Wandsworth School’s existence spanned almost a century of educational reform and change, from its foundation in 1895, from being a grammar school, a technical college and then a community comprehensive school, before it closed and merged with Spencer Park school during the drastic secondary school reorganisation under the now defunct Inner London Education Authority (Ilea). The state-of-the-art and 21st-century showcase school of St Cecilia’s should open on the south side of the same site which Wandsworth Boys’ occupied from 1927.
Wandsworth School was founded in 1895 and developed under the 1902 Education Act as a grammar school, preparing boys for universities and the “learned professions”, according to an early prospectus. In 1908 the school won its first open scholarship to Cambridge and by 1920 it had expanded to over 500 boys, to become one of the largest of the London grammar schools.
The school transferred to well-loved redbrick buildings in Sutherland Grove in 1927 - now incorporated into the new housing estate on the north of the site - taking the name Wandsworth School and adopting the borough’s own coat of arms as school badge on the maroon blazers with the motto “We serve”. But it was only after the 1948 London Plan to reorganise secondary education that the school’s partial merger with Brixton School of Building and later Wandsworth Technical College created the 2000-pupil school well ahead of its time.
The magnificent new buildings, which opened in 1957 and cost an enormous £385,000, contained everything from huge specialist workshops, where bricklaying, painting and decorating and plastering were taught to the less academic students, to the fabulous science laboratories catering for the more academic. The school’s ambition was such that it even opened its own planetarium to study astronomy, a unique facility hugely popular with the local community and schools.
But it’s the school’s world famous 200-strong choir (Wandsworth School Boys' Choir = WSBC), made up of teachers and boys, which toured and recorded all over the country under the guidance of Russell Burgess which dominated the life at Wandsworth Boys’.
The WSBC won Grammys for the best classical choral performance in 1971, for Berlioz’s Requiem, and in 1974, for Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust with the Ambrosian Singers. Russell Burgess later died at 48. Russell Burgess’ sheer enthusiasm meant the boys competed hard to get into the choir – not least for their priority rights in the lunch queue when they were rehearsing.
The school’s heyday, however, was followed rapidly by its demise. Education reforms in the early 1970s, culminating in the creation of Ilea, meant children could effectively be educated anywhere. Such huge movements of children meant secondary schools numbers plummeted across the borough.
Ilea first mooted the hugely unpopular merger of 10 local secondaries in January 1984 - including the loss of Wandsworth Boy’s all-girl neighbour school Mayfield - but it was Education Secretary Keith Joseph’s go-ahead in June 1985 that sealed Wandsworth Boys’ fate, though it partially survived until the newly formed John Archer secondary on Wandsworth Common was sold off the site in the mid-1990s. Little remains of the school today. But St Cecilia’s fantastic music facilities and selection of music scholars is a deliberate nod toward the past as is the addition of “Wandsworth” after its name. It seems the spirit of Wandsworth Boys’ perhaps lives on.