History of LEH School

Cripplegate Foundation Schools Mare Street Hackney 1920's
Aerial shot of LEH School Hampton

Foundation in Cripplegate

Our story began in 1710note 1 when the will of Lady Eleanor Holles, sixth daughter of John Holles, 2nd Earl of Clare, instructed her cousin and Executrix, The Honourable Anne Watson, to dispose of the 'overplus' (after specific bequests to relatives and servants) to "such charitable purposes as my said Executrix shall approve of". Anne  persuaded the trustees of an existing charity boys' school to include accommodation for the teaching of girls in a new school that they were planning to build in Redcross Street in the parish of St Giles, in the Cripplegate Ward of the City of London. She then used the overplus (of almost £1,200) to buy land and houses in the Old Artillery Ground in Spitalfields, the income from which (£62 3 shillings per annum)note 2 was to maintain the school, originally known as "the Lady Holles' Charity School". The school was set up to educate and clothe 50 poor girls between the ages of 8 and 12, who were taught in one large schoolroom by a schoolmistress who should be 'an unmarried Woman, and a Member of the Church of England, of a Sober life and conversation'. In addition, it was stipulated that she should not be under 30 and that she should write 'a fair legible Hand and cast Accounts'.note 3 The main purpose, as for many charity schools at the time, was to educate poor girls in 'the knowledge and practice of the Christian religion, as profes'd and taught in the Church of England' and to fit them with skills and character suitable for a life of domestic service. The original site is commemorated by a plaque on one of the Barbican walkways.

In 1832 the school moved to its own purpose-built premises on a larger site further down Redcross Street. By then, the number of girls had doubled to 100, although there was still just one schoolroom, and the girls were taught using the monitorial system. In 1853, the trustees became (and remain to this day) accountable to the Charity Commission. The premises were extended several times to add an Infant school in 1858, then an Industrial school in 1867.

Black and white photo of Lady Eleanor Holles Building in Redcross Street
Lady Holles' School in Redcross Street

Expansion into Hackney

The Charity Commission used their powers under the Endowed Schools Act of 1869 to propose to the Trustees of Lady Holles’ Charity that, as well as running the elementary school in Redcross Street, they should also establish a school for middle class girls up to the age of 16. In 1878, the middle school opened in a new building built for 264 pupils between the ages of 8 and 16 at 182 Mare Street in Hackney. Girls were admitted by entrance examination and paid fees ranging from £4 to £6 per year, depending on age. The curriculum at the new school followed the lead of the North London Collegiate School, and included reading, writing, arithmetic, composition and literature, grammar, geography, history, French or Latin, natural science, elementary mathematics, domestic economy, needlework, drawing and singing.

Near collapse

The school was nearly full from 1880 to 1889 (school attendance from age 5 to 13 became compulsory from 1880), but numbers then declined rapidly, mainly due to local 'Higher Grade Elementary Schools',note 4 supported by rates and parliamentary grants, whose fees were so low that schools such as Lady Holles’ Middle School could not compete. The Governors sent notice of closure to parents in June 1895, but were forced to withdraw it, as they had not received authority to do this from the Charity Commission. The school re-opened in a slimmed-down form in September 1895 with 5 staff and 87 pupils.


The elementary school in Redcross Street was closed in 1899 as the buildings had become overcrowded and the school inspectors concluded that they were not fit for purpose. The site was sold to the London County Council for £31,000 and turned into a fire station. The Charity Commission pushed the governors to use the proceeds from the sale to improve Mare Street, rather than open another infant school, and a laboratory, gymnasium, art studio, domestic economy department and new classrooms were added. In 1904, under the terms of the Education Act 1902, the school became 'a Public Secondary school for girls as day scholars,' which allowed girls to stay on to 17, occasionally 18, and was once again full. Most girls paid fees, but there were up to ten 'Cripplegate Scholarships' funded by the Cripplegate Schools Foundation. The annual report on the educational work of Lady Holles' School made in 1906 by the University of London described it as 'an exceptional school'.

In 1908 the governors bought the large house and garden next door and demolished the buildings to provide tennis and fives courts, botany beds and greenhouse, a library and specialist geography and botany classrooms. In 1916 a sixth form was added and by 1917 there were 368 pupils, including 14 in sixth form, plus another 42 (including 16 boys) in kindergarten.

The uniform was described by Elsie Mitchell as 'Navy blue gymslips (dreadful things made of serge or some other heavy material), with navy blue bloomers, pale blue blouses, thick black woollen gym stockings, straw hats like boaters only more oval in shape, with a hatband of striped navy and pale blue Petersham ribbon with the crest in front.'

The move to Hampton

By 1934, due to increasing specialisation in the upper forms, the Board of Education recommended a minimum school size of 450. As Hackney was becoming increasingly industrial and the area was over-supplied with schools, the governors resolved that the school at 'Mare Street cannot be usefully and economically carried on' and to dispose of the premises and establish a new school 'to be known as Lady Eleanor Holles School... in the County of Middlesex.' The Mare Street building, now part of the University of the Arts London, still exists, with the badges used at Redcross Street and Hackney  and the foundation date of 1710 plainly seen on the façade.

In 1936 the school relocated with six staff and just six pupils to temporary premises at a small private school at Summerleigh in Teddington until the new school could be built. The current site in Hanworth Road, Hampton was chosen because of a lack of provision for girls' education in the area and the useful synergies with the two other schools on the same road.note 5 The buildings were designed in the shape of an E by Colonel FS Hammond, whose father had designed the Hackney school, and were opened on 7 December 1937 by  HRH the Duchess of Gloucester.

A new badge, motto, and uniform were designed to support what the school magazine described as a ‘transplant into new soil’. The ermine on the shield is part of the coat of arms of the Holles family, and below it is a representation of the old city gate of Cripplegate. The Hackney motto of Diligentia Praevelabit (‘Diligence will prevail’) was replaced with the more inspiring Holles family motto Spes Audacem Adjuvat (‘Hope favours the bold’). The new uniform incorporated the colours of the new crest, consisting of grey blazer and skirt, white blouse, and red, silver, and black striped tie, plus black hat with ‘Lord Mayor’s Red’ hatband.




Wartime Education

175 pupils started, and by the end of the first full year there were 223 girls in the school. 420 were expected in September 1939, but the Second World War broke out and by November there were only 333, due to parents evacuating away from areas where bombing was expected. The school was disrupted in various ways during the war, especially as many staff went into war work, but operated throughout. Corridors were converted into air raid shelters, with stacked sandbags, gas masks on pegs, and the windows covered with brown gummed paper and blackout blinds. Lessons and examinations were regularly interrupted by air raids, and teaching would continue in the corridors. The playing fields were dug up to grow vegetables which formed a substantial part of the school diet. A school inspection in 1940 is broadly positive, although they urged that a continuous course of cookery and needlework be provided for all girls in order to 'spread the knowledge of right feeding.' Physical education teachers would collaborate with the school doctor to do remedial work to build up the girls' health, and posture classes were a regular feature. 

All of this was managed by Miss Nora Nickalls (affectionately known as 'Old Nick'), a remarkable and indefatigable woman who was Head Mistress from 1915 to 1944 and guided the school through two world wars. The esteem and affection in which Governors and pupils held her is seen in the tributes to her in the school magazine when she retired and in the magnificent display case seen in the foyer, donated by contributions made by former pupils in her honour. 


The Butler Education Act 1944, with the promise of  free secondary education, forced the governors to decide between continuing as a direct grant grammar school and accepting half the pupils from the County Council on a non-selective basis, or to become an Independent Girls Public School with full autonomy. The parents voted overwhelmingly for the second course, despite the increase in fees resulting from the loss of the government grant. Full independence was achieved in 1946 when Mary Richards was Head Mistress. By then there were 531 pupils, including 27 boarders in Burlington House, a VI form of 50 and a junior department of 152. (The boarding house was closed in 1965, and the space added to the Junior School.)

Ruth Garwood Scott - Head Mistress 1949-1973

Ruth Garwood Scott's time as Head Mistress from 1949 to 1973 coincided with significant social developments such as the expansion in the number of universities from 20 to 43, and the development of the 'pill' as a reliable form of contraception. The view that education was wasted on women because they would give up a career on marriage or when they became pregnant started to be challenged. 

Opportunities were opening up for women and Ruth Garwood Scott worked tirelessly both to raise the profile of the school by cultivating the school's links with the City of London and to enhance the facilities of the school. Supported by the Governors and then in 1961, harnessing parent power by the founding of the Friends of the Lady Eleanor Holles' School (FLEHS), the school changed dramatically during her time as Head Mistress. 

Beginning in 1954 with the addition of new science laboratories, Ruth Garwood Scott embarked on an ambitious building programme to support and enhance the facilities of the school. The West wing of the school with facilities for arts, crafts and music; the Great Hall; the Peter Studd wing and the indoor swimming pool were all added during her headship. Additional land, known to pupils as Geard's Acre, was also purchased for more playing fields. 


Ruth Garwood Scott still arouses strong opinons amongst those who were at LEH in the 50s and 60s, from those who have a genuine affection for her to those who feared what could be an imperious style (but one which was common amongst Heads of the time). She certainly thought it was her responsibility to make it clear what she thought was best for each girl and was forthright in expressing her views if a pupil's choice was not hers. She had a vision for her pupils, expressed in prospectuses of the time that, not only should the school provide a good academic education but that its chief aim was to help pupils become 'women of grace and integrity, who will make the fullest use of their gifts and will serve the community with a high sense of responsibility'. This introduced the phrase 'grace and integrity' into the LEH lexicon. 

Ruth Garwood Scott played a very important role in the development of LEH. During her time the VI form more than tripled from 47 (of whom 9 went to university) to 150 (44 of whom went on to university, 11 to Oxbridge), and the Sixth Form centre in the Pavilion was one of the first in the country. Each girl in the Sixth Form spent one third of her working week on general studies, choosing from 15 options as diverse as philosophy, computer science, a hostess course, women in society, and music or art appreciation. At the same time the A level curriculum was enlarged to include options such as Russian, economics, music and pottery, and the careers department was set up with its own room. Athletics was also introduced for the first time, and LEH represented both the county and the country through the 1960s and 70s. Music flourished, and the school play was made part of the official timetable in the last weeks of the summer term.

Consolidation then Modernisation

Margaret Smalley, who had been at the school as Head of Music since 1954, was Head Mistress from 1974-1981. This was principally a period of consolidation, and she is remembered fondly for her kindness. When Elizabeth (Liz) Candy then took over in 1981 she, like Ruth Garwood Scott, was a reformer who would rule in charismatic and magisterial style for 23 years. When she joined , the school was widely viewed as old-fashioned, and she moved quickly to correct this, starting by abolishing uniform for the Sixth form. Realizing that if LEH was 'to keep ahead we have to look ahead', she also presided over an extensive building programme, chiefly focussed on the arts and sport, including a mezzanine floor in the Great Hall, the art block, the Margaret Lacey Library, new tennis and netball courts, the boat house opened by Steve Redgrave in 2000note 6, and the Sports Hall in 2001. In 2010, as she reflected on her time as Head Mistress, Liz Candy said that the expansion of the creative side of the school had been one of the developments which had given her most pleasure. The Junior Department also benefitted from an extensive refurbishment of Burlington House.

Miss Candy - Head Mistress 1981-2004

The academic standing of the school developed significantly under Liz Candy's leadership. Although she despised league tables, by 1998 LEH was ranked 11th amongst all schools in the country. Whilst league tables existed, her view was it was always better to be high up than elsewhere. However she felt strongly that academic results were only part of what mattered and that the development of 'people who are confident, secure, aware of themselves and sensitive to others' was as important a role of the school as qualifications. 

Liz Candy argued that independent schools should not be seen as elitist and regretted the demise of the assisted Places Scheme in 1997. It is a fitting tribute to her memory that, in 2016, a scholarship was established in her name. 

Gillian Low (R) - Head Mistress 2004-2014 with Elizabeth Hossain, teacher of History at LEH and author of 'Grace and Integrity': A Portrait of Lady Eleanor Holles School' published for the 300th anniversary of the school. 

The New Millenium

Gillian Low became Head Mistress in 2004 and continued to oversee developments in both academic and extra-curricular fields. She introduced the Sixth Form enrichment programme to extend subjects beyond the confines of the examination curriculum, and the extra-curricular options became so extensive that they needed a fat booklet to describe them all. The Learning Resources Centre was built to house the computers that had become the norm and the Arts Centre with 330-seat theatre, designed by Walters and Cohen and completed in 2013 won a RIBA London award.

In the academic year 2011-12, the school celebrated its 300th anniversary with a series of events including a Service of Thanksgiving and Re-dedication at St Paul's Cathedral, London on 18th November 2011. As part of a series of events to mark the 300th anniversary a history of the school was commissioned and the question of whether the school had been founded in 1710 or 1711 finally resolved. 

The importance of resilience and well-being

From 2014, under Heather Hanbury's leadership, there was a continued effort to look to what will best equip pupils for the 21st century, with the Gateway Building added in 2017 offering superb new facilities to support the teaching of Product Design and Computer Science. Links between LEH and Hampton School have grown in strength and variety. Periodically, since the 1980's some joint subject options such as General Studies and Theatre Studies have been offered to Sixth Formers at both schools. In 2018 joint Sixth form enrichment lessons have taken place with boys from Hampton School. The opening of a gate in the fence between the two schools in September 2019 put movement between the two schools on a more informal basis and was a moment of great celebration for current and former students. 

There was a striking development with the establishment of LEH in Foshan, China which opened in September 2021. 

Mrs Hanbury
Heather Hanbury - Head Mistress from 2014 - 2023

At the Hampton site there has been a strong emphasis also on developing resilience, well-being and sound mental health of all pupils and staff. Heather's own story, from a council estate in Belfast to becoming Head Mistress of one of the leading independent schools for girls, has shown how life-changing education can be. Her passion, that a good education should be available to all who have the talent, is reflected in the vigour with which building up the Bursary Fund is being undertaken. Her concern that LEH should recognise and value the contribution of every pupil can be seen in the move away in 2018 from the traditional Prize Giving in late Autumn which only a minority of pupils attended to a Celebration of the Year at the end of the summer term to which all pupils come. These Celebrations recognise every aspect of school life over the year and prizes are awarded as just one part of recognising the contributions of all pupils. 

In Heather’s final year as Head Mistress of LEH School before retirement, she was announced as President of the Girls’ School Association, and the LEH spirit of fortitude, determination and poise was on display in abundance at the GSA annual conference in November 2022 with its Future Female theme. In her keynote speech, Heather gave a clarion call for the importance of girls’ only education and her comments generated headlines across the national press. Drawing her time at LEH to a close, Heather won ‘Head of the Year – Independent School’ at the Oscars of Education, the TES Awards, whilst LEH School was also nominated for Independent School of the Year. Quite a high to retire on and in her final assembly as Head Mistress, Heather surprised both staff and pupils with the premiere of her version of ‘My Way’ with pupils cheering her to the rafters as she took her final ovation.

LEH now

Lacrosse training in the grounds of LEH

Looking to the future

In September 2023 Rowena Cole took up the helm as Head Mistress of LEH. With the full support of Heather Hanbury and the SMT team behind her, we look forward to the future of LEH under Mrs Cole’s leadership.

Further Information

There is a lavishly illustrated and anecdote-filled book on the history of the school entitled 'Grace and Integrity': A Portrait of The Lady Eleanor Holles School', by former LEH history teacher Elizabeth Hossain, available from the Development Office at LEH at a special price and on Amazon.

Cover of Grace and Integrity book about LEH history
  1. The foundation stone laid at the site in Hampton gives 1711 as the year of foundation. However, the treasurer's account book records the paying of a girls' mistress from Lady Day (25 March) 1710 and girls took part in the procession of charity children in Whitsun week 1710. The schools in Redcross Street, Cripplegate and Mare Street, Hackney always celebrated 1710 as the date of the school's foundation. The error may be because a 900-year lease of the rooms in the boys' school was only completed in November 1711. 
  2. This sum was meant to fund and equip the school, pay the school mistress and provide clothing for the girls, following guidelines provided by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. 
  3. From 'Orders and Rules for the Government of Lady Eleanor Holles' Charity School', established by a degree in Chancery, 1710
  4. The London School Board, set up under the auspices of the Elementary Educaton Act 1870, constructed over four hundred schools across London in 30 years, and by the end of the 1880s was providig places for more than 350,000 children. 
  5. Only the senior elementary school had been built at this stage. Hampton Grammar School had not yet been built and was in a completely different part of  Hampton. The sale of the land to LEH by the Hampton Trust helped to provide the funds to pay for the boys' new building on the Hanworth Road. 
  6. Rowing at LEH was a triumph. It was offered from 1982, and in  1988 LEH was the top girls' rowing school in the national championships, and in 1993 brought home the College Cup from Henley.