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A Brief History of Westminster School

The earliest recorded evidence of Westminster School appears in the Almoner’s Roll for 1371 which notes the wages of the ‘Master of the boys of the Subalmonry’. It is from this point that we can be certain that the Benedictine monks of the Abbey at Westminster were providing a charity school to local boys, in addition to training monastic novices.

This arrangement changed in 1540, when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in England, but ensured the School's survival by royal charter. The College of St. Peter carried on with 40 "King's Scholars" financed from the royal purse. Elizabeth I re-founded the School in 1560 with new statutes to select 40 Queen's Scholars from boys who had already attended the School for a year.

Elizabethan I had a great personal interest in the School and the sentiments expressed in her 1560 charter which stated the purpose of the School are as relevant today as they were in the 16th century: “The youth which is growing to manhood, as tender shoots in the wood of our state, shall be liberally instructed in good books to the honour of the state.”

During the 16th century the School educated writers including Ben Jonson and Richard Hakluyt; in the seventeenth, the poet John Dryden, philosopher John Locke, scientist Robert Hooke, composer Henry Purcell and architect Christopher Wren were pupils; and in the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham and several Whig Prime Ministers and other statesmen.

Recent Old Westminsters include prominent politicians of all parties, members of the arts and media, scientists and businessmen and women. Legal separation from the Abbey took place with the Public Schools Act 1868 although a close relationship maintained with the Dean of Westminster Abbey made the ex officio Chairman of the School’s Governing Body. Pupils enjoy the benefits of this close relationship and, amongst other visits, still begin the school day on Monday and Friday mornings in the Abbey. Until 1883 the curriculum was dominated by the classical languages, all taught up School. The introduction of a non-classical curriculum was one of the changes associated with the Public Schools Act of 1868. However, unusually among the leading public schools, Westminster did not adopt broader changes associated with the Act, for example, the popular emphasis on team over individual spirit, and the School retained much of its distinctive character.

Despite many pressures, including the epidemics of the 19th Century and the destruction of School and College during the Blitz, the school has refused to leave its Central London location.

In 1967, the first female pupil was admitted to the Great School, with girls becoming full members of the school from 1973 onwards. Westminster’s classroom facilities have come a long way since the former Monastic Dormitory was first used as Schoolroom in 1599. The first science building ‘Sutcliffe’s’ opened in Great College Street in 1905 and was replaced by the Robert Hooke Science Centre which opened in 1986. Millicent Fawcett Hall (the School's theatre) opened in 2001 and the Manoukian Music Centre and Weston Building opened in 2005. Vincent Square was secured as playing fields in 1810 but it was not until 2012 with the opening of the new Sports Centre on Greycoat Street that pupils had suitable sports facilities within walking distance of Little Dean’s Yard. In keeping with the theme of Monk’s accommodation being used by Westminster pupils, the last Anglican monastery in London on Tufton Street was purchased by the School in 2012 and is now the location of Purcell’s House and provides an additional School Chapel.

Westminster Under School, which was founded in the evacuated School buildings in 1943 and later moved to Vincent Square, has also recently benefited from the addition of 21 Douglas Street which provides a new dining hall and art classrooms for pupils.

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