The 400th Birthday Celebration of a Remarkable London School

Dame Alice Owen’s School 400thAnniversary Concert: various current students, parents and Old Owenians, Royal Albert Hall, London. 23.4.2013 (JPr)

Owen's School Badge
Owen’s School Badge

Near the end of the proceedings the headteacher of Dame Alice Owen’s School, Alan Davison, announced that when the Royal Albert Hall was first contacted about this proposed celebration their response was ‘We do not do school concerts’ – the school’s reply was ‘Neither do we!’ I am sure we all have sat through a normal music evening involving enthusiastic youngsters during our school days – or subsequently as teachers or parents – with a rictus-like grin while wishing for earplugs or hoping it will end soon. This 400th Anniversary Concert defies my ability with words to adequately describe how wonderful it all was and how glad I was to have been there.

Dame Alice Owen’s School dates back to its foundation in 1613, maintaining many unique traditions from that time until ours, such as the giving of a small amount of ‘beer money’ (yes, really) to every pupil due to its long standing close association with the brewing industry and the Worshipful Company of Brewers. What are the school’s origins? Well, it is in the story of a cow, a village girl, Alice Wilkes, and an archer’s arrow. In the mid-sixteenth century the girl, accompanied by a young servant, stopped to watch the cow being milked in a field outside the village of Islington. She wanted to try it herself when a stray arrow flew across the field and struck the crown of her hat, but miraculously she was uninjured. Alice Wilkes was so impressed by her good fortune and made a vow that if ever she was rich enough she would do something lasting to mark her gratitude.

Fast forward some 50 years, Alice has now been widowed three times by a brewer, a mercer and latterly by Judge Thomas Owen, and has become a lady of substantial wealth when the loyal servant reminds her of her vow. She decides to buy some land in Islington to build a school for 30 boys and alms-houses for poor widows. Three iron arrows are fixed to one of the walls of the school as a reminder of her narrow escape. She provided enough money for the school to be funded even after her death. To this day, the school crest features arrows prominently and itself is largely identical to that of the Worshipful Company of Brewers; the other motifs include barrels and hops. She entrusted the administration of the school and its endowment to that Worshipful Company and for nearly four centuries, as Trustees of the Dame Alice Owen Foundation, it has supported and encouraged the school. (Their own motto, ‘In God is All Our Trust’, was adopted by the boys’ school.) In 1886 a girls’ school was built which eventually merged with the boys’ school in 1973 in Islington and together it was run as a mixed school until July 1976 when the transfer of pupils to its current location in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire was completed – as Education Secretary, the late Margaret Thatcher had signed off this relocation. This new school opened as a mixed comprehensive in September 1973. However to this day, several roads around the original site in Islington retain names such as Owen Street, Owen’s Row and Owen Court – I was very familiar with these during my own time there from 1965 to 1972

To mark this 400th Anniversary the school is aiming to replace a dilapidated science block with a state-of-the-art facility; this concert and the rest of a year-long series of events aims to raise £1million to add to funds already promised from the Department of Education and Dame Alice Owen Foundation.

The evening was at its best when it was the school’s various music or performance groups that were involved. It was great to acknowledge the achievements of recent Owen’s students such as pianist Christopher White, saxophonist Tyler Rix, soprano Susanna Hurrell and guitarist David Massey but I am not sure their individual contributions added much to the evening, apart from making it a longer one. (Incidentally Christopher White has authored and recorded a solo transcription of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and when I was chair of the Mahler Society I helped support him with this – totally ignorant that, like me, he went to Owen’s … although much more recently!)

The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, has children who are students at the school and fellow parent, Rosie Millard (journalist and broadcaster), as well as former pupils, Andrew Porter (political journalist) and Rosie Busiakiewicz (currently studying at Cambridge) genially filled in as the platform was being prepared for the next part of the programme.

Music and performance clearly is very important at Dame Alice Owen’s School and everyone involved – and there were so many that it seemed every current member of the school was involved at some point – was so superbly talented and enthusiastic that I wondered if they actually had time for normal lessons! There was a Senior Choir conducted by the Director of Music, Simon Werner; the Concert Band conducted by the distinguished retired trombonist, Bernard Bean; the Senior School Band conducted by a wiggling and jiggling Niamh McNally (whatever she was on I could do with some of it!); and the magnificent Symphony Orchestra conducted by the experienced Robert Pepper MBE. What an orchestra this was – many professional ensembles would wish they could play as well as them. One of the highlights of the entire concert was when the various sections stood up and swayed to the dance rhythms of Arturo Márquez’s Danzón no 2.

Every member of the current Years 7 and 8 contributed to Gahu – based on a Ghanaian dance and drumming tradition. It was led by the school’s percussion ensemble and the Head of Percussion, Scott Wilson and there was a one-off showcase of a range of dance styles performed by twenty girls. There was also a drama performance – that did not work for me – by a number of clearly very talented young actors that took its inspiration from distinguished former pupil, Sir Alan Parker’s, first screenplay Melody and consisted of memories and observations about past and present life at Owen’s.

Sir Alan Parker was apparently in attendance and Dame Beryl Grey was given a name check but as chair of the 400th Anniversary Committee, Gary Kemp with two of his Spandau Ballet colleagues, Steve Norman (saxophonist and guitarist) and John Keeble (drummer), were prominent during the evening and all united with star vocalist Lance Ellington (a parent of daughters at the school) for a wonderful rendition of Gary Kemp’s Gold (arranged by Ben Abelman). They were splendidly supported by the massed musicians of the Symphony Orchestra and school bands, as well as, the various choirs.

Current pupils and their parents, ex-pupils, current and former staff of the Dame Alice Owen’s Schools were amongst the packed Royal Albert Hall for this very enjoyable occasion; even though it lasted nearly four hours nobody wanted to leave before they could join in with the singing of the rousing School Song ‘On many a well remembered field’ that – even though it was nearly 11pm – was sung by one and all with enormous St Trinians’-like enthusiasm.

It was a pleasure to reminisce about some happy school days after all these years and I wish Dame Alice Owen’s well for its next 400! On the day when the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation joined forces with The Charles Wolfson Trust to establish ‘The Music In Secondary Schools Trust’ to promote music education in deprived areas, even though Potters Bar is not one of those it is wonderful to see the arts in all its various forms gloried in by a modern comprehensive school. I was in state education for more than a quarter of a century and know this is the exception rather than the norm!

Perhaps after reading this you might want to know more about the school, its history and the 400th Anniversary Appeal, so please visit their informative website .

Jim Pritchard