From the Archives: The 125th anniversary of St Ignatius College

POST BY MAllen

St Ignatius College football team

On Friday 25 January 2020 the staff and pupils of St Ignatius College, Enfield attended a service at Westminster Cathedral to mark the 125th anniversary of the school, which fell on 10 September 2019 (click here for pictures).  St Ignatius College is a comprehensive school providing a Jesuit education for boys, and in the sixth form, for girls as well.  It is housed in modern buildings in Enfield, with sports hall, swimming pool, theatre, playground and playing field.  It is an academically successful school, with excellent results; two of last years’ A level pupils gained places at Cambridge University. 

In the Jesuit in Britain Archive we have material in our collection relating to St Ignatius College, which shows that despite experiencing financial and other difficulties at times, St Ignatius was a flourishing school from the time of its foundation, within a few years moving into purpose-built accommodation and sending boys on to the top universities.  In this post we will look at the first 25 years of St Ignatius College’s existence, from 1894-1919.

St Ignatius College opened on 10 September 1894 at a site in Stamford Hill where it remained until 1968. It had 46 boys enrolled, and by 14 October, when a note was published in the internal Jesuit magazine Letters and Notices, there were 52 boys, with several others awaiting admittance.  The boys came from all over North East London, and from central London too, with two travelling up from Russell Square.  The boys’ travel arrangements were eased by the proximity of 3 railway stations on the Midland, Metropolitan and Great Eastern railways. 

Two properties had been bought for St Ignatius College, a pair of semi-detached houses named Morecombe Lodge and Burleigh House.  Initially the school only occupied Morecombe Lodge, because Burleigh House was occupied by a community of Anglican women called the Sisters of the Faith, who had rather strained relations with their new neighbours, not least because boys from the school stole eggs from their hen house.  Within a year, the Sisters had moved out and the school occupied both buildings.  The two houses had long gardens running down to the Great Eastern Railway tracks, and the gardens were soon turned into playing fields, which although cramped were well used.

The location of the school had some drawbacks, one of which was being on the High Road, one of the main thoroughfares out of London, on the way to Epping and beyond.  This is noted in the very first account of the school, in 1894:

‘…the fate of a bicyclist lately, who fell opposite our gate.  The day was rainy, the roads muddy, and … the cyclist fell into the mud… Numerous breaks pass the door laden with men out for a holiday.  Every break carries a cornet.  The noise is bad enough as they pass in the morning, but the noise is worse when towards midnight the cornet comes back with evident signs of having been out all day.  Paper lanterns are hung round the breaks, magnesium wires are lighted, choruses are sung and all through the cornet does its best.’  [A break or brake was an open horse drawn carriage which could accommodate several passengers]

This noisy thoroughfare continued to be a problem throughout the 64 years the school was at Stamford Hill.   In 1921 the school Record complained about the noise, saying ‘it was getting beyond a joke’, even though the College already had double glazing.  The writer went on to remark:

‘The architect tells me that the road was quite quiet when the College was built, and that it was the unforeseen traffic of electric trams, motorbuses, charabancs, trailers, steam, petrol and electric lorries, wagons full of barrels, of cans, of bales, of iron bars, which cause the noise.’

Much of the impetus for founding St Ignatius College had come from Cardinal Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, and after the foundation he continued to support it, visiting on Prize Day in November 1895, and again the following year.  His brother, Jesuit Fr Bernard Vaughan SJ, who was something of a celebrity preacher, visited for Prize Day 1897 and gave an address titled ‘Man’s Life a Life of Service’, which was ‘much appreciated by our audience of boys, boys’ parents and other boys’.  After Cardinal Vaughan died in 1903, bursaries were given in his memory for 6 local boys from Stamford Hill to receive a free education.  The tradition of the Cardinal Archbishop supporting the school continued, with Cardinal Vaughan’s successor, Cardinal Bourne addressing the school at the Prize Day on 17 November 1911.

Numbers of pupils continued to increase, already by 1897 there were 120 boys, in 1906 this had grown to 150, and by 1918 there were 300.  Although at times it proved difficult for the school to retain boys for more than a year or two, the school started to show some very good results in external examinations.  The first outstanding scholar was Clifford Boyd, who in 1900 gained the highest marks nationally in the Oxford Local examinations and went on to win an Open Scholarship to read mathematics at Worcester College, Oxford.  This feat was mirrored a few years later by Thomas Cash, who in 1905 gained the national top marks in the Oxford Local Examinations, winning three scholarships allowing him to progress to University College London.  In 1913 the Reverend J Vance, a former pupil who had gone on to Cambridge University and then on to the University of Louvain, gained his PhD with highest honours and was appointed Professor of Mental Philosophy in St Edmund’s College.

Academic excellence was not the only aim.  Ambitious dramatic productions were staged from the earliest days, with ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ produced twice in the first six years, and ‘Julius Caesar’ in 1908, and yearly musical concerts.  There was a gymnastics club, a Literary and Debating Society, football teams – a First, Second and Third eleven in 1909, which played matches against several local schools and the Old Ignatians.

With increasing numbers and high academic ambitions, the school’s accommodation was found wanting almost from the start.  It was noted in 1897 that the buildings were so ramshackle that ‘bricks and mortar are more likely to plunge down on us’, and part of the playground wall collapsed.  In 1901 the buildings were remodelled with a large hall built at the end of the playground, close by the railway.  This was fitted with folding partitions so it could be divided into 4 classrooms.  Although this improved overcrowding, it was still not ideal, especially in the winter ‘as those who have seen our play-ground in wet weather can bear witness’.  However, it allowed two of the old school-rooms to be fitted out as Physical and Chemical Laboratories, with the result that practical science could be taught. 

However, the two houses which still accommodated most of the school were plainly inadequate, so new buildings were planned, with the architect Benedict Williams appointed to oversee construction.  The new buildings opened in the spring of 1907, with a gala opening on Saturday 6th April, although the building work was not completed until 1909.  St Ignatius Church, on the adjoining site, was not finished until 1911.

In 1907 St Ignatius College was recognised by the Board of Education, which meant that it gained a grant from the Local Education Authority and was no longer an entirely fee-paying school.  This had three results.  The first was that it could no longer refuse entry to a boy on religious grounds, which in practice did not have a great effect on the school because the actual number of non-Catholic boys remained small.  The second was that it had to offer at least 25% of its places without payment of fees.  And the third was that it had to be inspected by the Board of Education.  The first inspection was on the 15-17 March 1909, and the tone of the Inspector’s report was very encouraging, with the Preparatory Class and the Sixth Form coming in for special praise.  The recognition by the Board was a start of a process which resulted in the school being a large grammar school by 1967, and the even larger comprehensive school it is today, on a different site.

During the First World War of 1914-1918 the cellars and lower floors were used as air-raid shelters, with police marshalling the crowds of locals during air-raids.  The shelter was particularly used by the local Jewish community.  450 Old Boys served during the War, of whom 54 were killed, 19 were awarded honours and 3 were mentioned in dispatches. 

In 1919 the school held its Silver Jubilee celebrations.  An article was published in the Tablet on 29 November 1919 which looked back over the material and intellectual growth of the school since 1894 and stated:

It is hard to think that all this has been done in the brief span of twenty-five years.  But there it is, golden indeed though but silvern as reckoned in the tale of time; still twenty-five years more and it will be golden in name as well.  That is not a mere hope, but a conviction based upon what has already been achieved. 

The Silver Jubilee was marked by the school with the publication of a Jubilee Magazine, which included reminiscences, some in verse, of the first 25 years of the school:

One hundred years on from that Silver Jubilee celebration, St Ignatius College is still serving the needs of the Catholic community in North East London and providing it with an excellent education.

If you would like to make an enquiry to the Jesuits in Britain Archives or make an appointment, please contact us: archives@jesuit.org.uk.

Lucy Vinten-Mattich, Assistant Archivist