Through the years

Founded in 1898, the history of St Mary's School, Cambridge can be charted through the buildings that today form our Junior School, Senior School and Sixth Form – each one has a fascinating story to tell.

A 'quaint' beginning on Parker's Piece

In 1898, the nuns at the Bar Convent in York – England's oldest convent, founded in 1686 by Mary Ward – planned a boarding school in Cambridge. The accounts record the purchase of:

“ten beds and bedding complete for children’s dormitories at Cambridge” together with “eight wash-stands with drawers.”

On 13 August 1898, an advertisement in The Tablet announced that a high-class boarding school would be opening at Furness Lodge, Park Terrace, Cambridge that September.

On 3 October 1898, the School’s Journal records:

“We admitted two little girls as day pupils, Dorothy and Daisy Moore of Chesterton …. Dorothy is eight and Daisy five. They are quaint little children.”

And so, the story of St Mary's Cambridge began.

Key milestones in the growth of our School

1906: The Elms

In 1906, St Mary's School, Cambridge moved from Furness Lodge to 'The Elms' in Bateman Street, which is still part of our Senior School today.

Memo. 11 Oct 1906: "Furness Lodge was purchased for our first foundation in Cambridge for £3,000. It was too small, was surrounded by Theatre, Printing offices and objectionable Parker’s Piece. Sold to the Fishmonger from whom we purchased it, for £2,000. We purchased the Elms, a freehold property, for £6,000.”

29 March 1906: “The nuns at Cam, took up their abode at The Elms”.

Dr Benjamin Hall Kennedy

The Elms is connected to the history of women's access to education at the University of Cambridge. From 1869-1889 The Elms belonged to Dr Benjamin Hall Kennedy, Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University, “a fine scholar and a kindly and energetic man.”

Dr Kennedy was much in favour of higher education for women and gave immense support to Miss Emily Davies, the Foundress of Girton College and Miss Anne Jemima Clough, the first Principal of Newnham College: the University of Cambridge’s original colleges for young women.

At a time when no men’s colleges would permit young women to attend its lectures, Dr Kennedy and a few like-minded dons repeated their University lectures to the women in their own colleges.

When female students were ready to sit the Tripos Examination (from which they were officially excluded), it was in Dr Kennedy’s drawing-room that they wrote their scripts. In 1881 Dr Kennedy made an impressive speech to the Senate, begging it to sanction the admittance of women to the Tripos: “there are no idlers among them”.

His eloquence, and the running of a special train to bring supporters to Cambridge, won the vote on the day and from then on women were examined and classed in the Tripos Examination.

Dr Kennedy died 15 years prior the nuns arriving at The Elms, but his beneficent spirit remains and lives on today! In his honour, one of our school Houses is called The Elms.

An Edwardian education for girls in Cambridge

In the early years of the 20th Century, most girls joined St Mary's School between the ages of 14 and 16 and stayed for two or three years.

Right from the start, St Mary’s girls benefitted from positive links with the University of Cambridge. Kindly Fellows and Tutors from the University readily brought their knowledge and enthusiasm to St Mary's, resulting in a joyfully eclectic curriculum:

  • Mr Conybeare produced his microscope and showed the girls a spider’s foot and the dust on a butterfly’s wing
  • A magic lantern introduced the girls to Gothic Architecture and French Cathedrals
  • From experts, they learnt about ancient coins, the Pharaohs of Egypt, Louis Pasteur, the Knights of Malta and the French Revolution
  • Pupils heard Pachman play, Dame Nellie Melba sing, Elgar conduct, and attended a production of ‘Elijah’ at Ely Cathedral
  • A student from Girton came to help set up a Debating Society and the girls attended at least one debate at the Union
  • The girls were escorted to the May ‘Bumps’, sometimes hiring a barge for the occasion. Morris dancing was watched and there were visits to Midsummer Fair.

We continue to benefit from our connections with the University today, including the Science & Engineering Departments, Judge Business School, Fitzwilliam Museum and Botanic Garden.

Our Cambridge connections

1909: Paston House

In January 1909, the neighbouring property to The Elms, was acquired for £3,150. Paston House on Bateman Street made quite a statement with its Ruskin-esque brickwork, lavish plasterwork, staircase windows with heraldic panes and an extra acre of land.

By this time, our School was small, but well-established, comprising 24 boarders and 19 day pupils. The boarders were housed, fed, cared for and taught in The Elms. Day girls we taught separately in Paston House.

Paston House was intended to be a Hostel: “The Religious of St Mary’s Convent, Cambridge, with the sanction of the Training College, will open in September 1909 a house of residence for Catholic Students attending the Training College. The object of the Hostel is to provide a Catholic atmosphere and Catholic instruction and direction for young women.”

This aim was not successful venture and so the top floor of Paston House was used for resident staff and later for members of the community. It was also used for outreach activity including being the venue for a study circle that examined the social teaching of the Church.

Additionally, it was used for meetings of the Girls’ Guild, the Catholic Women’s League, several parish committees; the Boys’ Brigade even met in a loft over the coach- house!  On the outbreak of the First World War, a flood of Belgian refugees came to Cambridge: the Belgian children came to Paston House for lessons.

Our outreach and partnerships today

Paston Coach House

According to the Convent Journal:

“a handsome carriage and pair had been kept in Paston’s coach house ” together with “ a yellow and black trap, drawn by a frisky young horse with a habit of bolting”

We acquired the Coach House, converting it into a laundry with an art room above. Eventually the laundry and adjacent playground made space for a gymnasium, art, music and needlework rooms, more class-rooms and yet another laboratory.

1950s: A growing school

The Botanic Garden, Magnolia Tree and the Cortile

The 1950s was a period of alignment and growth for our School. An entrance to the Botanic Garden originally ran between the garden of The Elms and Paston House. This separation caused great inconvenience: the school dinner cooked in the Convent kitchen had to be propelled on a trolley by one of the nuns down Bateman Street to Paston House front door!

In an agreement with Cambridge University Botanic Garden, St Mary's acquired this piece of land, which today forms a Cortile (courtyard) space at the heart of our Senior School. 

More about our Magnolia Tree and the Cortile

Cavendish House and Brookside

With a rapidly expanding School, our building activity and property acquisition did not for provide enough teaching space for long.

Our Junior School was moved to a house in Cavendish Avenue, and later to closer properties at Nos 7 and 8 Brookside, before this became a community for the nuns who moved out of The Elms. For a short while, the Junior School was phased out - a necessary but controversial move to free up funding to preserve and develop our Sixth Form.

A new school, St Catherine’s, opened in a neighbouring building as a separate venture although many of its pupils joined St Mary’s Senior School. By 2005, having worked hard to secure our finances, we were able to acquire St Catherine’s and once again welcomed the joy of having our own Junior School - which ultimately found its permanent home on our Chaucer Road site.

In 2013 No 2 Brookside became the new home for our Sixth Form.

Formerly St Catherine's School, now part of the Botanic Gardens
Formerly St Catherine's School, now part of the Botanic Gardens
Our Junior School in the old Coach House
Our Junior School in the old Coach House

1988: No 47: Art on Bateman Street

In 1988, the school purchased its third property on Bateman Street: No 47 is a charming Victorian villa with pretty stained glass and a sweeping staircase ideal for displaying art work.

Today this is our Art and Design Centre, providing facilities for graphics, print-making, pottery, photography and 3D work as well as releasing space elsewhere for an electronics laboratory, equipped by a grant from the Wolfson Foundation.

Initially No 47 was home to our Sixth Form before Antony Green, Royal Academician officially opened it as our Art and Design Centre in September 2011.

Future plans

In 2010 planning permission was granted, in agreement with the Botanic Garden and English Heritage, to build a multi-storey teaching block in the grounds of No 47 with splendid views across the Botanic Gardens. We have not yet used this permission, as we were fortunate to find additional space at 6, Chaucer Road, but looking to the future there is scope for further expansion on this site.

No. 47
No. 47

2010: Acton House: our new Junior School

Originally called Birnam House, No 6 Chaucer Road was built for the historian Lord Acton: Catholic historian, politician, and writer. When we acquired the property in 2010 for our Junior School, we renamed it in Acton’s honour.

Lord ActonDescribed as ‘the magistrate of history’, Lord Acton was one of the great personalities of the 19th Century who made the history of liberty his life’s work.

Like our Foundress Mary Ward, though a Roman Catholic, his independence of thought and liberal views brought him into conflict with the Roman Catholic hierarchy. In 1864, the Pope issued a declaration that the opinions of Catholic writers were subject to the authority of the Roman congregations, Acton felt that the only way to reconcile his literary conscience with his ecclesiastical loyalty was to stop the publication of a monthly periodical of which he was editor.

In 1870 over the First Vatican Council’s promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility. In a step similar to Mary Ward’s walk to Rome, Lord Acton went to Rome to throw his influence against this doctrine, but to no avail. It was in this context that Acton made his most famous pronouncement:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

In 1869 Acton was raised to the peerage by Queen Victoria and became the first Baron Acton. He was a close friend, correspondent and invaluable political adviser to Gladstone. Indeed, Matthew Arnold said that

“Gladstone influences all round him but Acton; it is Acton who influences Gladstone.”

In 1895, Acton was appointed to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, neatly linking him to Regius Professor, Dr Kennedy, who lived in The Elms on Bateman Street, now part of our Senior School.

Action House our Junior School
Action House our Junior School
Action House from the gardens
Action House from the gardens

2016: Boarding expands to Brooklands Avenue

To enlarge our catchment area, and especially to attract more Sixth Formers, 34 single study bedrooms were built over the flat-topped classrooms and laboratories in Bateman Street.

By the early 2010s, we had outgrown this accommodation, and our Sixth Form boarders lived in rented property on Bateman Street (nos 23, 24, 25 and 26) and our own boarding facility for younger girls became known as Main School House.

In January 2016, we acquired 15 Brooklands Avenue, to establish our own ‘home’ by uniting our two boarding facilities onto one site in Mary Ward House. This property, originally known as Fordfield, was built in the 1860s by a prosperous hop merchant, Henry Joseph Wetenhall. Wetenhall Cottage was subsequently built in its grounds in 1930s as a home for Wetenhall's daughter in the later years of her life.

Encouraged by a comment that ‘Fordfield is a lovely place to be ill and get better in’, it was rented out as a care home. It became a well-regarded nursing home, known as Hope House and we purchased the property from the Holy Sisters of Bordeaux.

We redeveloped the property and opened it to students in our 120th year, renaming it: Mary Ward House, in honour of our Foundress. It is the perfect 'home from home' for our ‘family’ of approximately 90 international and local boarders and staff, and Wetenhall Cottage has become the home of our Headmistress.

Boarding at Mary Ward House

Fordfield House
Fordfield House
Mary Ward House
Mary Ward House
Mary Ward House
Mary Ward House