Why It Matters: Celebrating NW5’s Oldest School

There can’t be many single-sex state secondary schools in London still going strong, in the same area, since 1862. Yet …

William Ellis Staff Photo, July 1938
William Ellis School Staff Photo, July 1938

There can’t be many single-sex state secondary schools in London still going strong, in the same area, since 1862. Yet NW5’s oldest educational institution, originally set up by the public-spirited businessman William Ellis, has just celebrated its 150th anniversary. And as an old Elysian, I swung by last month, along with other alumni, for an evening of sharing memories, chatting about the future, and to meet some of the current pupils.

The reunion highlighted not just how much talent the school has produced across every profession, but also its impact as a reference point for the local community.

WIlliam Ellis Prefects 1976
WIlliam Ellis Prefects 1976

Reunions tend to involve people whose origins are far and wide, whereas William Ellis has always been a school for boys growing up in this pocket of North West London. So it wasn’t just people with a shared a memory of dread at the cold showers after PE, but also a shared knowledge of the local area, with the school as a focal point.

William Ellis has experienced plenty of upheaval in recent years and probably isn’t at the same academic level as its era as a grammar school in the 1950s, but what was clear from catching up with everyone was how an institution manages to withstand, adapt and embrace the changes around it. William Ellis still reflects the local area, as it has done since the 19th century, so today it’s a melting pot of boys from all social and ethnic backgrounds. With the UK’s business leaders increasingly valuing ‘inter-cultural skills’ in their workforce, this means Elysians leave school with invaluable experience. It might not show up on a certificate but is a huge life advantage. Ellis 1, Highgate 0.

William Ellis badmington team, 1963
William Ellis badmington team, 1963

Headmaster Sam White detailed the fundraising appeal for much-needed new buildings and how alumni can also support the school by volunteering to offer careers advice through the Future First charity. Future First was founded by Elysians and began in 2009 at the school, but is now leveraging alumni networks to offer inspiration to young people in over 500 state schools nationwide. Yet another example of people living out the William Ellis motto, ‘Rather Use Than Fame’.

William Ellis Cricket XI 1933-34
William Ellis Cricket XI 1933-34

At the reunion we posed the question ‘Why does it matter – 150 years of William Ellis?’ to a variety of the school’s many supporters, who have offered their memories below. And if you have any, however recent or ancient, please feel free to add them to the comments below.

Words: Tim Sowula
Interviews: Tim Sowula & Alex Smith

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Eric Charles, 1943: “We’ve always had a very good tradition in this school for music. People who’ve come here have gone to Cambridge, become musicians, conductors, music professors, it’s gone on all this time. I enjoyed my time here, but most of it was during the war. The school itself was evacuated but I wasn’t, staying here with lots of other pupils, and it functioned as an emergency school. I used to play cricket with [legendary England cricketer] Fred Titmus, who was in my House, although he could probably play the whole team single handed.”
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Fiona Millar, Chair of Governers: “Why does William Ellis mean so much to me? My sons, who left years ago, often ask me this question. Why would I continue to be a governor at a school with no children there? Well the school has always played a big part in my life – having been educated in Camden in the 1970s, I was friends with lots of Ellis boys back then. They were always special, and different, and still are. William Ellis has tradition, history and an enduring ethos laid down by its founder all those years ago. But it is also a real community school; diverse, lively , challenging and representative of all sections of society. That is what makes it unique. The 150th anniversary has given us a chance to celebrate all these different aspects of the school life. I have no doubt that Ellis will go on for another 150 years, adapting to the times, going from strength to strength but always remaining true to core mission – to provide an excellent all round education to the boys of this part of North London. I am very proud to be part of that.”
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Huw Meyrick, 1992, Governor of William Ellis, Chief Operating Officer, Tomassa: “As a hub of my entire life William Ellis is very important. I’ve been friends with people I met here for twenty years and I imagine I’ll continue to be friends with them for another forty, fifty years. The school’s changed a lot even since I left, and an incredible amount more over the past 60 years: it’s got a very different catchment and it’s interesting to see how the older generations link with the current one.”
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Bavin Taylor, Head of RE and PSHE (since 2010): “Ellis is a true reflection of London and the society we live in. That’s why I really enjoy working here, the mixture and diversity. I worked in a very different school before, where 94% of the students were white British. This is the complete opposite. Part of my role is personal development, working with the boys to equip them for the real world. Ellis is great for that, for giving people those really important life skills as well as academic excellence. The boys retain those values when they leave. Former pupils say how disparate and diverse it always was. Reflecting on the 150th anniversary is crucial because it helps current students appreciate the heritage and culture of the school, and to understand who they are.”
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Marcus Bonfanti, 1992, (British Blues Awards Winner) “I received an email out of the blue from head of music, Mr Stephen Jackman, and it brought back a lot of great memories from my school days, things I hadn’t thought about for years. He asked if I would come back and play some music at the 150th anniversary concert. I knew I had to make time for this as William Ellis gave me so much throughout my youth. So many outlets to play music. I even came to the school on Saturdays for The Young Music Makers, so spending 6 days a week there for 6 years of my life left a big impression on me. I always talk fondly of the school and describe it as a very ‘real’ school. By that I mean there were so many students and teachers from all walks of life and different backgrounds which really set me up for what it’s like in the world, it gave me invaluable social skills. I formed my first band in the Chemistry lab and I played my first guitar gig in the Assembly Hall. It is a special place for me and I can see it’s still a special place for the current students.”
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David Mayes, 1967: “I thoroughly enjoyed all of my time at the school, made a lot of very good friends, and I’m now treasurer of the Old Elysians Club, so still very much involved. We have our Committee meetings at the school and have a dinner this year at the HOC hosted by Old Elysian Bernard Jenkin MP. We try and help with the school as much as we can; I personally drive the minibus on the working weekend to The Mill in Forest Green [William Ellis owns a property in Surrey used for field-trips], three times a year. I think William Ellis is a very friendly school in the community; I don’t think it has upsets like some schools have, with people who misbehave. The ethos, in general, hasn’t changed and I think it’s very good.”
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William Schwitzer, 1970: “Having been at William Ellis from 1970 to 1978, I was very pleased to hear of the 150th Anniversary Celebrations, and managed to come to both social evenings and the wonderful concert. It was great to catch up with old friends, some I hadn’t seen since school days. What struck me most was just how much we all valued our old school and the many dedicated and inspirational teachers that were behind our achievements and launching us on our various careers. And I think we can say that we now understand a bit better the school’s motto ‘Rather Use than Fame’, which is still used today, and forms part of the chorus of the stirring school song that we used to sing at the end of the final assembly of every term, and go home with it ringing in our ears!”
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Zabiullah Omar, 2008: “It’s a privilege to be a student here. You get a sense of the history of the school because there are pictures of everyone everywhere, they’re not forgotten. The teachers are the best thing about studying here. Knowing that your father could have been taught by the same teacher, that gives you a sense of honour.”



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  • Laura Murray

    Lovely piece guys! Made me well up with nostalgia/ beam with pride. Amazing school & such impressive alumni x
    p.s. sure I wore the Ellis tie often enough to be considered honorary alumni!

  • Dominic

    Here is the school song. http://youtu.be/nY8tji-EmLY It was going through my head for 30 years before I decided to have a go at recording it on an electric Korg piano. Not being perhaps as good a pianist as some I remember in the fantastic music department I humbly offer it as my tribute, along with the photos, to my old school. I went into studying science inspired by the Apollo moon landings, though I soon realised that maybe I had taken a wrong turning I was, for a time, senior science technician at Parliament Hill School next door for seven years and then decided to return to Ellis when a job came up there in chemistry. There I found myself working with my old chemistry teacher, Mr Manthorpe.! I helped him for his last two years at Ellis in return for the help he gave me in my last two years there.
    Funnily enough, it was the 150th celebrations that got me to move again. Seeing all the talented and successful Old Elysians’ photos each morning just made me think- just what am I doing back here in my old chemistry lab, surely I can achieve something more in my life!!! Not a midlife crisis, more a sense of being right back where I started!!! So I got together with an excellent agency to get me out into the world again. However, all through my time at Ellis and indeed at Parliament Hill I worked very hard to be useful, and feel that is indeed more satisfying than fame, (but perhaps the money does help, that comes with fame!!!)

    • Christopher Hayton

      Dominic thanks for putting that on YouTube – there is an error in the words I think… I’m sure it should be “firm as the oak we’ll build our lives…” not “firm as the rock” that you have there. How come they don’t sing that song any more!!!??

      • Dominic Coltman

        Hello, sorry for late reply..
        I thought as much myself. However, I met up with Terry Walton while working at the school, who was visiting in the capacity of First Aider, he used to be senior technician when I was a pupil there and he gave me a photocopy of the original as printed in the history of the school volume that we were all given as first years in 1974 and there was printed “firm as the rock”. As I no longer had any of my old school diaries to double-check and as there was no other source I could consult about it,I decided to use “firm as the rock..” as it was there printed in black and white in front of me as the original wording- It may have been changed in later times?
        I suppose as I have credited the lyricist on the video, I was right to stick with the original version . As I remember,we all sang out all the misprints in the diary, such as “thattitle ” with gusto at the time.

        I suppose it is not sung these days as the school is very different from the way it used to be and the song has just been forgotten over the years
        I rarely had the feeling that I was back in my old school and that was also while working with my old chemistry teacher for two years before his retirement, only on occasions I had powerful flashbacks.This is not to be critical of the new Ellis, I would have been more than happy to have been taught by the teachers who are there today, it had a different atmosphere, times change….

        For a time, the portraits of all the old headmasters were removed and put into storage, this seemed to be by the order of the school’s first woman headteacher who, though being only temporarily attached to Ellis, seemed to feel that these old men were out of place in her modern school! (Alistair Sim’s exasperation in the 50’s comedy “the Happiest Days of your Life” immediately comes to mind!) However,.starting with the one of Mr Baxter, who was quite rightly re-instated to the hall that bore his name, the “Baxter Hall”, they re-appeared after her departure!

        I have now moved on from the school and found great success in employment so it was both refreshing and nostalgic to have returned to my old school.