Our History

St Helen’s School was founded by Miss May Rowland Brown in 1899. After training as a teacher at Cambridge Training College for Women, she began her career at Northwood College, and was persuaded by a group of local businessmen to start another school. At the age of just 25, on the 19th January 1899, she founded Northwood High School, later named St Helen’s School. In 1999, St Helen's School celebrated its first centenary.

St Helen’s School, as it is now known, opened with just 12 day-pupils. These pupils were mostly girls and a few of their younger brothers.

The school was an immediate success. Its reputation spread and the roll grew steadily. Miss Rowland Brown recognised the need for a suitable property to accommodate the growing school, and chose a site at the corner of Eastbury Road and Carew Road. This large L-shaped building which she developed still forms the corner of the main school building today.  The new building was opened on 22nd April 1902, and was named St Helen’s after the Bishopsgate church of the same name in which May Rowland Brown’s mother had been baptised, confirmed and married.

In 1909, while celebrating the growth of the School to 100 pupils, May Rowland Brown planned the first major addition - the Hall - which was then equipped as a gymnasium and could be converted to classrooms with folding panels. This is now known as 'Old Hall'.

The first Calendar Sale took place in the autumn of 1916, and the tradition of a Christmas Fayre, named after the calendars which the girls of Little St Helen's create, is still going strong 100 years on (see this link for more information about Calendar Sale over the past century).

By 1919, after 20 years, there were 162 pupils – one third of whom were boarders. The time had come for another building on the main site. Miss Rowland Brown drew up plans for Middle House (now Gwyer House), which was finished in early 1923.

The House system was established in 1927 with three houses named Scott, Shackleton and Bruce. Two of the houses were named after Antarctic explorers - Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton, with Bruce named after the Himalayan explorer Brigadier General Charles Bruce. A fourth house, Chris Bonington, also named after a Himalayan explorer, has since been added.

House events are an integral part of school life, notably Sports Day and House Arts. Each year the House Cup is awarded to the house with the most points, which can be earned through commendations, Sports Day, House Arts and other achievements.

In 1999, to mark the centenary of St Helen's, the Junior School adopted a new House system consisting of 3 houses. The Houses, nominated by the Junior School students, were named after pioneering women in history - Curie, Keller and Nightingale. In 2012, the fourth house was added, named after the pilot Amelia Earhart.

1930 saw a very popular addition – the School’s first swimming pool. By the 1930s, there were about 300 girls, and there was an “exceptionally warm atmosphere, especially among the boarders”[1]. Property was cheap at this time, and so the School expanded by acquiring Ardenlea (home of Little St Helen’s), the Field Garden across the road, and cottages in Rofont Road. Claremont briefly became Junior House, Longworthe was acquired as a boarding house, and The Gables and Fitzwalters were also bought at this time.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the houses Tregoyd and Llanthomas in Breconshire, Wales were rented on a 7-year lease, and the boarders were evacuated there while the day-girls stayed in Northwood.

Headmistress Miss Mackenzie acquired “Thirlmere” in 1946, and adapted it to become to new, enlarged Little St Helen’s.

St Helen’s hosted 140 female overseas Olympic Games competitors in 1948, including Fanny Blankers-Koen, who went on to win four gold medals. A Parents’ Association was founded in 1951 and grew into a major support for the school and “in 1957, after 8 years of fundraising, a grand ceremony was held to lay the foundation stone of what would become The Rowland Brown Hall. Above it was to be a splendid new Library.”[2]

The growth of St Helen's throughout the 70s and 80s has largely been attributed to a much-loved and respected Headmistress, Miss June Leader. Appointed as Senior English Mistress at St Helen’s in 1954, in 1966 she became its fourth Headmistress. Miss Leader's determination to meet the needs of her expanding school led to the fond nicknames of ‘Bricks’ and ‘June the Builder’, as she was the driving force behind the building and remodelling of many areas of the School, including the Quad; a new Science block; a new swimming pool, gym and squash court; a new boarding house; the June Leader building for arts and domestic science; and finally the Kennedy Building, which was opened in February 1986 and provided much-needed classrooms and an entire floor for computer studies.

The impressive material legacy which she left behind from her time as Headmistress almost matches the remarkable degree to which she fostered inspirational relationships with all pupils and staff, and the genuine interest she showed in their individual concerns. Miss Leader's final Head’s report sums up her devotion to St Helen’s and its girls beautifully: ‘To watch them grow up and have a small part in their development, is a great privilege: it has been my good fortune to do this, and to teach a - dare I say, the supreme - subject, and I am thankful for the life in this school.’

In September 2003, the refurbished Little St Helen’s opened as Little Gables with our first three year olds.

In July 2004, Phase I of the sports complex was completed and was opened by Steve Parry, Olympic Bronze Medallist. It consists of a 25m swimming pool, and a fitness suite. Phase II was finished in Summer 2006. This includes the multi-gym, dance studio, treatment rooms and observation areas. In 2005, the new swimming pool was used by the female celebrity competitors from "The Games" television programme for training.

In December 2006, the final Phase III of the sports complex was also completed. The Sports Centre was officially opened by Olympic Silver Medallist Roger Black.

The Sixth Form Common Rooms and Sixth Form Study Areas were renovated in 2012. In June 2014, The Centre, providing an exciting performance and gallery space, as well as the Mint Café, was created inside the 'Old' Gym. It was opened by Old Girl Patricia Hodge. 2014 saw the Estates Masterplan being drawn up, and the first phase of the new Junior School, along with the remodelling of School House was agreed. The Air Dome, which covers the netball courts in the winter months, was placed for the first time in October 2014, which was swiftly followed by the installation of the PTA-funded Climbing Wall in November 2014.

Our new Junior School building for Years 3 - 6, which was completed in September 2016, was officially opened by HRH The Duchess of Gloucester in March 2017. Key Stage 2 pupils are enjoying exceptional learning in the large and light classrooms and exciting ‘break-out zones’, carrying out independent research in the state-of-the-art Discovery Centre, and maximising their opportunities to learn about the natural world on the vibrant and biodiverse 'living roofs' which cover the two ‘arms’ of the building and can be accessed from ground level via paths made from recycled rubber. There is also extensive provision for specialist teaching in Music, Art, Design & Technology, Science and Drama, and the resources to stage productions and concerts in the Junior School Hall.


[1] ‘Girls in Green’ edited by Kate Ogden and Susan Millership, page 27

[2] ‘Girls in Green’ edited by Kate Ogden and Susan Millership, page 59