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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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The early days of the Cathedral School of

St Saviour's and St Mary Overie

Before moving to the current building in Red Cross Way in 1977, the Cathedral School of St Saviour and St Mary Overie was located in the building at the north west corner of Union Street and Redcross Way, now the Southwark Diocesan Board of Education’s headquarters.  Prior to this, the school had been located on what had been the Crossbones Graveyard.   The school has a long history that goes back to at least the early 18th century.  

Lant Street School Plaque St Saviours School Plaque St Saviours School

The former school building in Union Street

The origins of the former charity school attached to St Saviour’s Church (now Southwark Cathedral) are uncertain but it’s thought it was originally situated in Montague Close.  The school received a major bequest in 1713 by the terms of the will of John Collett, whose two sons had predeceased him.  An inscribed stone was affixed to some houses near the White Hart Inn in Borough High Street  that described the bequest: “These two houses, and the yard behind, containing eight dwelling houses and shed, with some vacant ground, were given to the charity school for boys, of the parish of Saint Saviour’s, Southwark, by John Collett, Esq, anno 1713.” ** By the terms of Collett’s will, the income was to be spent towards the “education, teaching, clothing, putting out to apprentice and setting to work the boys of the charity schools.”  


A new school was built on the former Crossbones Graveyard in 1791, paid for by voluntary contributions and consisting of a school room and a small retiring room for the Master.  The boys wore either red caps or blue caps, the former denoting those supported by Collett’s bequest and the latter supported by voluntary contributions.  In 1795 seventy boys were educated by Collett’s Gift and voluntary contributions and a further 20 by a bequest under the terms of Mrs Elizabeth Newcomen’s will.  There was also a girls’ school in the parish of St Saviour’s supported by voluntary contributions.


The schools arranged and paid a fee of between £3 and £5 for boys to enter into an apprenticeship at the age of 14. Amongst the trades the school arranged apprenticeships for were oar-markers, watermen, farriers, cloth workers, chair makers and blacksmiths. Running schools in such poor areas had its problems, and one was that the fee paid by the school for the apprenticeship never reached the apprentice master but was kept by the parents.  This had led to St Saviour’s paying the fee direct to the apprentice master and the agreement that the boy be bound to the instructions of the trustees rather than the parents.


Other problems included parents keeping children away from school to do paid work to increase the family income and also the parents pawning the clothes that had been given to the child as part of a bequest.  Expulsions were frequent, often due to stealing, bad language and “attitude”.  One boy was expelled for frequently playing truant, lying and forging a note in the name of another boy.  He had a reputation of being full of filthy and lewd expressions and profane cursing and swearing.  Another boy was expelled for pilfering from a local brewhouse, another for stealing 2 shillings from a shop.


In 1811, the SPCK formed the National Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, or the National Society for short.  The Society developed elementary education within a religious (Church of England) framework and St Saviour’s Charity School became a part of the National Society probably some time in the 1840s.  

Children who attended the parish charity schools were taught to recite the catechism which led to a growing opposition to the influence of religion in elementary schools run both by the parish and the ragged schools. This was one area addressed by the 1870 Education Act.  The Act set up School Boards in areas where charity and parochial schools were not able to supply sufficient places.  The School Boards had the power to build non-denominational,  state funded schools where they saw a need, and gradually absorbed the Ragged Schools.  Clearly they saw a need in Lant Street for in 1877 the Lant Street School was built and opened, one of seven board schools opened in the area.   In 1901 the Lant Street School was enlarged and in 1911 changed its name to the Charles Dickens School in honour of Charles Dickens who had once lodged in Lant Street.

In 1891 St Saviour’s charity school faced a crisis.  The boys school, located on a part of Cross Bones Graveyard, now required urgent repairs for new drains, and other sanitary alterations, not to mention the removal of human remains that were coming to the surface.  The cost of these works was high, and it was feared the school would have to close.  However, just in time, the Free Education Act 1891 was passed and, meeting certain criteria, the school received a grant to carry out the works.

St Saviour’s Church became Southwark Cathedral in 1905 and subsequently the former charity  school became known as the Cathedral School of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.   The same year, the London County Council which had taken over from the London School Board deemed the school’s premises unfit for the purposes of elementary education.  This led to a new school being built at 48 Union Street  and the school moved into these premises in 1908.  In 1977, the current school was built in Redcross Way on a site where some gloomy, late Victorian tenement blocks called Mowbray Buildings had recently been demolished. The school still receives £2,000 per annum from the John Collett Charity.

** Matthew Concanen and Aaron Morgan, 1795,The History and Antiquities of the Parish of St. Saviour's, Southwark

A plaque on the front elevation of 48 Union Street that denotes the time when building was home to St Saviour's School.