Teaching Ealing

By Dr Jonathan Oates, Ealing Local History Centre Historian

On the evening of Tuesday 24 May in Ealing Central Library, Professor Alan Gillett, OBE, will be giving his unique observations into Ealing’s schools in his own inimitable fashion. I have no intention of duplicating his talk, but instead will offer a few insights into that once famous but now long defunct Ealing School, and hopefully clear up a few longstanding myths. I refer, of course, to the Great Ealing School. Why ‘Great’ you ask? Because it was in that part of Ealing, known as Great Ealing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which was then near the centre of Ealing, roughly where St. Mary’s Road is now (see the 1822 map below).

One of the problems with investigating the school’s history is that there are no known archives of the school to survive – no log books, admission registers, school magazines – or other records written during the school’s existence to give an account of day to day life of the school, its masters and its pupils. The work of a historian, as ever, is akin to that of a detective in piecing together clues from different sources, not all of which may be accurate.

We’ll explore the school’s history by asking and answering a number of key questions.

Great Ealing School, 1809

                       Above: Great Ealing School, 1809

When did it exist?

We know without doubt that the school closed forever in 1908, for this fact is recorded in the Ealing press for that year, apparently closing without any fanfare. But when did it begin? This is far more difficult due to the scant existence of much information about Ealing at that time. Many books state that it came into being in 1698. This is because in a book given as a school prize in the 1870s there is a plate which states that 1698 was the date that the school being founded. This piece of information is also mentioned in a newspaper advert for the school. Furthermore, Zachary Pierce, later bishop of Rochester and who owned Rochester House in Little Ealing, attended ‘Great Ealing School’ in the early eighteenth century. Is this proof enough? It is certainly evidence that there was a school of that name in the 1690s and 1700s. The difficulty is that there is no documentation whatsoever for the school’s existence for decades afterwards.

My opinion is that the school attended by Pearce was relatively short lived as was not uncommon. The school that we know existed in the nineteenth century was probably founded in about 1756 by a Mr Pierce, who is noted in that year as paying rates for a property in central Ealing. The Rev. Richard Shurry, who had married Pierce’s daughter, then took over the school in 1768. This then passed to his son in law in 1791 and he was the Rev. Dr George Nicholas and this was when the Great Ealing School became well known. In 1901 it was stated that the school was almost 150 years old, which ties in with 1756.

It is possible that the school existed in the years prior to 1756, but if it did, it left no trace on the records. A school termed the Great Ealing School existed in the early 1700s, then, but the school generally known as the Great Ealing School can only definitely date its existence as a continuous entity to about 1756. It is not uncommon for places to pretend to have a longer existence than can be proved as this longevity is often taken as proof of quality of current goods and services.

Where exactly was it?

The school had two locations. The first was on the east side of St. Mary’s Road and included in its buildings, the old Rectory (disused by the absentee rector since the mid eighteenth century), near to the parish church. According to the parish map of 1822 it was just to the east of the church and somewhat set back from the main road (it being the square labelled ‘Rev. Dr Nicholas’ on the map below).

It was described thus, ‘a rough pile of old buildings of all shapes and sizes, as if it had been added to on previous occasions in an irregular haphazard sort of way’.

Parish Map of Great Ealing School

                                        Above: Extract from parish map of 1822
                                                      showing Dr Nicholas’ school

Then in 1847, it moved to a new location on the west side of the road. It was known as The Owls because that was the emblem used as its crest and which adorned the main gates. It had its driveway and grounds and was opposite the Vicarage, which was later demolished and replaced by a branch of the YMCA. This was a rather more stately building with about six acres of land attached. It can be seen on the map below; the large unmarked buildings just to the south of Sunnyside Road.

Parish map showing school other location in Sunnyside Road

  Above: Ealing School to south of Sunnyside Road

Who taught there?

Perhaps the most important headmaster was the Rev. Dr George Nicholas, who acquired the school in 1791 after his marriage to Miss Shurry. He was a very prominent member of local society, owned land in Monmouthshire and attended vestry meetings; the equivalent, perhaps of a councillor now. He had helped organise the local volunteers during the Napoleonic Wars. He was renowned as a great classical scholar and had been at Wadham College in Oxford (his predecessor had also been an Oxford man). He was also fond of using the cane on his pupils.

It is reputed that Louis Phillippe, later France’s last king, taught at the school, but this is uncertain. When in exile from 1800 he lived at Twickenham and taught in a school there, for sure. Edith Jackson states that he did teach at Ealing but gives no source for this information, so it cannot be taken as fact.

It is reputed that Louis Phillippe, later France’s last king, taught at the school, but this is uncertain. When in exile from 1800 he lived at Twickenham and taught in a school there, for sure. Edith Jackson states that he did teach at Ealing but gives no source for this information, so it cannot be taken as fact.

Nicholas employed other university graduates as teachers, as was not uncommon. One such was Joseph Heath, from St. John’s College, Oxford. George Huxley, father of Thomas Huxley, was another master there.

The later nineteenth century Great Ealing School

                       Above: The later nineteenth century Great Ealing School

After Dr Nicholas’ death in 1829, two of his sons, both university educated, took over the school, presumably after teaching there as junior masters whilst their father was still alive. Francis Nicholas seems to have been headmaster until his death in 1858. Charles Morgan was a later headmaster.

In 1880 the Rev. John Chapman, a noted Jewish educationalist took over and was described by the vicar as being ‘so talented and so popular’. The Vicar was a friend of his, so may have been biased, of course.

Who went there as pupils?

This was a boys’ school, for both boarders and day pupils. The latter were probably in the majority. In 1811 there were 200 pupils and in 1820 365. Most were aged between 10 and 18.

The blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman is probably the school’s most famous pupil in retrospect. Once a clergyman in the Church of England, he later became a Roman Catholic and, in later life, a cardinal. Thomas Huxley, a great supporter of Charles Darwin, also attended the school some years later. Numerous other boys had famous careers as authors, clergymen and soldiers. These include Sir Robert Sale, Lord Lawrence, Charles Knight, Frederick Marryat, Pasha Hicks, Sir Henry Rawlinson and William Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

One boy who is often claimed for the school is William Makepeace Thackeray, the author. He certainly knew the school and refers to a Dr Tickle-Us as a schoolmaster there. There is, however, no evidence he ever went to the school.

John Quincy Adams, American ambassador to Britain, lived in Ealing from 1815-1817 and he sent his sons there, as he lived about a mile away in Little Boston House.

The school was attended by both British pupils and those from overseas, mainly from the British colonies or Western Europe. It later became primarily a school for wealthy Jewish lads, especially those whose parents resided overseas. One was Samuel Levy Bensusan, later an author and journalist.

Print of school, c.1880s

            Above: Print of school, c.1880s

What was taught there?

Under Dr Nicholas the emphasis was on Classics, namely works by Roman and Greek authors. Pupils had to know their Latin as much time was spent on translation. Fencing and music was also taught, and later in the nineteenth century, football and cricket were high on the agenda, as was the school’s military cadet force. Mathematics was important, too.

In 1874 it was advertised that the following subjects were taught: reading aloud, hand writing, English Language and Literature, French and German, Latin and Greek, Bible history, ancient British and European history, Geography, arithmetic, book keeping, physical science and drawing.  

GE School, students playing sport

            Above: Photo of Great Ealing School pupils playing Cricket

How good was it?

Charles Knight who was a pupil there in the 1800s later wrote, ‘I was sent to a somewhat famous classical school…Here for the first time I was stimulated with the ambition to excel…My school life was a real happiness’.

Quincy Adams once wrote that ‘George came home in the evening, much pleased with his school’.

In its heyday under Dr Nicholas the school was compared to the longer established Harrow School, though former Harrow schoolboy Spencer Perceval and Ealing resident did not send his sons there.

It is interesting that it was not mentioned in the 1845 history of Ealing, Brentford and Chiswick, suggesting that it was not then highly thought of.

View of School from the main road

                       Above: View of the school and its gates from the main road. Note
                                    the Owl figurines at the gates; the school was once known
                                    as The Owls.

Why did it close?

The school went into a decline after Dr Nicholas’ death and underwent several changes of ownership thereafter. In 1880 it even faced bankruptcy before a new headmaster bought it. However, it came to an end, not because of any scholastic failings, but because the headmaster, the Rev. John Chapman, who also owned it, believed that he was a financial genius. He played the stock market and he lost. In order to pay his debts he had to sell his assets and these included the school. He later ran another school and died in 1917 in Hampstead.

What is left of it? 

Of the first site, the land was sold to the Conservative Land Building Society and by the end of the nineteenth century the old school buildings were no more and houses covered the site. There is a house on Ranelagh Road titled Nicholas Villas.

Pciture of houses, Nicholas Villas, Ranelagh Road, site of first school

                       Above: Nicholas Villas, Ranelagh Road

As to the second site, when the school was sold there was speculation that it might become another school or an institution of some kind. The local newspaper thought that it might make a good secondary school as there was plenty of land for sports, and otherwise it would be used for building many small houses. However, nobody wanted to buy it for that and so it was bought by builders and demolished. Nicholas Gardens and Cairn Avenue are two of the streets that were later built on its grounds. Nicholas Gardens, is a reminder of the school as it takes its name after the once famous headmaster of the Great Ealing School. Dr Nicholas is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s Perivale.

1934 Ordnance Survey map showing streets on site of the Great Ealing School

                 Above: 1934 Ordnance Survey map showing streets on site of the Great
                               Ealing School

All Ealing’s schools until the early twentieth century were either private schools, charity or church schools. The local authority, until 1903, did not provide council schools of any description. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century it was not uncommon for clergymen to run boys’ schools. Until 1880 schooling was not compulsory and most schools charged fees (often very low in the case of church and charity schools). As the population rose in the nineteenth century the number of schools increased. There were only nine in 1826 (seven boarding schools) and 14 in 1839, half of which were boarding schools.

The Great Ealing School seems to have been at its zenith under the headmastership of Dr Nicholas, from 1791-1828. Certainly many of its most illustrious old boys, such as Newman were taught there at this time. It was known for excellence in the Classics and for its emphasis on the teachings of the Church of England. However, later headmasters, including Nicholas’ sons seem not to have been as able as he was and it passed through various hands. Its history could have ended under Charles Morgan in the 1870s, but was given a stay of execution by John Chapman in 1880, when its emphasis shifted to being an academy for Jewish boys, though was open to other faiths and Chapman was on good terms with the Vicar of Ealing. Yet contemporaries believed by this time the golden age was in the past and in 1908 when Chapman sold the school, none wished to revive its former glories.

The information used for this essay was derived from articles in The Middlesex County Times, census returns, directories, biographies and writings of some former pupils. It does not exhaust the sources to be located in Ealing Local History Centre

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