Hackney Downs, formerly the Grocers’ Company School, was established as a new middle-class day school for boys in 1876. The school became a comprehensive in 1975 and closed in 1995. The introduction of a new kind of institution in London, the middle-class school, stemmed largely from the widespread perception that Britain lagged behind its international competitors, as well as a response to demands for secondary education from skilled workers, tradesmen and the professional middle classes in the then prosperous neighbourhood. The first Head Master, Herbert Courthope Bowen (1847–1899) was committed to innovative ideas about English teaching, pupils’ learning and children’s development that are usually associated with progressive teaching in elementary schools.
In the early twentieth century, many middle-class families moved out of the borough as a consequence of London’s evolving transport system. Land development followed railway development and new suburban housing estates in North London were built, chiefly for middle-class house owners. Meanwhile, in Hackney, working-class families moved into the localities vacated by the middle classes. Among these were large numbers of Jewish families, refugees from Eastern Europe, with roots in the traditional East End of London. Under the LCC Junior Scholarship scheme, boys from poor homes, who attended public elementary schools and who could not afford private schooling, obtained places at Hackney Downs. Although it remained a ‘traditional’ grammar school, social, ethnic and religious diversity was a marked characteristic of the new population.
English at Hackney Downs, the story of which we tell through chiefly through oral interviews with informants, flourished after the Second World War when teachers discovered new possibilities. Drama became a particular strength. Indeed, Harold Pinter (at the school 1944-48) valued critical exchange with his English teacher, Joe Brearley. The ideas of FR Leavis penetrated English teachers’ thinking about the central importance of developing pupils’ responses to literature. And the vibrant Jewish presence in the school, often a conduit for European ideas, contributed to a robust climate of intellectual engagement in which East London voices counted for something. On the whole, relationships among pupils and staff were less formal after the war than they had been before. A generation of English teachers pursued their interest in developments in contemporary arts and literature with a striking intensity and we have found rich evidence to indicate how they made use of post-war London theatre, music and galleries.
The website of The Clove Club, the school’s old boys society provides more information and images. A revised and updated edition of Geoffrey Alderman’s history of the school is published by the Clove Club in March 2012: Hackney Downs 1876-1995: The Life and Death of a School.