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Our History - 180 years

St Madeleine Sophie Barat

Our school would not exist were it not for the vision and bravery of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat.   St Madeleine Sophie  founded the Society of the Sacred Heart in 1800. She wanted to educate a new generation to transform a society shattered by revolution.  The first Sacred Heart school was founded in Amiens, France in 1801.  Soon a network of schools, centred on the Heart of Jesus  and value of the individual was established throughout France and beyond. By the time of her death in 1865 there were Sacred Heart schools on four continents. 

Amiens, France, 1800s, Painting by George Arthus Fripp

Arrival In England, 1842

A small group of Sacred Heart sisters travelled on a boat from France on 8 December 1842 (during the reign of Queen Victoria) to open a new community and school in 'the village' of East Acton at Berrymead Priory, under the leadership of Mother Louise Merilhou.  From 8 December 2022 and throughout the coming year, we will be celebrating 180 years of the Society's work in England.
Berrymead Priory, West London

The Roehampton Years, 1842-1850

Convent of the Sacred Heart, Roehampton 
School Photo from Roehampton

In 1850 the school was transferred to Roehampton, and this remained the only Sacred Heart school in England until 1874.  After Mabel Digby moved to the school in 1872 as Mother Superior, it prospered under her leadership and this was continued by her successor, Janet Stuart. Today the site is occupied by the University of Roehampton, which still retains a ‘Digby Stuart College’.

Many Sacred Heart schools were founded after this including Brighton (Hove) in 1877, Carlisle in 1889 and our own school here in Hammersmith in 1893.  During World War 2, the Roehampton school was evacuated from London (as we were from Hammersmith).  The school’s buildings in Roehampton were badly damaged during the war and 98 boarders were moved to Woldingham in Surrey, which remains a Sacred Heart school today, with close ties to us.

Sacred Heart Chapel that survived the bombing

The Sacred Heart Chapel at Roehampton survived the bombing but the building all around it was destroyed.  At the time (and still today) to the right of the altar was a statue of a sister holding a model of the building that had been destroyed. It is understood that after the war, architects used the model as reference for the reconstruction.   An example perhaps of the Society’s resilience!  

The chapel has a magnificent painted ceiling and both Mother Digby and Mother Stuart are buried there, with tombstones on the floor by the altar.

Our close association with Roehampton continues, with the school's archive held by the archivist at the university (in Digby College).  We also have a teacher training partnership agreement with the university, and work with them to enable schools across West London to recruit and train teachers for their own schools.  

Sr Janet Stuart decided that a Sacred Heart school was needed in Hammersmith and on 25 March 1893 Mother Digby purchased the Hammersmith site (with its own rich history) for £37,000. 

The Hammersmith Site from 1668

The Convent of The English Ladies, illegal at time, and founded by Mary Ward (1585-1645), opened a school in Hammersmith in 1668 in ‘The Great House’ next to Cupola House, the country residence of the godfather of Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II.  Mary was an early champion of the ability of women to lead and be independent of the customary male dominance of her time - referred to by some as the First Sister of Feminism.

By 1794 The English Ladies' Convent school had closed, and only 5 nuns were left.  In 1795, another clandestine community of English Benedictine nuns came from France and reopened the school in 1797. In 1865, the Benedictines left, and successive communities took the convent.

Cupola House, Hammersmith 1600s
The Nunnery, Hammersmith c1794

The St Thomas Seminary, 1876

St Thomas Seminary c1880

In 1869, plans were drawn up for a new building to be used as a seminary (theological college) for monks. The architect of the St Thomas Seminary (now our school) was John Francis Bentley who later designed Westminster Cathedral.  Building works were completed in 1869 and this image of the original building will be clearly recognisable to all Sacred Heart High School students.


The letters S, T and a crest can still be found above The Bishop’s Door.  This is the crest of Thomas Becket (St Thomas of Canterbury) after whom the Seminary was named.  Thomas Becket was a close friend of King Henry II but later in life, Henry became frustrated with Thomas and uttered the famous words ‘Can no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’  Knights loyal to the King took it upon themselves to then murder Thomas on the alter steps in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, an act that horrified the King.


Two coats of arms were embedded into the wall of the seminary’s cloister garden.  These can still be seen if you look up, in our Garth.  One with the letters HC for Henry Cardinal Manning who laid the foundation stone for the seminary; and one PP IX for the Pope at that time, Pope Pius IX

The Foundation Stone

The foundation stone for the seminary can still be found at the base of the front wall of our school - the front being the facade that is approached from the Bute Gardens entrance.  

The Chapel, 1883

The chapel was built in 1883, designed by the same architect as the Seminary, John Francis Bentley.  It was opened by Cardinal Manning on 14 July 1884, and was dedicated to the Holy Ghost. 

Originally the chapel faced in the opposite direction with the 'window' above the choir stalls where you now find the organ.  The stone structure of the current window did exist, but each segment was in-filled with stone and painted with images of the saints. 

By the 18th Century, Catholics were no longer persecuted, but even until 1829, they were not allowed to enter professions or inherit land. Formal Catholic records began to exist from 1829 onwards and perhaps even 50 years later there was still some hesitancy and fear of lingering discrimination. Possibly the seminary did not want to draw attention to itself at that time, with a window facing the road? 

The original chapel 'window' with stone infill


Sculptural representations of St Peter and St Edward (Edward the Confessor) wearing his crown - both patrons of Westminster.

The Society moves in, 1883

The Society moved into the St Thomas Seminary site in Hammersmith in 1893 and immediately established a school.  Known initially as the Rosary School (1893 to 1901) we started with 28 boarders and 36 day students, wholly unrecognised and independent of government control and government grants. 

The congregation's Plan of Studies set a blueprint for both the ethos and curriculum and implicitly set certain standards of both behaviour and education.  On 1 May 1901 the headteacher received notification that the school was to become recognised as a Higher Grade Elementary School catering for children up to the age of (approx) 14.  This brought with it a government grant, and for the first time, inspections.  It was a stepping stone to becoming recognised as a secondary school.

In 1903, we set up a training centre for teachers and to this day the school remains involved in teacher training, leading the West London Teacher Training Alliance of over 60 schools.

1904, Officially a Secondary School

On 1 January 1904 the Rosary Higher Grade School was upgraded and became officially a secondary school.   Our first ever inspection report in 1904 stated:  'The girls are taught well, and the tone is very good'.   An orchestra was formed in 1905 and uniform was introduced in 1906.


The Cloister Paintings, early 1900s

The cloister paintings of the life of Christ (some of which were copied from well known 15th century paintings by Fra Angelico) were completed by Sister Mary Maycock in the early 1900s - some sources state 1902-03 and others 1906-07.  Artistic talent was in the family, as Mary's father, George Bernard Maycock was very successful stained-glass window artist who designed the windows for St Patrick's cathedral in Melbourne Australia.  


These historically significant wall paintings are in need of restoration and the school is currently commissioning a condition survey report as a first step towards a plan that may involve initially 'protection' but then in the longer term, as we explore sources of funding, ideally full restoration.

Stained Glass Window, 1907

The direction of the Chapel was reversed in 1907, and the current stained glass window, overlooking the Broadway was installed. This includes repeated heart designs and it commemorates various of the founding sisters from the Society, who are named within the window.

Throughout most of the 20th Century, pews faced the High Altar, below the stained glass window and in 1990 the Chapel underwent refurbishment.

Mater Admirabilis, original 1846

At some point in this period we expect, the Mater Admirabilis painting hangs in every Sacred Heart school across the globe.  We assume it came to Hammersmith around the time that the sisters moved in.  The Mater Admirabilis is originally a fresco in the Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, which was painted in 1844 in the chapel alcove by a young postulant to the Society, Pauline Perdreau.

It depicts a young, contemplative Mary with a distaff and spindle, an open book at her feet. Pauline’s aim was to convey calm and purity, but when she first finished the painting, it was not quite what she intended!

Fresco colours fade significantly as they dry, so Pauline was advised to paint the fresco in very bright colours. It being her first fresco painting, she was mortified when she saw the garish, shocking colours, and she was only made to feel worse when the presiding Superior saw the fresco and ordered that it be erased.  A local craftsman however, recommended that they cover the fresco with a cloth and wait for it to fully dry before passing judgement. Sure enough, as time passed, the colours faded to the soft pinks and blues that we see today, and the face expresses a peacefulness that has been difficult to fully replicate.  

In 1846, Pope Pius IX came to visit the Society at the Trinità dei Monti. Upon seeing the beautiful fresco, he declared it “Mother Most Admirable!”, and from then on, the painting was referred to as ‘Mater Admirabilis’.    The Feast of Mater Admirabilis (‘Mother Most Admirable’) on 20 October is an important celebration for the Society of the Sacred Heart and a special day for prayer and reflection.

The First World War 1914-1918

After 1914 (the beginning of the First World War) student numbers increased because of an influx of Belgian refugees (150 students by 1918) and the number of trainee teachers also increased, as there was a demand for women teachers during the war period.  Subjects taught at the school by the nuns included religious studies, needlework, French, German, English, drawing and singing. There is mention of elementary maths and 'nature' being taught, and we presume also history and geography.

There was a period of decline following the end of the First World War. This was a time of national unrest, with many injured men returning, industrial strikes and much sickness including a major influenza epidemic in 1918-19 which swept the country and led to many deaths.

The 1930's

In 1938, four cottages in Elm Grove (later renamed Bute Gardens in 1936) were demolished to make way for a school extension but the development was then delayed by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Prefects 1931-32
Students 1933
Science lab 1930s
Reception Room with plants, 1930s

Operation Pied Piper, Friday 1 September 1939

Suddenly and with only four hours notice, a day earlier than originally planned, Operation Pied Piper, evacuated our students out of London to Oxford at the start of the second world war, on Friday 1 September 1939.   Families had been aware of the evacuation which had been planned to take place on the Saturday and they had practised the evacuation with gas masks in August.  It must have been a shock after arriving in school on the Friday morning to be told at 11am that all the students must be sent home  as their train was departing that same day to Oxford at 3pm.  No pictures have been found of our students on this day but the photograph shows evacuees arriving in Oxford on that same day.

Students gradually returned towards the end of the war. 

The Secondary Grammar School, 1948 

In 1948 we were reorganised as a secondary grammar school — the Convent of Sacred Heart High School.  Our first Sixth Form Christmas Dance (inviting boys from St Benedict’s), took place in 1951.  By 1959 the school was divided into three ‘houses’, Michael House, Raphael House and Gabriel House.

Sacred Heart High School Today



While still benefitting from our wonderful historic setting, Sacred Heart High School has developed into a 21st century school (11-18) with state of the art facilities including new science laboratories, wonderfully lit arts studios in the loft and a huge well equipped sports hall and dance studio.

We continue to champion the five goals of Sacred Heart Education which are followed throughout the worldwide network of Sacred Heart schools, and we maintain a close relationship with the Society. Its unique philosophy and Catholic ethos permeate all we do.

We continue the tradition of Sacred Heart Education, rooted in the importance of relationships; recognition of the individual; building social awareness and the importance of standing up for others.  Kindness and responsibility is at the heart of this, both towards one another and to others beyond our own community.

“To be a joy-bearer and a joy-giver says everything.” Janet Stuart rscj

Our academic results place us in the top 3% of schools nationally but we aim to educate all students holistically, preparing them to become positive role models, agents of change and leaders who will transform the world we live in for the betterment of all.

In 2020 the school was awarded a High Performance Learning World Class Award.  The heart of this modern philosophy of education was already embedded in the Sacred Heart ethos from that very first school in France - recognising the potential of every single student individually.

“You can shine no matter what you are made of.” Janet Stuart rscj

We continue to strive to improve further.  We place great importance on the promotion of diversity and inclusion, with a rich multi-ethic student body adding value to our understanding of true community.  We seek to ensure that our curriculum reflects this.  We provide breadth in our curriculum and value the arts as much as we do the sciences.  To this end, a planning application has been submitted for the development of a new theatre ‘in the round’ to serve as a multifunctional performing arts centre.  We are completing works on a new Sixth Form Centre and are commissioning a condition survey report as a first step towards restoration of our cloister paintings.

We give thanks for the foundation provided to us by the Society of the Sacred Heart and their continuing involvement in our very special and unique school.

Day by day we write the stories of our lives;
no day in our life is without influence on the last,
for ourselves as well as others.”
Janet Erskine Stuart rscj


See here a downloadable SHHS booklet celebrating 180 years of the Society