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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Mary Datchelor School

Mary Datchelor School crest Mary Datchelor School

Mary Datchelor House is an attractive apartment building at the foot of Camberwell Grove.  Over the entranceway to the steps that lead into the building is some decorative ironwork  that bears a coat of arms and some wording that points to the origins of the building:  


Founded 1726

My Trust is in God Alone

Mary Datchelor School


The origins of the school lie not in Camberwell but in the Parish of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London. At the beginning of the 18th century, three sisters lived in that parish who went by the name of Mary, Sarah and Beatrix Datchelor.  Sarah and Beatrix married, perhaps to brothers as both their married names were Cooke, whilst Mary remained unmarried.  She was the first to pass away in 1725 and Sarah and Beatrix passed away in 1727 and 1731 respectively.  It was Mary’s wish that a property they owned in Threadneedle Street was bequeathed to the parish and the income pay for the upkeep of the family tomb and the apprenticeships of two poor children from the parish each year, and the residue go to the poor of the parish.


The terms of the bequest were met for over a hundred years but by the middle of the 19th century, the demographics of the parish had changed to such an extent that there were now no more poor boys to apprentice and the residue was far too large to go towards the poor.  The property in Threadneedle Street that had in latter years been a coffee house variously known as Grisby’s Coffee House, The Dutch Coffee House and the Antigallican Coffee House, was sold in 1863 for £30,000.  The matter of how to spend this money went before the Charity Commissioners and in 1871 it was decided that £20,000 be used to found a girl’s school and the balance to go to the poor of the parish.  The school was primarily to be a day school for the education of middle class girls resident within the parish and secondly for girls of the same class who lived outside the parish. Trustees were appointed from the churchwardens and clergy of St Andrew Undershaft.

The Trustees purchased two houses at 15 and 17 Grove Lane that had been built on land where formerly the manor house had been situated.  The land extended at the rear to Camberwell Grove and the site purchased for just over £4,000 from the Misses Allen.  After the Trustees had made the decision to appoint a female head rather than a male, 97 applications were received for the position of which three were interviewed.  It was decided unanimously to appoint Miss Caroline Edith Rigg.  Her father was Dr Rigg, the Principal of the Westminster Training College, and she was currently the headmistress of the Hammersmith Board School. Although only 24, her abilities clearly shone through.  In her application, she wrote “Teaching with me is a passion and a pleasure, and loving my school and my work, I have found that my pupils love me.” She was to be a very successful headmistress and was indeed well loved.  


The school opened in January 1877 with 30 pupils aged between 8 and 16 who were taught in three classes, all except one came from outside the parish of St Andrew Undershaft. A first hand account of that first day was described by former pupil Miss Carpenter who was herself to return to the school as a teacher.


“As one entered there was a room on the left which was used as an office by the Secretary.  She received us an entered all necessary particulars.  Miss Rigg was present, small, very fair and very young looking, with her curls loosely tied together.  So young she looked (she was 24) that I remember my mother made the remark  ‘I hope Clara won’t be in her class – the little fair lady with curls;  she looks too young.’  Little did she realise the greatness of her personality and her many gifts.”


By May that year there were 100 pupils and 324 by the time the school had been open a year and considered to be full, indeed the school was outgrowing its original premises.  In 1879 the Charity Commission gave them permission to add additional buildings which were completed in 1881 and comprised an Assembly Hall and Dining Hall underneath, a Head Mistress’s room, a Museum, a Library and a total of eight more classrooms.  The ceiling of the hall and the ironwork on the stairs were decorated by the cross of St Andrew, a reminder of the school’s origins in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft where the pupils of the school attended a service annually.


By 1886 the number of pupils had risen to 450 but, partly because of the expenditure on the new buildings and partly for other reasons, the school was in financial difficulties.  Only two of the original trustees now survived, some had moved away, others had passed away.  The two remaining trustees now tried to find a corporate body who would take over the management of the school.  The Corporation of London declined as did other organisations but in 1893 the Clothworkers’ Company agreed to undertake the management of the school, declining an offer from the Vestry of St Giles to make a contribution. The Clerk of the Guild, Owen Roberts, a firm supporter of the education of women, was the guiding force behind the transfer. The coat of arms and motto photographed at the top of this page are those of the Clothworkers’ Company.  The ironwork has been damaged over the years - this is a photo taken in the early 1960s which shows the full coat of arms with a model of Mary Datchelor looking down.


The school flourished and more building works were undertaken in 1927.  Miss Rigg retired after 40 years in 1917, her successor Dame Dr Dorothy Brock retired in 1950 and was succeeded by Rachel Pearse and then Miss E B Godwin who was the incumbent when the school closed in 1981.


By the mid seventies, there had been many changes to education. Mary Datchelor School was still voluntarily aided by the Clothworkers’ Company while the Inner London Education Authority funded the teaching positions.  The school came under pressure from ILEA to become co-educational and comprehensive and, faced with this choice or becoming fully private, the school instead decided to close.  


After the school closed, the building became the headquarters for Save the Children Fund for many years.  In 2009 the building was converted into apartments, some of which were available on a shared ownership basis, and a row of new Georgian styled houses built facing onto Camberwell Grove.  


R Pearse (1957) The Story of Mary Datchelor School

Mary Datchelor School crest 1963

It was a sad day for the school when it closed but there is still a thriving Old Girls Association where fond memories are shared by former pupils.  Mary Datchelor, her sisters and the school are remembered by a short road called Datchelor Place on the other side of Camberwell Church Street.