Greenwich National School of Industry and Excellence for Girls

I’ve been meaning to talk about this at-first-rather-dull-looking building for some time. It is, of course, the church hall of St Alfege, and anyone who’s been inside will recognise the classic traditional British church hall as seen up and down the country. Slightly scruffy cream walls? Check. Low stage, filled with sundry stored stuff? Check. Old fashioned loos? Check. Noticeboard for sundry Stuff Going On? Check. Comforting, lingering aroma of tea urn and custard creams? Check.

But unlike most church halls, this one has a whole previous history of its own, and much as with the delightful transformation of the Old Brewery (not much younger) into – well, a brewery, actually, the old place is just being used again for purposes not a million miles from its original concept.

We need to go back much further than 1815, though, when the building was first opened, to find its source.

1640, actually, when a dashing Cavalier (‘wrong but romantic,’ if I recall, from my copy of 1066 And All That…)  John Roan (yeah, him – we’ll actually get to him one day…) was caught red handed recruiting soldiers for the King’s Army by Oliver Cromwell’s lot (‘right but rotten…’), flung in jail and ’stripped of all he had and in great necessity and want, ready to starve’. His brother refused to have anything to do with him, so it was up to his mate Richard Wakeham, to bust him out of stir (well, okay, ‘obtain his release…’)

When he died, he didn’t forget Wakeham, and being childless himself, he left his cash to his wife and Wakeham’s daughters, and to set up a fund to educate poor children of Greenwich.

Of course, ‘children’ in those days meant ‘boys’ and although the fund snowballed into a charity that every Greenwich person of quality wanted to be seen to support, the school that was set up in Roan’s name was very much single-sex.

It took until 1814 for the vicar, George Matthew, presumably bearing in mind Roan’s bequest to Wakeham’s daughters, suggested the radical idea of educating poor girls too. I guess it’s a sign of the go-for-it  times that it only took a year to find £130 from the Roan Estate and open the National School of Industry and Excellence for Girls – what was to eventually become the Roan School for Girls.

If you look a little closer at the church hall, it begins to become clearer that at least part of it is is Georgian. Plain Georgian, I’ll agree – no Regency stucco or elegant columns here – but honest, solid Georgian nonetheless.

Obviously no one expected girls to be able to understand complicated things like boys could, which is where the ‘industry and excellence’ bit comes in. Poor girls were taught the sort of things they needed to work for a living – which in this case, mainly meant needlework. I am told that that’s the reason why there are so many large windows in the place – to allow natural light to enter.

The Roan Schools went from strength to strength. Sheer numbers soon outgrew the original building, and were moved to new premises. By 1653 there were 630 boys and girls being educated by Roan.

The building, being so close to the church, made an ideal church hall, and thus it has been ever since, serving the parish when needed and being hired out at other times.

And now, they have a new hirer. Sewing Time will be there every Tuesday, teaching if not the same, very similar skills – sewing, knitting, crochet and embroidery – to all comers (men included this time) on a pay as you go club every Tuesday.

So the wheel turns. It just leaves me with one question.


Local – of course. But what part of the Greenwich National School of Industry and Excellence for Girls was national?

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2 Comments to “Greenwich National School of Industry and Excellence for Girls”

  1. National probably because it was supported by the National Society for Promoting Religious Education, one of the two or three organisations that ran local schools — outside the public/fee-paying system — until the 1870 Education Act made primary education compulsory.

  2. Fair enough – I’ll buy that…