St Wilfrid’s School began over 150 years ago because of the vision of one man:
The Reverend John Gilberd Pearse, Rector of All Hallows-on-the-Wall Church, was increasingly concerned about the welfare of the many poor families who lived in the West Quarter of Exeter. He founded the Community of St Wilfrid’s, a Church of England Order of nuns, in 1866. The Community, based in Bartholomew Street, visited and nursed the sick and elderly, set up soup kitchens for the unemployed, established an orphanage and gave practical help to disadvantaged families.
In 1870 the government passed the Education Act making education compulsory for all children. Many new schools were needed to accommodate the sudden increase in children attending school for the first time. Father Pearse decided he should open a school, with the nuns offering a caring environment in which to learn: having forty places – it was known as the ‘Forty School’.
Standards of education were not high in late Victorian times and the curriculum was limited to the abilities of the Sisters. Under the watchful eye of Sister Matilda, the first headmistress, they taught the Three R’s and French, Art, Deportment and Dancing.
The school soon became a thriving concern and was known for its purposeful atmosphere and strict discipline. In 1900 the school moved to the Mint because it needed larger premises: numbers quickly doubled!
As the years passed the Sisters were trained as professional teachers and some specialist lay teachers were also employed. More subjects were included in the curriculum and standards of education improved. By the 1930’s Science, Mathematics, History, R.E., Geography and Sports were well established and older pupils started to take external examinations.
A strong PTFA organised fetes each year to raise money with the view to funding a new, even larger school. In 1950 the Orphanage in St David’s Hill, run by the Sisters of St Wilfrid’s since 1866, closed. Over the next few years the school moved here (its present location). Monies raised were used to level the sloping vegetable and fruit garden to make a hard court (the present playground)… assistance was given for the building of a laboratory, a domestic science block, a library – and even an outdoor swimming pool was erected (but this proved too difficult to maintain).
Until 1967, apart from young boys, St Wilfrid’s was solely a girls’ school. However, when Mount Radford School closed in 1967 the decision was taken to make the school fully co-educational. Under the strong leadership of Reverend Mother Edith, the last Sister to be a teaching headmistress, St Wilfrid’s became the first independent co-educational school in Exeter.
St Wilfrid’s pupils were often seen in the city throughout the 70’s and 80’s taking food parcels to elderly residents of local almshouses and singing Christmas Carols in the High Street; for many years traffic was stopped as pupils processed to Exeter Cathedral for an annual St Wilfrid’s Day service every October.
In 1988, with increasing curriculum demands, the ageing Sisters (no new recruits had joined the Order since the 1950’s) decided they were no longer able to run St Wilfrid’s School. The Senior department became a separate school with its own head-teacher and financial control, while the Junior department continued under the Sisters’ leadership. Fortunately, the split between the Junior School and Senior School was short lived and the Junior School was invited to rejoin the seniors in 1994. By this time there were only two remaining Sisters: Sister Elsie (who died in 1997) and Reverend Mother Lillian (who died in 2004 at the grand age of 107!)
In 1995 pupils commemorated the 125th birthday of the school by embarking on an ambitious 125 mile journey: senior pupils covered the distance with a combination of cycling, horse-riding, sailing, canoeing and walking. All participants finished at the Quay and met Junior pupils, who were waiting in Victorian costume. They processed to school for a party, the release of 125 balloons (one of which reached Bristol!) and the burial of a time capsule, containing memorabilia of the school.
After 20 years as Head teacher, Mrs Alexandra MacDonald-Dent retired. The current Headteacher is former pupil, Ross Bovingdon.
Today St Wilfrid’s School is proud of its heritage and the important role it has played within the community of Exeter, and now looks forward to many more prosperous years in the heart of the city.