West Heath- A Short History

The beginnings of West Heath came with a vicar (Revd PB Power MA) and his formidable wife who had four daughters. They lived in a beautiful William and Mary house close to the Thames in London. It was called Abbey Wood and the year was 1865. They decided to educate their offspring themselves, conducted on the religious principles that were dear to them. In addition, a wide range of subjects, with the exception of science, made up the syllabus.

West Heath School in 1887
West Heath School in 1887

Such was the reputation of their learning that it was not long before a number of well-to-do families sought the academic values of Abbey Wood and were welcomed to join. Now the Reverend’s daughters had a sound education and the company of other like-minded children.

It was not long after their own daughters had left, that the Powers decided in 1877 to continue the school but in a larger house on Ham Common, formerly owned by the Duc of Chartres, a Huguenot from France. It was from here that the House names of Chartres, Guise and Orleans originated.

The school’s reputation continued to grow under the principalship of Mrs Power. In 1890 it caught the attention of Misses Buckland and Miss Percival who were owned a similar school in Reading. They joined forces with Mrs Power at Ham Common. Ten years later Miss Skeat and Miss Lawrence bought the school.

The following year they began the School Magazine and in 1904, the school participated in its first public examination organised by the Royal Drawing Society.  Eighteen honours and twenty-five pass certificates were won, the beginning of its scholastic reputation.

Miss Skeat and Miss Lawrence were dynamic and expanded the curriculum to include Economics, Woodcarving, Domestic Economy, Natural Science and the Theory of Music. Sport also took a leap forward with Hockey, Swedish Drill, Riding, Fencing, Swimming, Croquet, Tennis and Lacrosse.

The world was changing, with the Suffragettes, the First World War and the introduction of such wonders as electricity, the wireless, the telephone and the motor car. Education for women was being recognised and acknowledged more and more.

The girls now leaving the school not only went to Paris and Dresden to be ‘finished’ and then returned to look after their homes, families and charitable institutions but also began to go to College and University.

In 1928, Miss Elliott joined the staff and was appointed Principal the following year. She recognised that the school, with seventy girls, had outgrown its premises and bought Ash Grove near Sevenoaks in Kent. Immediately after the Second World War the numbers leapt to more than one hundred!

Ash Grove near Sevenoaks

Miss Elliott was, like Mrs Power, also a formidable person and led the new West Heath with direction and compassion. Her brilliance at teaching History and Literature was legendary as was her generosity, her teasing and her passionate desire that everyone should share her love of music and painting.

Her staff was encouraged to be friendly, communicative and inspirational and that philosophy became the school’s mantra. Miss Elliott’s enduring legacy was to keep the school going and viable through the most difficult of years, while maintaining and enhancing the special qualities of West Heath.

In 1965, times became easier and everything seemed to expand. Ruth Rudge became Principal in the midst of ‘Beatlemania’ and music took off in many different directions. TV became the norm although viewing was restricted and teenagers found their voice. Possessions proliferated and the generation-gap syndrome became evident. The girls (and Staff) were lively, outgoing, tolerant, generous and beautiful.

The Girls' Sitting Room
The Girls' Sitting Room

In 1988, Rudge handed the baton to the new Principal, Mrs Cohn-Sherbok who carried on the school’s tradition, its language, its ethos with warmth and dedication.

So West Heath survived for well over a century. It was the only one of the small girls’ schools to have survived the last war. It survived political upheavals, transient trends, the oil crisis of the Seventies, changes of children, changes of staff, and changes of principals.

But that is not the end of the story. Finances forced West Heath to close, but in 2001, due to the generosity of Al Fayed, the New School at West Heath was opened under Val May, its Principal. It has charitable status and accommodates and educates up to 67 severely disadvantaged children. The New School warmly welcomes visits from Old Girls at any time.

It lives again!

West Heath