Towards the end of the eighteenth century a house was erected on the south side of St. Mary’s Lane, Upminster opposite the Windmill field. Hill Place as it was known had extensive grounds and the house itself was reconstructed in the ‘Gothic’ style some eighty years later between 1871 and 1872 by the architect W. G. Bartlett, who had recently remodelled St. Laurence Church nearby. This house, now the convent, had an impressive entrance hall, with marble flooring, oak panelling and fine windows above the main staircase designed by Burne-Jones and made by William Morris. These and much of the original house still remain standing and pupils of the school next door may see this hall when they go to the chapel in the house for a lunch hour mass.
In May 1927, arrangements for the purchase of Hill Place by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary were made and thus was born the school often known as the Upminster Convent School, even today when it is no longer owned and run by the sisters.
The sisters who bought the house and founded the school were members of a religious congregation, The Congregation of the Religious of The Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), founded in 1849 in France. The founder of the congregation, Père Pierre Jean Gailhac was a priest in Béziers in the diocese of Montpellier.
The foundress was a young widow, Madame Appolonia Pelissier-Cure; she and her husband had been close friends of Père Gailhac. She took the name in religion, Mother St. John and the “order” founded by this saintly woman and Père Gailhac received in 1899, final approbation of the Holy See.
Some Sacred Heart of Mary sisters (sometimes known as the Béziers Sisters) had come to Liverpool as early as 1872 and from thence some came to east London.
It was these latter sisters who eventually were encouraged by Father Van Meenan (later Canon), parish priest of both Romford and Hornchurch to acquire Hill Place for a school.
The sisters not only founded the independent secondary school, officially called The Convent Collegiate School, but had also a private junior section as well to whose infant classes, boys were admitted. (Years later, in the 1980’s some boys from the Campion School and some from Dury Falls School, which had closed, attended some lessons in the sixth form. So, very young and a handful of senior boys have been amongst the school’s pupils).
In 1999, the Congregation of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary celebrated the 150th anniversary of their founding with a concelebrated mass in St. Joseph’s Church and a reception held in the Old Hall of the school, once the main school hall. Amongst those present were many pupils and ex pupils and many of the lay staff past and present. Sister Patrice who had taught in the school (Domestic Science) and then gone as a missionary to Brazil was there from Penmaenmaur, Sister Mary Lamble (Sr. St. Esprit), Sister Veronica, Sister Mary-Jo and all the sisters from the convent in particular Sister Patricia Butler as well as sisters from other houses in England and Ireland were present. The three Lynam sisters were there as was Miss Colette Dawson now with the Brentwood Education Service and Sister Teresa, all of them former teachers in the school.
A display of photographs and articles showed the work of the sisters not only in Upminster but in many parts of the world. It is worth noting too that the sisters have played an important part in the development of St. Joseph’s School and St. Mary’s at Hornchurch.
Sister Teresa, a former pupil of Sacred Heart of Mary School, was for thirty-one years headmistress of St. Mary’s School and was awarded a M.B.E. for her services to education. One of the sisters, Sister Rosemary Lenehan, Provincial Superior of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, serves on the board of governors of our school and the sisters are often seen at school functions. Catholic education in Upminster and Hornchurch owes a great debt to the sisters and the school rejoices in its continued links with them.
The Early Years (1927-1950)
The Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School began as a small fee paying school. Its first headmistress was Mother Leonard. She was succeeded in 1936 by Rev. Mother Canice and then in 1946 by Rev. Mother Alcantara, who had been one of the pioneers of the Upminster Community. Sister Alcantara lived to the great age of 103 and died peacefully in the Upminster convent in 1995.
Hill Place had extensive grounds, some of which over the years was sold leaving the school today with somewhat limited acres. The first classroom block was that now known as the ‘A’ block, now containing the main offices, the staff room and classrooms on the first floor.
It was designed by Messrs Marshall and Archard and the former’s daughters, Andrée and Kathleen were pupils of the school. Sadly Kathleen died of diphtheria at a very young age.
The classroom block had not been completed by the time war broke out in 1939 and the original plan was never completed. (The architects’ drawing envisages a second wing jutting out towards St. Mary’s Lane. However, a fine chapel was built to the end of the house in 1935 and a hall, now the “Old Hall” leads off the main entrance hall to the school and a foundation stone can be seen to the right of the hall’s doors. It reads: “The first wing of this school was blessed and opened by H.L. Bishop Doubleday May 1st 1930″. The school’s main entrance is worthy of comment. Above the door is, not the school’s crest and motto (‘Veritas liberabit vos’) but the coat of arms of the Béziers Sisters and their motto ‘Salus Consolatio Spes Nostra’. Angels bear the canopy over the door and to the right and left are relief panels of Our Lord and His Mother. Soon the country was at war and the school closed. It was evacuated to Chilton House, Buckinghamshire and the Upminster buildings and the grounds were taken over by the army. A few sisters stayed on living in a house in Boundary Road. One of the community, Sister Maria continued to teach at St. Mary’s by day and to serve at night time on fire-watching duties. With a big R.A.F. aerodrome at Hornchurch, Upminster did not escape its full share of bombing but the school was not hit and in 1946 it re-opened with Mother Alcantara as head of school.
The Secondary Modern School (1950-1977)
Bishop Beck of Brentwood, ever concerned about Catholic Education in his diocese suggested to the sisters that their school should become a secondary modern school. This was agreed and the school became a ‘Voluntary Aided’ one in 1950 with Sister Stephen as headmistress.
Voluntary aided status meant of course that pupils no longer had to pay fees. In January 1947 a fourth form pupil’s fees were 9 guineas for tuition and five shillings for stationery making a grand total of £9.14s.0d. The receipt for this bill has a 2d stamp!
A number of lay teachers were now on the staff and the school, which still had a boarding department until 1950, had increased its numbers. In the next few years the New Hall was built, as were the blocks now known as C block (used originally for drama and as a library) and F block (now the sixth form). Unfortunately subsidence necessitated the fine chapel at the east end of the convent being demolished. God has been replaced by Mammon in the shape of the car for the area is now a car park!
In 1967 Sister Saint-Esprit became headmistress. A lady of quiet charm and real scholarship, she continued as headmistress for sixteen years. During her term as head she, assisted by Sister Colette Dawson, started sixth form classes and they designed the school’s crest and chose its motto ‘Veritas Liberabit Vos’ (The truth will make you free). The school in 1978 became a Comprehensive school and after a somewhat shaky start began to build up its reputation. Already noted for its pastoral care and the good manners of its pupils and for its music and drama, the school slowly but surely began to build up a reputation for its academic successes.
A New Status
The academic years 1978-79 opened with an entry of four forms and with a solemn mass for the blessing of the “D block”. The chief celebrant was H.E. Cardinal Basil Hume O.S.B. Father Donnelly (later Monsignor) was amongst the celebrating clergy, and there were boy servers, (this was before there were altar girls). They were under the watchful eye of Mr. Austin whose wife both before and after her marriage taught Mathematics to scores of Sacred Heart of Mary girls.
Miss Harkins, who had succeeded Sister Leonard as deputy head, organised the celebrations ably assisted by Mrs. Nans Jones for, of course, there was also a reception after the Mass and Sister Patrice, head of Domestic Science, and her helpers were to the fore here.
Most of the staff by the late seventies were lay men and women but Sisters Patrice, Ethna and Paschal were on the staff and when the former two left and Sister Paschal returned to Zambia, Sisters Barbara and Judith and later Sister Veronica came to teach in the school. In later years when there were no longer any R.S.H.M. sisters teaching in the school save for Sister Veronica, the school had the services of a Notre Dame sister, Sister Maureen Lomax as a second deputy head and Sister Kathleen, a St. Louis sister.
A four stream entry led to the house system being re-organised. In place of the houses named for the English Martyr saints, Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line and Margaret Ward, the present houses, Lindisfarne, Rievaulx, Thanet and Whitby were formed. Intensive rivalry between the houses was and still is evident at Sports Day and during the Inter House Drama and Music Festivals.
The Eighties and Nineties
In 1983 Sister Saint Esprit left the school and its first lay head Miss Jean Johnson was appointed. Miss Johnson’s period as headmistress was a little less than four years but in this time the importance of Science was stressed and Italian was introduced into the curriculum and soon proved a very popular subject. Miss Harkins acted as head until Mr. Barry Welch arrived in September.
The sixth form began to grow and the girls were encouraged to consider a wide variety of careers and university courses.
The next ten years were ones of great progress for the school. Italian became firmly established; CDT became a popular subject with the girls working with wood, metal and plastic. Computer Studies began and the sixth form increased in numbers and in improving results year by year. The new Library and the B block (housing at first Science and Art and Technology) was opened in 1990. Six years later, the E block (Technology and Modern Languages) was opened.
By 1999 when Mr. Welch retired, the school had become firmly established as a “centre of excellence”. It had for a few years enjoyed Grant Maintained status but reverted to Voluntary Aided status because of new legislation. Inevitably staff come and go over the years but the school has been fortunate in retaining all through its lifetime the services of many staff over long periods.
With the completion of the B block in 1990, Science had excellent facilities. Large numbers of computers have been installed in the rooms, once dormitories and later used for Art and Needlework, and the Mathematics Department has a ‘suite’ of classrooms in the D block. As the century drew to its close, the school moved on to a two week timetable to allow for greater ease in accommodating the demands and needs of the large numbers of subjects on the curriculum.
Mrs. Bernie Williams who had been deputy head since 1993 succeeded Mr. Welch on his retirement in 1999. Mrs Williams retired in 2013 and was succeeded by Mrs. Kim O’Neill who had been Deputy Head at the school. The Sacred Heart of Mary learning community has entered the new century confident that the school can and will continue to be a centre of excellence and certain that it will face the challenges of the future. There are about 800 pupils on roll at present and the school continues to be over subscribed by applications for admission.