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: