Here at Oxford High, we are proud of our history and our reputation as one of the leading schools in Oxfordshire. The following timeline illustrates some of the key dates from our 145-year school history.
The Girls’ Public Day School Company is founded under the patronage of Princess Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and passionate supporter of women’s rights and education
Oxford High School opens under the headship of Ada Benson in the Judge’s Lodgings on St Giles. It is the eighth school in the Company and fees are held at nine guineas a term in Kindergarten and fifteen guineas in the Senior School so as to attract girls from a wide social range. The fear that daughters of the gentry might catch ‘High School manners’ soon proves unfounded and the school’s emphasis on academic achievement helps obliterate social distinction.
A school Inspector notes that ‘the interest shown by the Scholars [is] far above the average.’
Following the resignation of Ada Benson due to ill health, Miss ME Bishop, who was on the original teaching staff, returns to OHS as Headmistress.
The school holds its first Prize Giving, to which girls wear white dresses with pale blue sashes (there is otherwise no uniform at this time). The above picture is from a dress-making lesson.
The school moves to purpose-built lodgings at 21 Banbury Road, designed by renowned Oxford architect Sir Thomas Jackson.
Under the headship of Miss Bishop, the school adopts the motto ‘Ad Lucem’ and the sunflower emblem. Miss Bishop also writes the school song 'To the Sunflowers' and oversees the publication of the first issues of the school Magazine.
The Guild of Charity, latterly known as the Guild of Service, is founded. Its founders choose as motto "Disce, doce, dilige" and declare that the underlying principle of the work of the Guild should be "self-denial for Charity's sake."
Two OHS girls win scholarships to attend university at a time when girls still weren’t eligible to receive degrees from orthodox universities (though by the 1870s women were allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge without matriculation).
Miss Lucy Soulsby arrives as new headmistress from Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Miss Soulsby introduces Chemistry to the curriculum with the mollifying addendum that needlework must continue to ‘hold its own in spite of the modern demand on girls’ brains.’ The above photograph shows a chemistry lesson in progress.
The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) offers his services as a mathematics tutor at Oxford High School and proves very popular – though following a comprehension test he passes only 8 out of the 23 students who attend his lectures and recommends only 6 as being able to continue the course!
As a token of his esteem, Dodgson gifts several signed copies of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass (including a German translation) to the school.
Social Club for Old Girls founded.
Reading Club is founded. Perhaps it is at this time that the school acquires its three-volume first edition of Jane Eyre?
A new emphasis on physical education proves so popular that OHS alumna Janet Vernon Harcourt subsequently establishes her own school on the bracing Norfolk coast where PE is taught for over 10 hours a week and the entire school turns out once a year to play the Headmistress’ own sport of ‘Valley Ball’ which entails dividing the school into two teams, finding the steepest valley in the local area and tossing a ball into it with the object of getting the ball to the top of the other team’s side of the valley. Sports at OHS are somewhat less fearsome at this time and include hockey, rounders and ‘prisoner’s base’.
Miss Leahy becomes headmistress.
OHS girls anticipate the modern trend for wild swimming as they begin swimming lessons at the Rhea Bathing Place, a pool fed by the Cherwell situated not far from LMH. In summer, the bravest girl had to dive into the pond-weed covered water and clear the surface each time they were to swim. ‘We saw a drowned cow float downstream one rather flooded summer, but that put no-one off swimming in the same water.’ (Trixie Walsh, Recollections)
OHS girls send ‘comforts’ to the troops in the Boer War.
OHS girls contribute to the wreath subscribed for by ‘7000 girls and mistresses belonging to the Girls’ Public Day Schools Company Ltd.’ to commemorate the passing of Queen Victoria.
The indomitable Ms RM Haig Brown (middle row, third right) becomes headmistress. She will remain so until 1932.
An optional uniform is introduced consisting of straw hats with sunflowers on the hatbands, ties (at the girls’ request), box-pleated tunics and long brown stockings. The girls love their uniforms so much they even wear it during the holidays, perhaps because it is optional. Prior to the Great War, the most significant moment for the girls, sartorially speaking, is when they turn 17, at which point they are permitted to lengthen their skirts and wear their hair up. Gloves are also of great importance; to be seen in public without your gloves buttoned is a grave misdemeanour.
The new Kindergarten, Studio and Boarding House are established – the latter will accommodate boarders for the next 74 years, until 1977.
The first County Council Scholar arrives from Berkshire, reflecting the school’s ongoing commitment to widen access to a good education across social and economic divides.
The girls copy from the girls of Worcester High School the habit of walking with their arms folded behind their backs. Is this to improve posture, or keep hands out of mischief and gloves resolutely spotless?
The first OHS boarding house, St Frideswide's, is established under the care of Miss Crosse (pictured here beside Miss Haig Brown, holding dog). During the war years the number of boarders steadily increases so that, by 1920, two further boarding houses, St Bruno's and St Hilary's, are required. However, St Frideswide's remains the largest and most well-established.
During the years of the Great War, much of the girls’ spare time is taken up raising money for the troops through plays, sports, dances and tournaments, as well as preparing and sending parcels and ‘hospital bags’ to the wounded and to POW camps. Working-parties are held by the girls for the making of warm garments, and entertainments are given to wounded soldiers. A hearty welcome is also extended to Belgian friends who became incorporated as members of the
Trixie Walsh recollects her childhood years as an OHS Boarder at St Frideswide's as a period of idyllic happiness and innocence: "Moored by some meadow beyond LMH, we spread rugs to eat and loll, then we chased each other with goosegrass before getting down to the serious business of the wild flower competition - and what a profusion of flowers you could pick: ragged robin, meadowsweet, kingcups, flags, cowslips, loosestrife, forget-me-nots. As for our lunch, it is strange, the magic wrought by picnics: how curling bread, with a tinny flavour, can taste so much better than bread and jam on a plate in the dining-room."
OHS embraces an experiment in self-government when rules are abolished and each member of the school is ‘responsible for its own order and discipline.’
In March, when Her Majesty Queen Mary receives the degree of D.C.L. by diploma from the University of Oxford, she and Princess Mary stop by at the gates on their way to visit the Women's Colleges. The Queen graciously accepts a bouquet presented by the School and Princess Mary a bouquet presented by the School Company of Girl Guides. Her Majesty's request for a whole holiday is greeted 'with enthusiasm'.
To celebrate the school's 50th birthday, there is a garden party at St Hugh's College in July and then a dinner in October, at which over 300 old girls and former staff visit the 'decorated and illuminated school'. A Latin ode ‘Ad Lucem’ is written by Janet Bacon and sung at the Jubilee Dinner, after which it becomes an accepted and established school song, replacing the old school song ‘To the Sunflowers’.
Miss Haig Brown describes the archetypal Oxford High School girl: she is someone who ‘came as a new girl on November 3rd 1875 and has the secret of perpetual youth, as she is not now appreciably older than then…She varies the fashion of her hair; at one time she liked to wear it long and flowing, at another in pigtails, at another cut short, and just lately she has been wondering whether to let it grow…She is light-hearted and heavy-footed…A sound very dear to her is the sound of her own voice…She has taken fifty-four years trying to learn to spell disciple and has not done it yet – still less success has she had with the spelling of Pharaoh.’
Miss Haig Brown retires, having served as Headmistress for thirty years. Affectionately known as 'Caesar' for her powers of command and organisation, she is also beloved for that way that "She never despaired of any, and her belief in their capacity to pull themselves together must have been the salvation of many."
Miss Margaret Gale (pictured) replaces Miss Haig Brown and - in the three short years of her tenure - acquires 18 Bardwell Road (the present Prep School site) and 3 Bardwell Road for the accommodation of the Prep School and Forms I-III, as well as a new Boarding House. "The life of the spirit was in her so intense and so real that one was never unaware of it. She was consumed by an inward fire."
The Guild adopts a school in Tonypandy, South Wales, and sends clothes and gifts to the children there.
The most popular sports played at this time are hockey, lacrosse and netball, though cricket and tennis are also keenly followed.
Miss Gale is tragically struck by lightning and retires as Headmistress, to be replaced by Miss VE Stack (pictured), formerly Headmistress of Wimbledon High School.
OHS girls keep themselves busy during the war years putting up evacuees from other schools, including the entirety of Kensington High School. They also collect books and toys, volunteer in a play centre for evacuees, adopt a ship (the SS Empire Morn) and work on the school allotment and in harvest camps. They additionally find time to win Scholarships and Exhibitions and found a Russian Club, a Literary and Debating Society and a Beekeepers’ Club.
Beekepers’ Club proves extremely popular during the lean years of WWII due to the fact that each member gets to keep a quota of the honey produced at a time when the sugar ration is so low. "The school bees, in a laudable spirit of service, have produced over 100 pounds of honey." Beekeeping continues at the school today (see above).
OHS gains continued recognition as a Direct Grant School, leading to the allocation of more free and reserved places.
The Squirrel School, which will one day form the basis of OHS Pre-Prep, is founded by Sally Bell, a devout Balliol don, and Miss Elsie ‘Lemmie’ Lemon. It soon adopts on an official basis the nickname given to it by the children in honour of the squirrel that visits them each day during break-time.
OHS buys the land on which the current Senior School is established – and none too soon; the current accommodation of the school on Banbury Road is described by the Oxford Magazine as ‘living proof that brains and character are not wholly dependent on bricks and concrete.’
The Duchess of Gloucester visits the school and lays the foundation stone of the new Senior School.
The Senior School moves to its new site at Belbroughton Road.
The bust of Deirdre by Sir Jacob Epstein arrives at Belbroughton Road, where she still presides over the central courtyard.
The first school play to be acted on the new stage is a production of Hamlet with the role of Gertrude played by Miriam Margolyes.
Miss Stack retires after 22 years as Headmistress, to be replaced by Miss Hancock, formerly Headmistress of Sheffield High School.
The new school pool is opened by Miss Stack.
New Headmistress Miss Hancock encourages ambitious productions, including OHS’s first foray into opera (Dido and Aeneas), Doctor Faustus and Murder in the Cathedral.
Baroness Mary Warnock, the well-known philosopher and fellow of St Hugh’s College, replaces Miss Hancock as Headmistress and stays long enough to conceive plans for a new music block before returning to a distinguished career in public service.
Elaine Kaye assumes the Headship of OHS and manages the transition of the school through the abolition of the Direct Grant.
The new music block opens.
The new Art & Textiles block opens.
Joan Townsend becomes Headmistress and oversees the creation of the new Sports Hall (1984), Sixth Form Block (1990) and Junior Block (1991).
To celebrate the 120th anniversary, a series of Birthday Lectures are held, featuring ex-Headmistress Baroness Warnock and alumna Ann Pasternak Slater, among others.
Felicity Lusk becomes Headmistress of OHS.
Oxford High School amalgamates with the Squirrel School and Greycotes to provide an education for girls from 3 to 18.
The new school buildings are opened by Miriam Margolyes.
Judith Carlisle is appointed Headmistress and leads initiatives such as 'The Death of Little Miss Perfect', which seeks to eliminate unhelpful perfectionism.
The new Marbles Court - based on a design incorporating the Fibonacci Sequence by alumna Amber Kim (2015) - is completed on the site where generations of OHS girls used to play marbles.
OHS appoints its first male Head, Dr Philip Hills, who oversees the building of the new Sixth Form and Art facilities.