The Catholic Church has always regarded its schools as second only in importance to the churches. This was demonstrated in the aims of the Institute of St. Andrew, founded by Fr. Bampfield as long ago as 1880. Throughout the present century priests, teachers and parents have struggled to obtain the schools they considered necessary for the children of Watford. As long ago as 1883, at the invitation of Cardinal Manning, Sisters of the Third Order of St. Dominic at Harrow on the Hill opened an orphanage for fifteen girls at Chestnut House at the corner of the High Street and Clarendon Road. In 1884 they moved to larger premises in Beechen Grove nearby and, three years later in 1887, they bought a site in Queens Road on which they built a convent and orphanage. 58 Queens Road became St. Vincent’s Boys Home, and 64 Queens Road, Westgate House, became St Vincent’s Convent.
It is interesting and somewhat puzzling to note that the Diocesan Directory and Peacock’s Directory of Watford record that in 1889 there was a Catholic school at 31 Gladstone Road, and that Fr Ryan, who was priest of the Watford Mission, Water Lane, lived next door at No 29.
In 1892 the Dominican sisters sold their site in Queens Road and purchased a site in the newly developed Percy Road, adjacent to the newly erected Holy Rood Church. In 1893 they moved to these new premises, which housed both the convent and their Girls’ school, and was then enlarged by the building of a St. Catherine’s House for Boys. The girl’s school was private. Quite separately, as far as we can tell, a ‘Board School’ was started for Catholic children with entirely lay staff, with the parish priest as the ‘Reverend Manager’. The log-book of this school, called St. Vincents, goes back to 1885.
This school was housed from 1893 in the brand new building erected by Mr. Taprell Holland immediately adjoining his church. It was re-named Holy Rood school in 1896, and was for a long time the only Board School (aided school) for a large catchment area of Hertfordshire Pupils came to it from as far away as Tring, Borehamwood, South Oxhey, Maple Cross and Garston. For some the journey to and from school must have been quite an undertaking with the limited transport then available. At first the school consisted of three classrooms for infants, juniors and seniors. As the number of pupils increased one of the larger rooms was partitioned into two. This failed to meet the increasing numbers and only some very limited extra accommodation was made available by the convent authorities.
In 1935 the Dominican Community decided to withdraw from Watford and agreed to sell the convent buildings to Mgr. Canon Jackman for £4,000, vacating the premises on 24th April 1936. The senior pupils were then moved into the convent, but this only gave temporary relief to the demand for more places. The Watford area was growing fast and the catholic population was further increased by immigrant families from Ireland and, with the outbreak of war, evacuees from London. The number of pupils had grown to 250.
Because of the outbreak of war it was not possible to utilise more of the convent buildings which were commandeered for offices and for the army. After the war, although the whole of the convent buildings gradually became available to the school, the position was far from satisfactory. Holy Rood School remained the only state aided Catholic school in south and west Hertfordshire, catering for children of primary and secondary school age, virtually doubling its intake of children in four years to 600, and yet having to refuse places to at least half of those who sought entry.
In September 1955 the position was improved by the opening of St. Joseph’s Primary School in South Oxhey, and St. Michael’s Secondary School in Garston, the first new Catholic schools built in the area with state aid since the establishment of State Education in 1870.
Holy Rood now became a primary school and, within a term, was again filled to capacity with pupils of 5-11 years of age, and it was still unable to meet the insatiable demand for Catholic school places. Catholic parents demanded more schools, and Holy Rood’s over-subscribed admission lists provided the statistical evidence to prove such demands to doubting local and parliamentary politicians.
The following seven years saw the fulfilment of most parents’ aspirations, with new schools opened in the new parishes of Borehamwood, Hemel Hempstead, Garston, Abbots Langley, Rickmansworth, Mill End, Bushey and Berkhamsted, parishes partly served previously by Holy Rood School with its devoted governors, teachers, parents and parishioners.
The last hurdle was to get Holy Rood School housed in modern buildings but this proved very difficult to achieve. Funds were not so readily available for replacement projects as for new schools in development areas. The existing site (3/4 acre) was not large enough to meet the post-war regulations for a school the size of Holy Rood, and the County and Ministry of Education by 1960 were convinced that sufficient places would be available in the schools which had been opened for every Catholic child, including the children at Holy Rood, which should be closed.
It took three years to convince the authorities that their forecasts were totally inaccurate, and for the County Council to earmark a site for the replacement of Holy Rood School, should it prove necessary. Throughout the 1960’s the school continued to be over-subscribed and many children had to be refused admission.
The governors, faced with the reluctance of the County to spend money on a school they hoped to close down, determined to improve the deplorable conditions by carrying out repairs and decorations too long deferred. The organisation of the parish Annual Bazaar was handed over to the staff and parents of the school, and the proceeds used for this purpose. With whole-hearted support of the parish some thousands of pounds were raised to repair roofing and much needed decoration and repair of the external fabric of the buildings. Most of the internal work was done by groups of volunteer parent craftsmen who repaired dangerous staircases and flooring, and applied floor covering Others decorated classrooms and helped install internal toilets and wash-basins. The whole building was rewired to remove a grave fire risk, and new lighting and heating equipment installed. Nevertheless, despite this magnificent effort the school, with its narrow corridors and over-crowded conditions, still fell far short of modern requirements.
After continuous pressure from governors, staff and parents, the new Holy Rood Junior School built on a fine site at Greenbanks off the Hempstead Road was opened in 1969, with the infants’ school following seven years later. St. Anthony’s School was opened in West Watford in 1974 and St. Joan of Arc school achieved voluntary aid status in the same year. A place for every catholic child was finally established.
The church has always considered education in a catholic atmosphere to be of the utmost importance. For well over half a century teachers and parents struggled to obtain Catholic schools as well equipped as those provided by the state for other children, and they had finally achieved their aim.