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In 1565 a free school for the education of boys and young men in grammar was founded in Highgate by Sir Roger Cholmeley (c.1485-1565). Cholmeley was Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer under King Henry VIII as well as one of London’s four Members of Parliament in his reign, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench under King Edward VI, and Recorder of London under Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. It was Queen Elizabeth who granted letters patent in 1565 to her ‘well beloved and faithful subject’ to found a grammar school ‘ for the most liberal education and instruction of the boys and young men’ from nearby villages. Edmund Grindal, bishop of London, granted land on the site of the old chapel in the bishop's hunting park, opposite the Gatehouse Inn. A new chapel and buildings for the school and the local curate, who was expected to be the teacher, were built.

From this point onwards Sir Roger Cholmeley’s School at Highgate provided an education for up to forty boys from the surrounding area, and the master of the school also taught private pupils. In 1819 the school was enlarged, with aid from the National Society: a Church of England fund for religious education. From 1829 Cholmeley's school was allowed to charge for extra subjects, so beginning its transformation into a modern Victorian public school.

The boys were to be instructed in Latin, Greek, and the principles of religion according to the teaching of the Church of England. Forty boys were to be educated without charge, but the master was to be allowed to take as many 'pay-boys' as he liked. The master also appointed assistant masters, and the ‘Usher’, who acted as his apprentice and was required to have attained a degree from Oxford or Cambridge.



In 1838 the Rev’d John Bradley Dyne, a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, became the new headmaster. He started the school library and broadened the curriculum by adding mathematics and modern languages. He founded boarding houses and acquired a playing field on the Bishopswood Road site for cricket, athletics and rugby (soccer after 1878), and Fives was played against the ruins of the old School Chapel. Above all, he established the school as an institution in which boys were prepared for the universities and the professions. In 1865, there were eighty day boys, fifty boarders, and forty Foundationers who received financial support. All were taught religion, classics, English, mathematics, and French. German, drawing, and surveying were optional and charged separately. A Natural History and Debating Societies were established and the school magazine, The Cholmeleian, was started in 1873. During the winter, visiting teachers gave occasional lectures on natural science and six masters assisted the headmaster. About five pupils a year went to either Oxford or Cambridge, which were the two main English universities in the 1830s.

Towards the end of the century the growing popularity of the school meant that it had outgrown its accommodation, and a new school house and chapel were built in 1866-1867. Dyne retired in 1874, and is remembered to this day as Highgate School’s second founder. Highgate continued to grow, helped by new arrangements in 1876 which officially lifted the limit of forty pupils, and introduced scholarships to widen access to education.
A voluntary Cadet Corps was introduced in 1892 – more than 200 young O.C. Officers were to die in the First World War. Central Hall was built in 1899, adding more classrooms.



The most important development of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the growth of the science and technical sides of the school’s work. By 1890, every class in the school was taught chemistry in a special room fitted up as a laboratory. After 1897 a separate building provided extra classrooms devoted to the teaching of science. A new science block was built in 1928 to contain science and biology laboratories, as well as facilities for the study of engineering and aeronautics. The new building of 1928 practically doubled the area covered by the school. Built in neo-Georgian style, it contained also extra classrooms, a new library, and a large lecture room. A quarter of a mile from the main buildings there were boarding houses, a gymnasium, a cricket pavilion, and the Junior School, all grouped around the cricket and sports field.

A House System, originally introduced to integrate day-boys, was modified in 1911 to indicate the geographic locations of pupils; a system of twelve Houses broadly still used today.



Most of the school buildings were taken over by the government when the Second World War began. Teaching went on in the buildings that remained, but most staff and pupils were evacuated to the village of Westward Ho! in Devon. The boys lived, and were taught, in hotels and boarding houses which had been taken over for this purpose. In 1943, the school was obliged for financial reasons to return to London, and its buildings in Highgate were returned in the same year. 



From the 1960s, the School underwent a building programme to accommodate a growing number of pupils. A new centre for music and the arts was constructed, buildings were modernised, and tennis courts and a new swimming pool were opened for pupils. On Southwood Lane, Dr Dyne’s old house was replaced by a new teaching block in 1967. Named Dyne House in his honour, it originally housed a music and arts centre. The school acquired the Baptist ‘Tabernacle’ on Southwood Lane in 1976, which housed the school library for almost thirty years. It now serves as the school museum, and is open to the public every Saturday morning during term. A new mathematics building, the Garner Mathematics Block, was constructed in North Road in 1983. The Mallinson Sports Centre was erected in 1989, and an all-weather pitch in 2008. The 1866 ‘Big School’ was converted into the Sir Martin Gilbert Library in 2013, whilst the 1867 Crawley Chapel was completely renovated at the same time. The Charter Building, which provided additional classrooms, opened on North Road in 2012.

With the ending of boarding education, the school was able to convert old boarding houses to other uses: a Pre-Prep opened in Grindal House in 1993, and the School House (1880) was completely refurbished as the Mills Centre for art and design in 2005. The 1938 Junior School ‘Cholmeley’ building was replaced, in 2016, by a state-of-the-art Junior School for pupils in Years 3 to 6.

The last boarders left in 1997. Girls joined the school in 1993, with the creation of the Pre-Preparatory School but were not allowed to move on to the Junior School and above. In 2004, girls were admitted at 7+ and 16+ and in 2006 girls were admitted at 11+. Highgate is now fully co-educational.

Former pupils of the School remain part of the School community by automatically becoming Cholmeleians in memory of our Founder Sir Roger Cholmeley, or, more familiarly, OCs. The Cholmeleian Society, in conjunction with the School and its Development Office, organises dinners, reunions, and careers events, and supports OC sports teams which play in a number of leagues. For more information, see our alumni web page http://www.highgateschool.org.uk/oc

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