The school's history goes back over one hundred and sixty years to 1849 when the Trust Deeds were drawn up and the renowned Victorian architect, Anthony Salvin, designed an Infants schoolroom and mistress’s house in Fortis Green, Muswell Hill, on land given by the Earl of Mansfield who lived at Kenwood. The building was used for St. James Church Sunday School as well. For over sixty years it was the only elementary (primary) school in Muswell Hill.
More classrooms were added over the years, but the age of the buildings, plus restricted size of the classrooms and playgrounds, meant that the school needed to move. It left Fortis Green in 1968 and moved to a newly designed building on a much larger site in Woodside Avenue, backing on to Highgate Woods, where St. James School has continued to flourish.
The school in Fortis Green opened for Infants on 25th July 1850, the feast of St. James. From the start, it was in union with the National Society, an organisation set up in 1811 to promote Church of England elementary education for the poor. So the school was referred to locally for many years as ‘the National School’. Children attended from a wide area, as they still do today. Starting with 52 children, the numbers rose to 82 in 1860. An extra classroom was needed and this was completed in 1862, giving the frontage of the school a very similar appearance to when the building was vacated in 1968.
Attendance was a major problem for many years as young children found it difficult to get to school in snow, extreme cold and heavy rain. Often parents of older children, particularly the girls, kept them at home to help with household chores and younger siblings. Infectious diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough and measles were very common and kept many children at home for weeks on end.
At first the curriculum was Religious Instruction and the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic. The children attended church every week also. The older girls learned to sew and darn as they went into domestic service when they left school. By the 1880s attendance had improved, more children stayed longer at school and they learned more subjects such as grammar, science, history and geography. By the end of the century older girls learned cookery and the older boys woodwork. In June 1900 there were 223 pupils on roll, divided into an Infants department and a Mixed department of boys and girls.
In 1903 the school became the responsibility of the new Borough of Hornsey Education Committee with the Vicar, four Foundation Managers and two Local Authority Managers in charge governing the school. The first Headmaster, Walter Penn, joined the school in 1912. He was followed by a succession of headmasters until the present Headteacher, Ms. Carol O’Brien, joined in 1992.
In the 1930s, St. James School was re-organised into Junior Mixed and infants. On 1st September 1939 the school was evacuated to Trumpington near Cambridge. Mr. Ivor Plant, the Headmaster, wrote a very interesting account of the first few weeks in the new environment and a description of Christmas celebrations when 100 parents joined their children for the day. The school returned to Muswell Hill in August 1940. From then on its reputation for excellence grew and the Local Authority and the Managers started looking for a new site in 1958. Eventually the old Cranley Gardens Railway Station was purchased and excited children and teachers moved into the brand new building in Woodside Avenue on 11th June 1968, which the Bishop of Willesden consecrated in October that year.
Since then the building has been updated, playgrounds improved and classrooms refurbished so that the crucial work of educating our children to the highest standards can continue in the tradition established when the school first opened its doors in 1850.
The close link to St. James Church continues today with the church well represented on the current Governing Body.
For more details see Fight the Good Fight by Janet Owen, on sale at the school and in St James Church bookshop, price £4.00. All proceeds go to the Friends of St James School.
The school in 1950, its Centenary Year
A sketch of school desks in 1861