Schools and Colleges

In the provision of education, 19th century England lagged not only behind her continental competitors but also behind neighbouring Scotland. For those children who did receive any education, and by that we mean little basic literacy skills, quality was hardly the watchword. Provision varied enormously from area to area and there were no state institutions of any kind.

In 1818 a survey showed that some 650,000 children were being educated at about 18,000 endowed and non-endowed schools. In addition to this there were about 15,000 Sunday Schools. Despite this, illiteracy was widespread and state aid to voluntary educational societies was prevented due to the deadlock between Anglicans and non-conformists over the kind of religious instruction to be given. The two main religious bodies providing education were the National Schools, which were Anglican, and the British and Foreign School Society, which was Non-conformist. In 1833, Parliament had voted £2.000 “for the purposes of education” to be shared by the two societies.1

The rivalry between these two groups was to hamper much educational progress for the rest of the century. In 1870, the government of William Gladstone stepped into the minefield of education, passing the first major act, that of Forster. This Act allowed for the continued existence of denominational schools, but in areas where they were deficient, School Boards were to be set up with the powers to organise schools and to enforce attendance between the ages of five and twelve. The new Boards were to be supported by the rates. Here lay the rub as Non-conformists were appalled at the thought of financing schools of the Anglican establishment. Once again the issue of religion raised its not too pretty head – what religious education there should be? It was decided that religious education should be neutral and taught the first lesson of the day so that objectors could withdraw their children without disrupting the school day.

“There are numerous chapels belonging to various bodies of Dissenters. There are National. Infant and Sunday Schools to most of the chapels”.2

In October 1870, Alderman Fowler brought forward a resolution instructing the Town Council to apply to the government Education Department for the formation of a school Board for the Borough. When authority was received, nominations for the Board were sought. As stated previously there was a great concern amongst churchmen, locally and nationally, that the school Boards would weaken their hold on the education of the young. In the event there were eleven people elected to the Wolverhampton Board including two independents, one Roman Catholic, two Wesleyans, four church and two liberals. Thus the Wolverhampton School Board was formed on November 28th, 1870, not long after the passing of the Act. At first the Board occupied rooms in Stafford Street later moving to purpose built premises.

The first business of the Board was to get returns for the number of children of school age for whom no provision was made. In the meantime they took over the British Schools in Walsall Street, the Chillington School, Monmore Green and the Ragged School in Salop Street and occupied premises in Stafford Street erected in 1885.

There was still the problem of religion, for in Wolverhampton church leaders were in the ascendancy. After much discussion the Board adopted a resolution similar to that of the London Board:

“That in all the schools provided by the Board the Bible should be read, and there should be such explanation given in the principles of religion as are suited to the capacity of the children. Provided that the intentions of the Act are strictly observed in letter and spirit, and no attempt is made to attach children to any particular denomination”.

In 1896 there were seven schools under the control of the Board, besides a day industrial school formerly the Ragged School. Schools controlled by the Board included Brickkiln Street, built in 1878 and enlarged 1894; Dudley Road built in 1873; Monmore Green, 1870; Walsall Street, 1895 and Willenhall Road built in 1875. These schools have a remarkable unity of design, which is hardly surprising. There are good examples on the Walsall Road and at Monmore Green of Board School architecture.3

The Royal School, Penn Road, Wolverhampton.

There are two schools outside the Ring Road that one cannot really omit, these being the Grammar School on the Compton Road and the Royal School on the Penn Road. The former dates from 1875 and was completed to a design by the architects Giles and Gough. It is built in the early Tudor style with a central gatehouse and a large hall of eight bays.

The Royal School owes its existence to an act of philanthropy by the Wolverhampton lock and key manufacturer John Lees.

The original school had occupied premises in Queen Street where Lees had opened an asylum and school. He was inspired by the number of children orphaned by the great cholera epidemic of 1849. From the start it was to be occupied by middle class children, for Lees believed that these had been hardest hit by the epidemic. Diseased and crippled children were not to be allowed; neither were more than two from the same family. Children attending school were to be raised on strictly Anglican principles. At first expense fell on Lees, but later a committee was appointed to raise public subscriptions. Those subscribing a guinea could become members of the institution and vote at the election of children.

At first the school was designed to serve the Wolverhampton area, but this was later reviewed when Lees decided to enlarge the school and bought a piece of land at Goldthorn Hill for this purpose. In 1852 an appeal was launched for a building fund. It was opened as Wolverhampton Orphan Asylum in 1854 to a design by the Corsham architect Joseph manning. There were many extensions to the building over the years. A new chapel was later added to the building in 1895 from a design by T.T. Beck, to seat four hundred. It is of cruciform plan with truncated transepts. One fine feature of the chapel is the carved reredos, which has a marble relief panel, which is copied from Da Vinci’s painting of the lest Supper.

The chapel is a treasure house of stained glass by C.E. Kempe and by Kempe and Co. Ltd. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the finest stained glass that the town has. No mere description can begin to convey the richness of colour and beauty of design. Many of the Kempe windows are signed with his wheat-sheaf crest, and all the C.E. Kempe and Co. windows bear the wheatsheaf and tower symbol. The east window and those in the transepts show episodes from the life of Jesus. The windows in the North Aisle show saints and Old Testament figures.

Another view of the Royal School.

In the South Aisle are Christian martyrs, St John the Evangelist and a delightful window showing Kings David and Solomon with their musical compositions, the Psalms and the Song of Songs. The fact that all the chapel’s glass comes from the same workshop gives it an overall unity which created a whole greater than the sum of its (individually magnificent) parts. It is a pity that the chapel cannot be seen by a wider public.

There is on the front lawn a large dramatic fountain, which has six carved panels showing Six Acts of Mercy. It was erected as a memorial to Mrs. Rogers.

The Higher Grade School in Newhampton Road East.

The strength and enduring quality of much 19th century school architecture, even for what were the relatively humble Board Schools, shows the esteem in which liberal Victorians saw the benefits which education should bring. One of the most solid and imposing of Victorian schools still remaining is the Higher Grade Day School in Newhampton Road. This fine building in high quality red brick was “organised to furnish a thoroughly good modern and practical education”, for those who intended to leave school about the age of fifteen. 
The designer of the school was one of Wolverhampton’s triumvirate of fine architects, T.H. Fleeming, and it was built by the local builder Henry Lovatt between 1893 and 1894.


1. It was not lost on contemporaries that this was the same sum that was spent that year on decorating the royal stables.
2. Kelly’s Directory, 1880.
3. One of the best Board Schools in the town is in Brickkiln Street where Edward Banks designed his model dwellings.

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