A crisp day in February 1899, just twelve years after the impressive opening of Queen’s Park, The Willesden School Board are meeting (perhaps inspired by all the newly-built family homes radiating from the park in row after row of red and yellow brick) to decide that a mixed sex school should be built on Salusbury Road “as an experiment”.
The School Board had grand hopes for their school, but before the building work could start a large pond had to be drained, where the school now stands. We can imagine in wet weather that it is the ghost of this pond surfacing around the tree in the front of the playground.
While the impressive new school rose at one end of Salusbury Road, a temporary corrugated-iron building (known locally as the ‘old tin school’) was set up at the other end where St. Anne’s old church hall used to stand. The temporary school housed over 553 children and won a glowing report from ‘Her Majesty’s’ Inspectors’ at the end of its first year in May 1901. The first Head, Mr. Mellor, was a charismatic and enlightened teacher, who wrote his own Arithmetic and English textbooks for the school and used ‘stereoscopes’ (presumably a close relation of Victorian ‘lantern-slides’) for geography teaching.
In 1902, the school decamped to its present premises, which the Willesden Chronicle noted had room for 1,260 children, including infants. It had a striking church-like, timbered hall, while Victorian expectations were expressed in the girls’ cookery and laundry centres and boys ‘manual instruction’ centre. The elaborate curlicue writing of BOYS and GIRLS over the doors survives as a souvenir of those confidently sexist days.
But in many ways early reports strike a surprisingly modern note.
The enormous mixed-age classes would almost certainly have been taught with the pinafored and collared children in serried ranks at risk of the cane for even- small mischief, but in 1906 the school had its verv own Parliament with pupil-candidates from both the girls’ and boys’ classes, which was apparently allowed some real autonomy.
It also had a very successful school magazine, with quizzes, sporting reports, essays and competitions, which appeared monthly until the First World War. It is clear that from its earliest days, Salusbury was a bustling, hugely lively school, with a strong sense of community. This was forged in the manner of the day through the gradual creation of sporting and house teams, a school motto and song, and a former pupils’ ‘association’, the Old Sols Guild.
On a daily basis, the school’s identity was strengthened by an assembly with the headmaster presiding from a ‘raised dais’ and music supplied by piano and violinists from the school’s own orchestra! Annually, in what one educational historian characterised as the period’s spirit of ‘easy patriotism and unthinking national pride’, Salusbury celebrated Empire Day with a half-day holiday and special songs, marches and prayers. And it is interesting to see this gradually metamorphose over time into ‘Commonwealth Day’, finally re-emerging in a 20th century democratic version, ‘International Evening’.
Some of the early formalities and customs may seem very fusty to us, but were part of the Board School movements campaign to provide an inclusive, high-quality education for local children, many of whom were very poor. Previously huge numbers of London children, not accommodated by the often excellent Church Schools or the hundreds of hugely variable private schools, simply went unschooled or were farmed out to work by desperate parents.
Salusbury School was therefore part of a nascent drive to professionalise education, offering its diverse community of pupils – from crossing-sweepers’ to clerks’ and drapers’ children – a rich, formal and very thorough education with the mandatory ‘3 Rs’ and religious instruction, supplemented by games, music, some science-teaching and crafts. The school was particularly serious about sports and, among others, boasted winning swimming teams, whose exploits are celebrated in successive newspaper reports in the early decades.