On our first day back this term we celebrated the school’s 134th Birthday.
Blackheath High School has a long and impressive history and much has been achieved by the pupils and staff who have worked here throughout the 134 years of its existence. Some past pupils have become well known for their achievements such as the politician Baroness Jay & the fashion designer Mary Quant; more recently Sophie Aldred (actress) & Helen Lederer (comedian) but I know that a significant number of BHS’s pupils have gone on to make a very positive contribution within their careers, their families and the community within which they lived – just as our current pupils will do.
Our story starts in the late 1800s when some inspirational women knew that most women were capable of contributing more to life than had hitherto been possible or permissible. The Girls’ Public Day School Trust was set up by the Women’s Educational Union to provide public day schools in which girls were to receive an education similar and equal to that of their brothers who attended the great boys’ public schools.
Blackheath was chosen as the site for the first purpose built GPDST school. From the original plans, it took just 3 years to complete the new school which was opened by Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise on 7th January 1880. This original school building is now the site of our Junior School in Wemyss Road. The school began with 68 pupils which rose to 300 within a year. The termly fees were £4.40p in today’s money and the school day was from 9.15a.m.-1.30p.m.
When the school was first established the Headmistress, Miss Olney, had to convince an often-suspicious local population that it was worth educating girls and that doing so would not lead to a breakdown in society. In those days there was concern that if girls were educated it might make them infertile and a belief that subjects such as mathematics were way beyond their capabilities. A woman’s sphere was the home & there was practically no profession for her except teaching, which many looked upon as a refuge for the destitute, whilst the few female doctors were considered freaks. Women who went on to university were seen as strong-minded, blue stockings – a synonym at the time for all that was graceless and unattractive in a woman.
Miss Gadesden was one of the most successful Headmistresses of BHS. She was appointed in 1886 when she was only 29 years old and was to remain as Headmistress here for 33 years. She was supported by a dedicated team of teachers; she appointed young women coming down from university who did not see teaching as a job but the Job. They were passionate about educating girls and so it was that young women began to become doctors, chemists, writers, accountants and of course women who would inspire in their own children the value of education.
The themes running through our history are: academic success, achievement in a wide range of activities and service to others. These themes are very familiar to us today. We know from the records that whilst Miss Gadesden valued academic success she did not see qualifications as an end in themselves. Instead they were simply milestones on a girl’s journey towards her real goals – knowledge & freedom; freedom to live more creatively and more adventurously. Such goals still have meaning for us today.
The school has lived through two world wars, seen rapid advances in science & technology, great improvements in transport and social and demographic change on a scale unimaginable in 1880. Through all of this, BHS has evolved to meet the needs of a changing world and remained at the forefront of girls’ education. I am very proud to be Head of this remarkable school and of all that has been achieved by Blackheath High’s pupils and staff both past & present.
As Miss Gadesden said when she proposed the toast at the Jubilee dinner in 1930: ‘Hundreds have passed in and out, hundreds have gone up and down the school steps, and the number of those who remain untouched by the spirit of the school must be small; but whether they realise it or not, they too have left their mark, and perhaps they sometimes remember that, once upon a time, they belonged to Blackheath High School’