Some years after closing the Welsh School in Ashford, Middlesex, a collection of their early books were donated to the National Library of Wales. The collection has now been catalogued and available for the public to request individual items to view in our reading room.
This is the first of two blogs which will provide the historical context to the collection. This blog gives a brief history of the school and its books. The second blog, which will be published next week, will discuss the supporters and subscribers of the school.
The school was first established by ‘The Honourable and Loyal Society of Antient Britons’ under the name of the ‘British Charity School’ in the Clerkenwell area of London in 1718. It was also known as the ‘Welsh Charity School’. When placed in its historical context, the school belonged to a ‘Welsh Renaissance’ when London became a destination for many Welsh individuals and societies who wanted to promote and the richness and depth of Welsh culture and heritage.
The story of the school’s establishment began with the leasing of a room in Hatton Garden in 1718 with just twelve pupils. In 1737, subscriptions started to be collected in order to begin the process of building a permanent building. Contributions from nobility and aristocracy with links to Wales were gathered so that a piece of land in Clerkenwell Green could be bought to build a school on it. Amongst the first patrons of the school was the naturalist from Wales Thomas Pennant, who contributed £100 towards the cost of building the new school in Gray’s Inn Road.
The school was initially founded as a charity school to educate poor children in London who were of Welsh descent and it was maintained financially by voluntary contributions. The location of the school moved in 1772 from Gray’s Inn Road, London, and then onto Ashford, Middlesex, in 1857 before it changed into a girls only school in 1882 with a new name, ‘Welsh Girls School’. It closed officially in 2009.
During its history, which nearly spanned 300 years, the school changed from being an educational institution for underprivileged boys and girls with an emphasis on learning a trade and vocational skills, to being by the time of its closure in 2009, a private, girls independent school. The school was re-named ‘St.David’s School’ in 1967.
‘The Society for Ancient Britons’, established in 1715, was one of the main patrons of the school and there were close links between the two from the school’s establishment with the Society’s meetings being held in the school when it was located in Clerkenwell and Gray’s Inn Road. The Society of Ancient Britons’ library of books was also held in the school and late on its library was inherited and incorporated by the school when the Society came to an end in 1787. Apart from the Society’s books, the school’s library included reading materials from other institutions, such as the Cymmrodorion Society and the ‘Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’. It had inherited the pamphlets and reading material which had belonged to the Cymmrodorion when that society was first dismantled in 1785. The above collections are now available to view here at the National Library of Wales.
Pupil numbers increased significantly during the first half of the 19th century. In 1837 there were 160 pupils (boys and girls) in the school and by 1857 there were 2,000 boys and 670 girls in the school. The Prince Consort (Queen Victoria’s son), in his speech at the opening ceremony of the new school on July 13, 1857 explained how the nature and constitution of the school had evolved since its founding. The basis of the type of education provided at the outset of the school emphasised vocational education and skills and apprenticeships to provide the pupils with a means for a livelihood. Equal attention was given to a Christian education and loyalty to the monarchy was also emphasised as the school was initially founded on March 1, 1718, the birthday of Princess Caroline. This also coincided with the national celebrations of St. David’s Day in Wales.
In the School Annual Report for 1900 it was noted that: ‘During the period previous to 1882 about 2,600 boys and about 900 girls were admitted to the benefit of the Institution. The children received board, clothing, and a sound, useful education; a great number of them were afterwards apprenticed to useful trades, others were fitted out and sent to the Colonies, others to sea, some to service and many became pupil teachers. There is evidence to show that many of these children became afterwards prosperous, useful, and loyal citizens…’.
In 1882 it was decided to close the old school and compensate those pupils who were enrolled at the school at the time. The new school was opened on 4 October, 1882 with the new name ‘Welsh School for Girls’ with the aim of being to provide higher education, with board and lodgings, for girls only. It was stipulated that the criteria for being accepted as a pupil was not dependant on where parents/children lived – the only stipulation was that at least one of the parents had been born in ‘the Principality of Wales, Monmouthshire, or in the parishes of Oswestry, Selattyn and Llanymynech in the shire of Salop (which is the old name for Shropshire)’.
Girls between the ages of 10-15 years of age were admitted to the school and their education was categorised based on its numerical value. Pupils who paid the higher tier would pay £32 for the year, intermediate tier education was £16 a year and foundation tier education provided free education and accommodation. The latter two groups were admitted based on their examination results, by the General Body of Subscribers for the school. The school’s convenient location in Ashford was promoted as an advantage with its close proximity to Ashford Railway Station being only 16 miles from London, 7 miles from Windsor and 25 miles from Reading, when travelling on the ‘London and South Western Railway’.
The nature of the curriculum was academic. Attendance figures for the school showed a significant increase in pupil numbers from 1882 when 54 pupils were registered to 1900 when 150 pupils had enrolled. However, just over a century later, the school closed its doors for the final time because of financial difficulties. A sad end for an institution which had played a key role in giving a haven to some of Wales’ most important literary and archival treasures.
Annual Reports for the Welsh School for Girls
Dictionary of Welsh Biography
‘A History of Wales’ – John Davies
This post is also available in: Welsh