It was in 1884 when Durham High School for Girls first opened with 11 pupils and the support of the Bishop of Durham who pronounced that ‘Daughters should be educated that they might be fit companions for their husbands.’ A shocking pronouncement to our modern ears but, in fact, immensely progressive at a time when an academic education was rarely considered for girls and actively discouraged in some circles.
You can see how far we have come!
From these humble beginnings the school has grown into one of the most respected all-girls’ schools in the country, achieving results which consistently place it at the top of league tables in the North East. Our students leave us to take up careers across the globe as engineers, surgeons, designers, lawyers, business leaders… the list goes on, impressive in its variety.
We are immensely proud of our history and the distinctive values which still inform the present school.
When the Church Schools Company recorded the request for a girls’ school in Durham in 1883, the proposal was instantly popular and a property was leased at 33 Claypath with Miss Gray as the first headmistress.
Having grown to over 50 pupils by 1886, Miss Gray moved the School to 3 South Bailey – now St John’s College – where it remained until 1912. Already its academic record was providing evidence of the ‘educability’ of girls who were exhorted to ‘take up some definite work after leaving school instead of drifting into an aimless life of self indulgence.’
The Great War saw numbers falter as men went off to fight, whilst domestic duties drove girls back to the parlour, but by Armistice Day, women emerged as heroes of the home-front with an unstoppable desire to compete successfully in a man’s world. Formidable headmistresses established the school’s science credentials in particular and, by 1935, girls were being prepared to study medicine – all this from woeful resources consisting initially of just a sink, two washstands and a gas-ring.
War struck again in 1939, with Durham becoming one target amongst many in the British industrial heartlands. Actress Wendy Craig, recalls rushing to the air raid shelter in the cellar of Leazes House, Durham High School’s home at that time. Fortunately the school went unscathed and Wendy, who made her acting debut there in The Little Red Hen, went onto greater things, returning to open our new Salter building in 2007.
Durham High School moved to its present site, Farewell Hall, in 1968, compelled by a new through road in the city which entailed the demolition of Leazes House.
Since its move here, an on-going building programme has seen the addition of a Sixth Form block, Junior House buildings and the construction of a Nursery. Another phase of construction provided state-of-the-art labs, a new library and ICT facilities. A drama studio, built to the same dimensions as Durham’s Gala theatre stage provides a fantastic rehearsal space for our annual production, as well as a venue for smaller scale performances.
Now, just as when it was founded, Durham High School remains a bespoke girls’ school, providing the best educational experience for its pupils which discountenances talk of a glass ceiling. The percentage of girls studying A level Science and Maths far exceeds the national average, whilst Arts and Languages flourish alongside an extra-curricular provision which encompasses drama, music and sport, all to an exceptionally high standard.
The Bishop was right that the girls would make “fit companions for husbands” but the girls are a great deal more besides and the modern challenge might lie in finding partners to match them.
Inspired by Neil McGregor’s ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ for BBC Radio, we created our own version, using items from our archive.