The early years: a first class education for girls
The school was founded in 1887, Sydenham was one of the last schools to be opened by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust. The Trust had been founded by four pioneering women; Maria Grey, Mary Gurney, Lady Stanley of Alderley and Emily Shirreff, who had the vision and determination to claim as good an education for girls as for their brothers. A local Sydenham resident, Mr Chadwick, petitioned the Trust to open the School after being angered by the snobbery of the local schools in the area.
The school was originally housed in a private residence that had previously been the Longton Hall Hydropathic Hotel, providing romantic appeal and great character, but not always convenient, warm or easy to navigate for pupils who regularly got very lost. The art studio was in the Winter Garden, the laboratory in the Conservatory and the Turkish baths became known as the Dungeon, due to the lack of windows rather than the discipline policy of the school.
The founding Headmistress, Miss Thomas, and her successor, Miss Sheldon, rose to many challenges in those early years. Miss Thomas grew the roll from 20 to 200 in just two years while Miss Sheldon developed the facilities with her own money, introducing many traditions and institutions, some of which are still with us today, like the house system named after the founding women of the GPDST.
Miss Sanders (1917-1930) established a rigorous curriculum, insisting that all girls were taught classics to provide a full and rounded liberal education.
These early headmistresses established the school’s aims that remain strong today, a commitment to providing a first-class education for girls, ensuring girls understand the value of a good education for its own sake and the importance of consideration for others.
1930s and the Second World War: on the move
Dr Smith became Headmistress in 1931 and in 1934 oversaw the school’s relocation to Horner Grange, an impressive Victorian residence across the road from Longton Hall, formerly a diamond merchant’s house with pheasants on the lawn and its own impressive ballroom.
The whole school could now be housed in one location and have space for the facilities required by a modern education. Funding from the GDST, as well as fundraising by parents, meant that the makeshift laboratories of West Hill were replaced with purpose-built ones, recognising the increasing importance of science in the curriculum. A new school hall was built, as well as a hockey pitch within the school grounds.
The school had little time to appreciate its new quarters. In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the school was evacuated to Brighton and Hove High School, where it shared facilities with Streatham High School. With the capitulation of France, however, Brighton was not considered a safe refuge and the school reopened in Westwood Hill in 1940.
Miss Yardley succeeded Miss Smith in 1941 and was faced with a school that had shrunk from over 300 to fewer than 100 pupils. It was now sharing space with Cobbs, a local furniture storage company, and school lessons often had to take place in the former wine cellar under the kitchen wing of the school as the intensity of the daylight bombing raids increased. Later, doodlebugs and rockets posed their own threats, making the journeys to and from school fraught and the school itself had a number of near misses.
The school contributed to the war effort by helping out at local hospitals, while trying to maintain the rhythm of school life as best it could. As Miss Yardley herself said: ‘normality was the key to which we tried to keep the school tuned’. The commitment and strength of Miss Yardley and her staff through this time is reflected through a comment from a former head girl 40 years later:
I loved the war years at school because of the spirit of comradeship and sharing that drew us all together.
Post war years: expanding the curriculum and widening opportunity
The school that had survived the tribulations of war revived and thrived as it approached its 60th anniversary. It took back possession of the whole of Horner Grange; its ethos, standards and traditions remained and the school roll rebuilt swiftly. As the range of subjects expanded, the timetable was extended to a full day and, with increased numbers under the government’s direct grant scheme, space was soon under pressure.
A new home was found for the Junior School, just down the road at number 15 Westwood Hill, not only to provide space for the burgeoning Senior School, but also to provide the Juniors with a building of their own, on a scale suitable for young pupils where they could feel secure and share a common experience.
It was not just sciences that changed the curriculum during these years. The school recognised that games played unwillingly by senior girls had little beneficial effect – so a wider range of sports was now offered, including table tennis, swimming, horse riding, fencing and trampolining (an approach to sport that continues today).
Music, then as now, was a flourishing part of the school curriculum and girls remember performing in concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and Central Hall, Westminster, in much the same way that girls have performed at the Royal Albert Hall in recent years.
Expansion of the Senior School continued in the 1960s with the development of the Coach House into a cookery room and pottery studio, home to the Design Technology department today. The GDST replaced the Sixth Form caravans that had been used after the war with a two-room Swift Plan (the Portakabins of their day) structure. Then, as now, co-operation between parents, the school and the GDST continued to benefit the school as parents raised money to add additional laboratories and a geography room.
Towards the school’s Centenary: the loss of direct grant pupils
In 1966 the redoubtable Miss Yardley retired and was replaced by Miss Hamilton who continued to look to the long-term future of the school and its students. The Trust provided a new gymnasium and contributed to a fundraising programme to replace the Sixth Form rooms with a new two-storey centre.
Miss Hamilton also oversaw the school’s most ambitious fundraising venture, the Centenary project. It allowed the School to expand to three-form entry by providing new classrooms as well as art studios, additional science rooms and a new facility, computer suites.
The Centenary Building was opened by Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, in 1987 and the school continued to thrive, despite the loss of direct grant status which removed 40% of students from the roll.
Approaching the new century: overcoming tragedy
In 1997, a major fire during the school holidays gutted the central part of the school and destroyed a great deal of school archives. It was a considerable feat that the school was able to open at the start of term, just 30 days later.
It required fortitude and resilience to run a school around a major building site, but Headmistress Mrs Baker rose to the challenge. As part of the restoration, an additional floor was added to the main house, again expanding the school’s facilities.
Recent years: a first-class education for girls today
Ongoing investment by the GDST has seen Sydenham High’s facilities continue to expand. A Performing Arts Centre was opened in 2006, comprising a 90-seat Recital Hall, the 152-seat Westwood Theatre, and the assembly hall was renamed Longton Hall and refitted to provide concert and performance facilities.
In 2009, the Junior School development added classrooms, new playgrounds and specialist facilities for teaching Science, Art, ICT and languages.
Over the summer of 2011, the Sixth Form Centre was refurbished, providing a patio area overlooking the astroturf, a new common room, study rooms and reconfigured classrooms.
Most recently, the historic Senior School dining hall was refurbished and extended in 2014 to include a glass orangery, new serving area and new state-of-the-art kitchens; while in 2016 the Junior School entrance was upgraded to include a new staircase, reception area and glass-panelled mezzanine area.