The School Detective

Searching for the History and
Architecture of Your School Building

The History of Canonbury Primary School, Islington

as seen by

The School Detective


This is about looking closely at buildings and, in Asa Briggs' words, ‘reading them like books.' Each building was built at a particular time, in materials which were available to the architect at that time, in a style which was old or new at the time, designed for a particular use, and at a particular cost, extravagant or mean. The use may have changed. The site may have expanded or become smaller. There may have been later additions, perhaps in different materials.

A school detective does not look at a building standing still, but as something changing through time. The detective sees the ground before there was a building; how, when and why it was built and how its use has changed. As she/he looks at it, the detective collects hundreds of clues about a building. The detective notices the design, building style, local variations in building materials, cost, and the effects of national history. All these affected the building in some way.

Canonbury Primary School building, with its long history, situated as it is on the edge of devastating bomb damage, is an interesting example to study. It is full of clues for those who have sharp eyes. To others who are unobservant, it is just a pile of old bricks. That is their hard luck. Let the rest of us enjoy what we can find.

A Summary of the Development of Canonbury Primary School

Compton Terrace in 1806 with Union Chapel in the centre.

The original Union Chapel, in Compton Terrace, was opened in August 1806 as a place where all religious denominations could pray and sing together. This was a new area, with houses being built all around. The congregation was very concerned with education and okly a year later, in 1807, a Girls School for 50 girls was established and a parallel Boys School of the same size, in 1814.

In 1829 the Union Chapel took over the British School in Compton Mews No doubt there had been close links between them for well before this. The school building was roughly where Dixon Clark Court now stands. Fees were two pence a week for boys and four pence a week for girls, with the provision of a clean apron each week. This arrangement continued until 1877, when the London School Board built a new school and the the children moved across.

School buildings varied, but the majority would have consisted of two large rooms for Boys and Girls, perhaps with a smaller one for Infants. The classes were arranged in age groups, sitting on forms and taught by one or two teachers. They were helped by some older pupils who acted as monitors, taking small groups for parts of the day. The whole arrangement limited what could be done and how the children could be taught.

  • Unity Chapel Girls School was opened in 1807
  • Unity Chapel Boys School was opened 1814
  • British School opened nearby before 1829
  • This was taken over by Unity Chapel, 1829
  • The School Board of London was created in 1870
  • It built and opened Canonbury Infants School in 1876
    and Canonbury Boys and Girls School in 1877
  • The building was enlarged 1910 and a new School-keeper's House built
  • Playground enlarged about 1966
  • New Entrance and Office Extension were built about 1995


The Early History of the area

In 1800 Canonbury was still a place of open fields, far outside the walls of the City of London, as it had always been. A few large houses had been built for the well off. Their families could live in the clean air of Islington while the father of the family could drive to his warehouses and back each day. By 1806 Compton Terrace and Unity Chapel were being built. Upper Street was still a gravel road. It would not be covered with tar macadam for a number of years.

The Booth Map of London Poverty 1889-90

We can use the Booth Poverty map to compare the sites of Canonbury School and Queen's Head Street School nearer The Angel. People may like to contrast the two areas.

The Booth Poverty Map 1889-90

Charles Booth (not to be confused with General Booth of the Salvation Army) was a wealthy business man who refused to believe that a million Londoners lived in 'great poverty', as radical politicians claimed. Soon after 1890 he started a long survey to prove them wrong, the first really careful survey of how people lived and worked. Booth divided people into eight groups H-A, but coloured in his maps in seven colours ranging from'Wealthy' to'The Lowest Class' as follows:

Wealthy (three or more servants; houses rated £100 or more)
Well to do (one or two servants)
Working class comfort
Comfort mixed with poverty
Standard poverty
Very poor

The lowest grade

Booth published coloured maps of the streets of London showing their status.

Uses of the Booth Poverty Maps in this website.

How The Survey Was Compiled

The information was collected by teams of people who interviewed the local clergy, police, teachers, and others with particular knowledge of the local areas. One of the main sources of information was the School Board Visitors. Their original qualification was the ability to run faster than the children, and so catch truants, but they became far more than that, compiling unrivalled local knowledge. It was their duty to visit every house in every street and make notes on each family with children of school age. This began a few years before the children reached school age and continued until the last child in the family had left. Many of the Visitors worked in the same area for a number of years, so their knowledge of individual families, the fathers' occupations, family income, family circumstances, etc. was extensive.

The Collection of Booth material, which is stored at London School of Economics, includes 392 note-books of house to house surveys, 55 volumes including records of interviews, and 6 boxes of 25' O. S. maps hand coloured to show degrees of poverty. The seventeen volume survey analyzed this material, but the original notebooks, terse and immediate, are sharp and alive. Quick notes written on the hoof as raw material for more ponderous sentences later, but worth reading in their own right.


The Booth Map of London Poverty shows that the neighbourhood of Upper Street was generally prosperous [Red and Pink], and so were some parts south of Essex Road , but there were many streets about St James the Apostle and St Bartholomew which were very poor [Blue and Dark Blue}.

Thus Canonbury Primary in its Red and Pink streets of Highbury Corner was built in a completely different kind of area from Queen's Head Street School which was placed among streets of very poor people. The contrast between the two sites could hardly have been greater.


Education before 1870, when the Compulsory Education Act was passed

Before compulsory education was introduced in 1870, there were several forms of education run by different bodies. The Established Church of England ran schools, called National Schools, which taught the beliefs of the Church of England. Religious dissenters and Methodists considered this to be dogma and did not wish their children to hear it, so they tended to run their own schools. These were called British schools. The Roman Catholics also ran their own schools. Besides these there were private schools of widely different quality, ranging from the old established Grammar Schools, through Dame Schools of different sizes, to appalling places like Dotheboys Hall, which Dickens describes in Nicholas Nickleby. There were also Ragged Schools for the very poor.

School buildings varied, but the majority would have consisted of two large rooms for Boys and Girls, perhaps with a smaller one for Infants. The classes were arranged in age groups, sitting on forms and taught by one or two teachers. They were helped by some older pupils who acted as monitors, who took small groups for parts of the day. The whole arrangement limited what could be done and how the children could be taught.

St. Giles in the Fields New National School:
Interior of the Boys’ Schoolroom.

This pictures shows a typical building being used as a school. It was just a large open space like a church or a public hall. It had not been designed as a school.

The government contributed ‘not more than £20,000 per annum' to all of these schools put together. This meant very little to any one school and so almost all the money had to be raised in fees, or by collections.


The Opening of the new Canonbury School in 1877

(A very brief history which will be enlarged on later)

Canonbury Road School opened on 13th August, 1877, with 142 children, including pupils from the British School in Compton Mews. A temporary iron building had been opened on 15th May of the previous year for Infants, so the Infants were there for more than a year before the older boys and girls came across from the Union Chapel School next door in Compton Mews.

In 1877 there were 239 places for Boys and Girls and, from 1976, 148 places for Infants. By 1883 the school was overcrowded and in 1884 pupils had to be refused entry for lack of space..

There were 307 girls in five classes, varying from 84 to 46 pupils. There were a Headteacher, 5 assistant teachers, one part time senior teacher and one part time junior teacher. The figure for the Boys and Infants have not been found.

In 1896 forty people applied for a single teaching post. A Miss Walker was appointed at £85 a year.

The school was lit by gas until 1952, when electricity was installed.

The School was enlarged in 1891 and again in 1910. In 1896, ex-pupil teachers salaries were increased from £26 per annum to £45. (£45 is exactly the sum I was given as a Pupil Teacher in 1934, before going to college).

An entrance and outdoor toilets were incorporated inside the building in 1972.

This has been a very brief account of how the school arose. There is much more which could be written about the history of the school, the teachers, the pupils, but this essay concentrates on how the building itself has been changed over the years.

Cannonbury School

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