Look at this brilliant illustration of Victorian girls exercising in the gym at my former school.
And a casual passerby would have no way of knowing that the collection of grey and red-brick buildings which make up Camden School are home to one of the oldest girls’ schools in the country, one that has been educating the area’s young females for nearly 150 years.
Former notable students? Too many to mention, but they include actress Emma Thompson, Sarah Brown, novelist Arabella Weir and Geri Halliwell; however the school’s history of famous women stretches back to the nineteenth century, when suffragist Frances Mary Buss had the winning idea of providing an affordable and intellectually stimulating education for girls.
An exceptional student herself, Buss suffered from the huge limitations that women’s education faced at the time. There were very few schools which provided girls with an education anywhere near the standard offered for boys; one of the few which did was Queen’s College in Harley Street, where Buss attended evening classes as a young woman.
Her father Robert was an artist who illustrated Dickens’ novels, and it was Buss’ mother, assisted by her daughter, who set up a school in 1845 to supplement his unstable income. This school was named the North London Collegiate School (now in Edgware), and in 1850 it moved to Camden Street. Buss became the headmistress, establishing herself as a pioneer of women’s education.
In 1864, Buss managed to persuade the Schools Enquiry Commission that girls’ secondary education was necessary and needed investment, and by 1870 she had gained enough funding to leave the North London Collegiate School, which had by now become a public rather than family-run school, with the intention of founding a more affordable girls’ school. In 1871 she did so – the purpose-built Camden School for Girls opened its doors and Buss became its first headmistress.
Buss went on to achieve much more in her life: she campaigned for girls to be able to sit public exams and go to university and was the first woman fellow of the College of Preceptors, now known as the College of Teachers, as well as founding the Association of Headmistresses and becoming its first president. She was also a member of the London Suffrage Committee, despite dying before the women’s rights movement truly took off in the UK, and remains one of the country’s most important educational reformers and campaigners.
Today, the school is well aware of its impressive history and commemorates it on Founder’s Day, which takes place at the end of each spring term. Sandwiched between the newer, greyer blocks are parts of the original red-brick building, including the green clock tower.
More importantly, the school still has a reputation as being a place where progressive ideas and activism can flourish – in 2010 the sixth form staged a walk-out and joined the central London march against the government’s plans to raise tuition fees.
Such activism in the face of high educational costs is surely something of which Buss herself would have approved.
Main image: Gymnasium of North London Collegiate School for Girls, Sandall Road 1882 from A History of Camden, John Richardson (Historical Publications 1999).