a performing arts centre. Or it might be ‘I was in Atholl. Where’s it gone?’ (Answer it is now a school house but without a physical entity.) Former prefects may recall their privilege rooms Bei Uns and Chez Nous only to be told they became specialist classrooms. (Behind the stage to left and right of Scarbrough gallery stairs. Scarbrough gallery?? Don’t ask!)

All of the above changes show that what appears to be the same isn’t and none of this includes the internal alterations. The School continues to adapt and yet looks pretty similar for those who haven’t been back for a while – until they start trying to find things.

So physically the School has changed. Spiritually the School has changed. The alma mater has undergone radical plastic surgery. RMS girls themselves have changed fundamentally and trying to find common ground between the two sets is like trying to square the circle, particularly when older Old Girls feel that the School they knew has been changed beyond recognition and grumble about things not being like it was in my day etc etc. And in that, they are right. It is different and calling them all ‘alumnae’ doesn’t tell the half of it.

So through the best of times and the worst of times, through charity or by fee-paying, celebrating its 232nd birthday or its 42nd, this is most decidedly a tale of two schools.

In the Somers time

1788 must have been an extraordinarily busy year for the Charity behind the School. Officially, it began on March 25th: ‘the Royal Cumberland Freemasons School, initiated Lady Day 1788’ (Morning Herald).  Until 1752, Lady Day was the start of the legal year, one of the quarter days (the others being Midsummer, Michaelmas and Christmas) and when year-long contracts were begun. Between this date and 5th January 1789, when the first pupils were taken in coaches to the Schoolhouse in Somers Town, all the preparations had to be made. This would have been an undertaking of no small proportion if it had proceeded like clockwork but in fact the School was not intended to be in Somers Town at all. The intended place was ‘Logie’s Academy’ [otherwise Lochee] in Little Chelsea.

London Chronicle, July 24, 1788

However, the Patroness, the Duchess of Cumberland, ‘took agin’ this – the records do not state why – and so another property suitable as a school had to be found and all the preparations begun again. This time it was successful and it was to the property in Somers Place East in Somers Town that fifteen little girls and a Matron were transported by coach in 1789.

Time to have a look at the first Schoolhouse and Somers Town itself.

Somers Town lay to the north of what we now call Euston Rd but which, at the time, was still referred to as the new road. This land ‘was acquired in the seventeenth century by the Cocks family, a member of whom was ennobled as Baron Somers in 1784 (Survey of London, vol. 24, 1952)’ http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/streets/somers_place_east.htm  The baronetcy had originally been created for John Somers in order that he might enter the House of Lords as Lord Chancellor to William III. On his death, it fell into abeyance but his sister, and heiress, married Sir John Cocks and their grandson became Baron Somers on his ennoblement.

The area now known as Somers Town was undeveloped until Euston Rd was built. It was mostly fields and some parts of it were used as rubbish dumps in an eighteenth century version of that modern scourge, fly-tipping.

‘When London ended at Euston Road in the 18th century, it was famous for being where the city chucked its rubbish in mountainous landfills.’ https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/jan/18/lets-move-to-somers-town-one-of-londons-best-kept-secrets

https://londontraveller.org/2014/04/03/bradshaws-hand-book-to-london-day-8-bagnigge-wells-exmouth-market-no-52/  writes that ‘Early in the last century Somers Town was a delightful and rural suburb, with fields and flowergardens [sic]. A short distance down the hill … were the then famous Bagnigge Wells, and close by the remains of Totten Hall, with the ‘Adam and Eve’ tea-gardens’

Image from http://www.sub-urban.com/lost-bagnigge/

Bagnigge Wells was a popular and fashionable spa with ‘a banqueting hall, gardens, bowling green and other entertainments on the banks of the Fleet River.’  (The London Encyclopedia) However, they gradually fell into disrepair and attracted a poorer class of clients and eventually closed in 1841.

The ‘Adam and Eve Tea Gardens [were] thought to have been established sometime in the early 1700s. With spacious gardens of fruit trees and arbours in the rear and side of the tavern, it became a destination for tea drinking parties, with room for skittles and Dutch-pins in the forecourt which was shadowed by large trees, tables and benches were placed for the visitors. A monkey, heron, parrots, wild fowl and gold-fish pond were also once boasted attractions.’ (ibid) Unfortunately, these began to be frequented by criminals and prostitutes and in the early 19th century they were shut by the magistrates.

In Somers Town, Jacob Leroux became the principal landowner under Lord Somers. He built a handsome property for himself and it is probable that his hand in design can be seen in the Schoolhouse and some extant buildings in Chalton St. In addition to housing and the laying out of basic streets, ‘a chapel was opened, and a polygon began in a square.’ Edward Walford, ‘Somers Town and Euston Square’, in Old and New London (1878), cited by British History Online.

‘The Polygon was a housing estate, a Georgian building with 15 sides and three storeys that contained 32 houses.’ https://www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=51223


This image showing the Polygon on the left dates from 1850, long after the School had gone elsewhere, but it existed contemporaneously with the Schoolhouse. Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth there in 1797. The child that was born, of course, went on to write Frankenstein as Mary Shelley. Another author who lived in the Polygon, perhaps only briefly, is one whose name seems to crop up rather frequently in the School’s history: Charles Dickens. He ‘lived at No 17 in the 1820s shortly after his father, John Dickens, was released from debtors’ prison.’ www.theundergroundmap.com (cf) Dickens later made the Polygon a home for his Bleak House character Harold Skimpole. This somewhat unpleasant character, ‘in the habit of sponging [off] his friends’ (Wikipedia citing Nuttall) perhaps implies Dickens’ emotional response to his residence at the Polygon.

Map from http://www.theundergroundmap.com (cf)

The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1813 describes the area that became Somers Town as having ‘an excellent private road, belonging to the Duke of Bedford, and the fields along the road are intersected with paths in various directions. The pleasantness of the situation, and the temptation offered by the New Road, induced some people to build on the land, and the Somers places, east and west, arose’

All was going well ‘when some unforeseen cause arose which checked the fervour of building, and many carcases of houses were sold for less than the value of the building materials.’ Edward Walford (cf)

It would appear that his grand scheme did not bring as much profit as he would have liked and ‘war and recession forced down the value of property, and the neighbourhood soon acquired ‘shabby genteel’ status.’ https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/somers-town/

The exact location of the School in Somers Place East is not recorded in the Minute books which supply much of the information about the School itself but it was a terrace on the north side of Euston Road just east of Chalton Street with houses numbered consecutively from 13–23, west to east.

‘According to the Survey of London, Somers Place East was “a commanding block of houses” (Survey of London, vol. 24, 1952) presumably intended for well-to-do tenants’ http://www.ucl.ac.uk/bloomsbury-project/streets/somers_place_east.htm

The only image we have of the first school house is an artist’s impression showing, presumably, the rear of the premises as it appears to have been drawn from the garden.

With any artistic impression, it is unknown how much liberty has been taken with the truth. However, the tree on the left and the steps mounting to an upper floor together could imply the end of a row of houses. Might this suggest that this property was therefore No 23, the last in the row?

When we consider today Georgian architecture and terracing, we envision a row of identical properties something like the image below:

The sketch of the School does not fit this idea. However, taking a modern photograph of part of Chalton St (from https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/somers-town)

and putting it in juxtaposition to the above drawing reveals an interesting parallel:

It is clear that taller Georgian-style architecture was interspersed with lower pitched-roof buildings which suggests that the drawn image is an accurate rendition. As one building is shown from the front and the other from the rear, it is impossible to be sure but it gives food for thought. Could it be that the first Schoolhouse looked like that shown below and that this was Leroux’s signature architectural style?

The image above is an extant building in Chalton St whereas the original Schoolhouse has gone – as has Somers Place East. It appears on early maps but a combination of the misfortunes of Mr Leroux and further building in the area, eventually it becoming quite overcrowded, meant that ‘this district, rents being cheap, was largely colonised by foreign artisans, mostly from France, who were driven on our shores by the events of the Reign of Terror and the first French Revolution’ and the ‘rather fine’ terraces became attractive to ‘the exiles of the poorer class’ Edward Walford (cf) The area had started on a rapid downward slide.

Map of 1790
1837 map

In this later map, Somers Place East is still shown, as is the passageway to its rear – Weir’s Passage. By the time of the 1837 map, the School had long since left the area, moving south of the river in 1795. Within a few more years, Somers Place East had gone although Weir’s Passage remains which enables us to fairly accurately pinpoint where the Schoolhouse had been.

This modern map from https://hidden-london.com/gazetteer/somers-town/ showing Chalton St and Ossulton St allows that Somers Places East and West are now buried beneath a hotel (The Pullman, formerly Novotel) which incorporates the Shaw Theatre.


In fact, seated in the Shaw Theatre might place one almost exactly on the spot from which the drawing of the Schoolhouse may have been made all those years ago.

If land could speak, what stories might it tell of the school house that once occupied this very spot?

Sunday service

Religious services have been a part of the School’s history since its inception.

Rule 20: That the Matron attend the children to Church every Sunday morning and afternoon, and on Good Friday, Christmas Day, and the Anniversary, that they learn the Collect for the Day, and such as are capable to read a portion of Scripture every Sunday Evening … and on every Friday the children be taught the Catechism.

(The mention of Good Friday and Christmas Day are reminders that for a considerable period of the School’s history, there were no school holidays. At all.)

But this posting is less about religion and more about the participants in it; less spiritual and more about practicalities. It’s about getting there and sitting still during. The first three school sites did not have a place of worship attached to them. The girls were taken to a local church – twice – on Sundays. To begin with, they had their own pew. To save the mental gymnastics of trying to work out how huge numbers (current school roll 900+) fitted into one pew, in the early days the numbers were significantly fewer. In 1788, fifteen little girls and a Matron might fit fairly comfortably into a large pew, which cost £3 per annum. This cost, incidentally, can be compared with the £24 pa for ‘Books, Sope, Mops, Brooms &c’.

The first church they attended was the Bethel Chapel initially in a pew donated by Jacob Leroux. The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1813 referring to Seymour Street in Somers Town said

“In this street was formerly a chapel of ease to St. Pancras. It was a gloomy building, erected in 1787, and called Bethel Chapel; it afterwards belonged to the Baptists.”

Cited in Edward Walford, ‘Somers Town and Euston Square’, in Old and New London: Volume 5 (London, 1878), pp. 340-355. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp340-355 [accessed 16 November 2016].

There was also St. Mary’s Episcopal Chapel in the same street which may have been used too as may have the old church of St Pancras (the new one was not built until 1819 by which time the School was south of the river.)

mary Pancras
St Mary, Somers Town & Old St Pancras

Image of St Mary’s by Steve F, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11433686

Image of Old St Pancras by Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13429363


In 1795, the School moved to St George’s Fields, Southwark and the girls would have attended the church of St George the Martyr.

George Southwark
St George the Martyr, Southwark

Image of St George by Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17840016

The School had its home in Southwark from 1795 to 1852 when it moved to Clapham. St John’s, St Mary’s, St Peter’s and St Paul’s were all used at different times by the School.

Battersea churches
St Paul, Battersea & St Mary, Battersea

Image of St Mary by Derek Harper, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6088418

Image of St Paul from http://www.southwark.anglican.org/find-a-church/battersea/battersea-st-peter-and-st-paul/battersea-st-paul

St Mary’s is the oldest church of these being finished in 1777; St John’s (there is no extant image) was described, rather unflatteringly, as “ ‘A cheap brick church erected for the workers of the factory district of York Road’ according to J.G. Taylor (Our Lady of Batersey, 1925).” www.southwark.anglican.org/downloads/lostchurches/BAT11.pdf It was consecrated in 1863 so was only marginally newer than the 3rd school site. Later amalgamated with St Paul’s, it was badly damaged during WWII and demolished in about 1950. St Peter’s was built in 1875 and St Paul’s, originally a chapel of ease for St John’s, was amalgamated with St Peter’s in 1939.

By the time the School was in Clapham (or Battersea, or Wandsworth or Putney – take your pick: all can arguably claim to be the geographical place of the School’s third site), it had a considerably enlarged school roll. Now, walking to church was not just a marshalling of 20-50 girls in a relatively straight line but manoeuvring nearly 400 girls, in twos, in Sunday best. Pity the tram driver and the hapless motorist who stopped to allow the girls to cross the road!

Crossing the road to church

Mention of Sunday best raises that other set of items known variously by the euphemisms unmentionables, unwhisperables, indescribables and underpinnings: the underwear, usually in the form of combinations comprising bodice, drawers and slip. These garments were generally regarded with loathing. Summer ones were made of cotton but winter ones were made of wool which one former pupil recalled “had the consistency of steel wool” and which “itched and prickled” in a most uncomfortable fashion. Being forced to sit still and attend the sermon was made much more difficult by these garments, issued fresh on a Sunday morning – and therefore at their most like a coarse hair shirt – presumably on a basis of cleanliness is next to Godliness. Clearly the constant fidgeting of the girls reached the attention of the Chaplain and ultimately he came to speak to Miss Mason, the Matron, about the matter. Quite what was said, in what sort of language (given the deemed delicacy of ever mentioning such things) and with what degree of mutual embarrassment is lost to history as the conversation was, literally, behind closed doors. The outcome, however, is known. From then on, the fresh ‘linen’ was distributed on a Monday rather than Sunday so it had become slightly more comfortable by the time it was necessary to attend to the sermon again. Modern girls are at this point dissolving into horrified hysteria at the realisation that only one set of underwear was issued per week … Victorian sensibilities were indeed different!

Once the School moved to Rickmansworth in 1934, the walks to and from the local churches were no longer part of Sunday life. Services, as today, took place in the Chapel.

The Chapel exterior & interior

The Junior girls, still at this stage in Weybridge, continued to perambulate to their local church, St James.

Weybridge church
St James, Weybridge

Image from http://www.stjamesweybridge.org.uk/

After the service, the girls would write little essays about the sermon and the vicar would award gold and silver stars for the best. Before they departed the School to reach the Church, the girls would be given a penny to put in the collection. One week, a girl put her coat button in instead so that she could put her penny in the bubble gum machine they passed en route. Something went wrong with the mechanism and her sin was rewarded not with one but several – perhaps a case of the wages of sin being not death but illicit chewing gum. Of course, her behaviour did not go unpunished but the vicar’s essays may have been a little odd that week! Even without bubble gum, attention was not always focused on the service. Although girls recall different things about their church visits – such as the choir processional, the occasional use of incense and the bell ringers – one former pupil, under the mistaken view that the memorial plaques on the walls were vertical gravestones, spent a considerable part of her time trying to puzzle out where the bodies were.

A requirement for religious services throughout the School’s history there may have been, but it is probably fair to say that it did not always guarantee the girls’ focus. Although the steel wool underwear is no longer a reason for a lack of attention …