"A school does not exist to send out men and women solely to play a part in life whereby they achieve a competence and honourable life of useful work, but it exists to send out for posterity and for their own generation, men and women who by their character shall leave the society in which they live, the better for their presence and hence the world much nearer the Kingdom."
St George’s Harpenden was established when Rev. Cecil Grant, to use his own words, "migrated" to the town in 1906 from Keswick in the Lake District. He was Headmaster of Keswick School which had been re-established in l898 after a lapse of many years, as a co-educational boarding school. Mr. Grant became increasingly frustrated by local criticism and the interference of the recently established local education authority. He also wanted a school with its own Chapel. Grant identified vacant buildings in Harpenden which had been built by the Rev. R. H. Wix, and used from 1887 as a boarding school for 100 boys. The Chapel had been added in 1891, and the swimming pool in 1894: a frighteningly fashionable development for the time. However, Revd Wix’s enterprise went unrewarded, and the school had folded. Supported by parents and friends and with more goodwill than financial backing, Rev Grant formed a co-educational public School Trust and Mr. and Mrs. Grant with most of the staff and many pupils moved to St. George's in time for the beginning of the 1907 spring term.
Developing his experiences at Keswick, Mr. Grant made co-education the cornerstone of a school where children could live in an atmosphere closely related to family life and based on Christian principles. Whole families were encouraged to join the school - at times even 3 and 4 year olds were enrolled, anticipating the 21st century fashion in education for so-called “through schools”. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the early entrants have followed family tradition over the years.
The first Head Girl wrote in later life: "We moved to the strange land of the South. We missed our excursions to the island, and our lake picnics (Lake Derwent Water). Instead of hills to climb and form teas, there were bicycle rides along green lanes, past rich cornfields into lovely villages, and we enjoyed the sometime shocked, but always interested attention, of the Hertfordshire folk who looked upon us no doubt as interesting specimens from the queer educational school up the road."
At the beginning of the 20th century, a co-educational independent boarding school was almost unique. It was chosen by a number of unconventional, intellectual and articulate parents, often from the emerging commercial middle classes. Almost all students boarded, from homes as far afield as the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. The careers of these children reflected this diversity of origins, talents and interests. Old Georgians made their ways in academia, medicine, finance, the Church, State and the Colonial Service, the Armed Forces, art, music and radio.
Numbers quickly increased, almost doubling in the first year. Money and space were always in short supply. By creating new shares in the Company; it was possible to buy the freehold of the school for £14,000 in 1910. With the co-operation of Mr. E. C. Jarvis, a young builder setting up in Harpenden, a building program was devised, one which seems never to have ceased for long, and which most recently saw the construction of the Sports Centre by the same Jarvis company. After World War One Harpenden was expanding as a dormitory town, and St. George's, although an independent school was the only 'grammar' type school available. New classrooms were added, dormitories and domestic facilities were enlarged. An extended Nave was added to the Chapel, and the Cloisters, built partly by pupils and staff, were dedicated to the 19 old boys who had died in the Great War. A Montessori unit was opened in 1917. When Mr. Grant retired in 1936 a letter signed by eminent men and women of the day appeared in The Times:
"The work of Mr. Grant ably assisted by his wife, has been little short of remarkable; generations to come will profit from this magnificent pioneering work."
Dr. A. H. Watts, second Master, succeeded Mr. Grant. He was an inspiring English teacher. Having taken over boys' games, his interest, enthusiasm and encouragement must have been a contributing factor to the success of the lst XV unbeaten from 1934-1937, and victors in the first Public Schoolboys Seven-a-Side Competition in 1939: a victory we have been trying and failing to emulate ever since. The Parent Staff Association had its beginning just before the War, and it was Dr. Watts who steered the school through the darkest years. Some of the ex-members of the Junior School and the Children's House (as the Montessori unit had become), were evacuated to Devon, where lessons were often put aside so that children could help with the harvest. In Harpenden, the school was reorganised with dormitories on the ground floor and the swimming pool was drained and fitted up as an air-raid shelter. Here too help was given by the pupils at harvest time. Staff and pupils joined firefighting groups, the Home Guard, and the Red Cross. It was said that "with the fine example of courage and industry set by Dr. and Mrs. Watts, the loyalty and devotion of the staff brought the school through the trials and difficulties of the War years. Their imperturbable persistence and unquenchable fun, overcame all difficulties."
Unique in the history of the school was the ordination of Dr. Watts as priest in the School Chapel in 1946. A year later he retired and became a parish priest in Gloucestershire.
In 1947 a former St. George's pupil, Mr. G. T. Hughes, became Headmaster. In 1950, he was followed by Mr. P. M. S. Gedge, a colourful character fondly remembered by many Old Georgians. Over the next few years the school progressed fairly uneventfully. Improvements were made, existing buildings were extended, the Golden Jubilee celebrated in 1957, the Assembly Hall opened in 1958.
By the 1960s state schools were rapidly improving and many private schools found it difficult to provide facilities for specialised and technical subjects. St. George's was no exception, having few endowments and lacking the backing of a wealthy company. After many months of exploring possible courses of action, the Governors applied to Hertfordshire County Council for Voluntary Aided status. This allowed the school to maintain control of its admissions and ethos, while drawing funding from the government. This status was granted by the Minister of State in 1967. Henceforth pupils were to be admitted at 11 and would be of Grammar School ability. New buildings were promised to bring the school up to the standard required for a three-form entry, and for the first time in its history St. George's was to have a full range of specialist rooms.
Shortly after Mr. H. J. Meadows took over from Mr. Gedge in 1970, decisions by local and central government meant that the 3 secondary schools in Harpenden became all-ability five-form entry schools. This required a rapid building programme at St. George's. Numbers increased from under 500 in 1968 to 800 in 1980. After 13 years of almost continuous planning, Mr. Meadows retired having seen St. George's change from a small private establishment to a Voluntary Aided five-form entry co-educational all-ability school with boarding facilities. The Revd. Ian Ogilvie became Headmaster in 1984, and was followed in l988 by Mr. Norman Hoare. Mr Hoare saw the school through a period of incredibly rapid change in educational thinking and organisation at national and local level, with the change to GCSE, the National Curriculum, Specialist School Status, and Academy conversion. While St. George's has experienced rapid educational change, it preserved its special ethos, improved results and continued to be over-subscribed each year. The school marked its centenary in 2007 with a visit of Princess Anne, an expansion to 6 forms of entry, and a multi-million pound building development: the last likely for a while given the credit crunch and cuts in government capital spending.
Numbers currently stand at 1381 the academic Sixth Form accommodating nearly 400, with space for 133 boarders. In 2013, Mr Ray McGovern took up post as Headmaster to replace Mr Hoare, who had completed 25 years’ service and who could be viewed as the father of the modern school in the same way as Rev. Grant stands as its founding force.
After four successful years Mr McGovern moved to take up another Headship in Wales, to be replaced by one of his Deputy Heads Miss Helen Barton, who in 2017 became the School's first Headmistress.
Now, in 2023, Dr. Watts' words still ring true: "A school does not exist to send out men and women solely to play a part in life whereby they achieve a competence and honourable life of useful work, but it exists to send out for posterity and for their own generation, men and women who by their character shall leave the society in which they live, the better for their presence and hence the world much nearer the Kingdom."