Thomas More in Purley: The school that was built on compassion
THOMAS More Catholic School celebrated its Golden Jubilee last year. Here, head teacher Margaret Mulchrone tells us more about the history of the Purley school
THE building that is now Thomas More Catholic School is set on a hill within Purley in a housing estate that grew up around the school in the inter-war years. It was originally designed by Birmingham architect John George Bland in the Venetian Gothic style. The original school was opened in 1866 and was known as the Warehousemen and Clerks New School. In 1962, the site was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Southwark and two new schools were opened, namely Thomas More Catholic School and Margaret Roper Catholic Primary School. The building was Grade II listed in February 1983.
In 1853, a group of clerks from the wholesale warehouses in the City wanted to help the widow and young family of one of their colleagues who had just died. They met in The George Hotel, in London, and set up a charity to look after orphan children from the families of their trade. Within a year they had more than a thousand subscribers and a school was purchased in New Cross.
Lord John Russell, the youngest son of the Duke of Bedford, and ex-Prime Minister, consented to be president of the new school founded by subscriptions. The school was established in 1853 as the Warehousemen, Drapers and Haberdashers School and opened by Edward, Prince of Wales with John Russell, Lord Russell as its president.
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By 1866, the school had grown considerably and moved to its present site in Purley, to new buildings that were opened by the Prince of Wales. The demand for more places for children orphaned by the First World War saw the school need to expand to a new campus. In the 1920s, the estate of Charles Hermann Goschen, Lord Lieutenant of the City of London, was donated to the trustees of the school. The school remained in site at Purley and, in 1924, Edward, Prince of Wales, laid the foundation stone(designed by Eric Gill and carved by his assistant Joseph Cribb) for the chapel on the Ballards site. Initially, it was only the boys who moved up to the Ballards site, the girls remaining at Purley.
During the Second World War, the boys and girls changed venues as it was thought safer to have the girls farther away from Croydon Airport. The school operated on two sites until it was decided to sell the Russell Hill site and combine girls and boys in 1961.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark bought the site in 1961 and in 1962 opened two new schools – Thomas More Catholic School and Margaret Roper Primary School – which are still operating on the site to this day.
The original building was designed by John George Bland, considered to be a regionally important architect.
The historic value is derived from the whole reason for its existence – that it is the result of human compassion, of the desire to look after the future of children of their co-workers who had died. It is a primary example of Victorian charity, the importance of which can be understood by the patronage received from Prince Albert.
The most significant communal value will be held by the people who either studied or worked at the school over the years, and the value that they give the school will be different for each individual, based upon their experience and memories of life in the school. The Royal Russell School archive includes stories and testimonies from Old Russellians, some dating back to the 19th century.
The real significance of this building lies in its origins as the Warehousemen, Clerks and Drapers School, a prime example of Victorian patronage and philanthropy, and the many people who were given the opportunity for a good education, well beyond their means, who went on to make a difference in the own spheres of influence, the significance of which is well beyond the scope of this article.