1.  Background

Towards the end of the eighteenth century a house was erected on the south side of St. Mary’s Lane, Upminster opposite the Windmill field.  Hill Place as it was known had extensive grounds and the house itself was reconstructed in the ‘Gothic’ style some eighty years later between 1871 and 1872 by the architect W. G. Bartlett, who had recently remodelled St. Laurence Church nearby.  This house, now the convent, had an impressive entrance hall, with marble flooring, oak panelling and fine windows above the main staircase designed by Burne-Jones and made by William Morris.  These and much of the original house still remain standing and pupils of the school next door may see this hall when they go to the chapel in the house for a lunch hour mass.

In May 1927, arrangements for the purchase of Hill Place by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary were made and thus was born the school often known as the Upminster Convent School, even today when it is no longer owned and run by the sisters.

The sisters who bought the house and founded the school were members of a religious congregation, The Congregation of the Religious of The Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), founded in 1849 in France.  The founder of the congregation, Père Pierre Jean Gailhac was a priest in Béziers in the diocese of Montpellier.


Apollonie Pelissier-Cure  -Co-Founder 

of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary  

The foundress was a young widow, Madame Appolonia Pelissier-Cure , she and her husband had been  close friends of Père Gailhac.  She took the name in religion, Mother St. John and the “order” founded by this saintly woman and Père Gailhac received in 1899, final approbation of the Holy See.

Some Sacred Heart of Mary sisters (sometimes known as the Béziers Sisters) had come to Liverpool as early as 1872 and from thence some came to east London.  It was these latter sisters who eventually were encouraged by Father Van Meenan (later Canon), parish priest of both Romford and Hornchurch to acquire Hill Place for a school.

The sisters not only founded the independent secondary school, officially called The Convent Collegiate School, but had also a private junior section as well to whose infant classes, boys were admitted.  (Years later in the 1980’s some boys from the Campion School and some from Dury Falls School, which had closed, attended some lessons in the sixth form.  So very young and a handful of senior boys have been amongst the school’s pupils).

In 1999, the Congregation of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary celebrated the 150th anniversary of their founding with a concelebrated mass in St. Joseph’s Church and a reception held in the Old Hall of the school, once the main school hall.  Amongst those present were many pupils and ex pupils and many of the lay staff past and present.  Sister Patrice who had taught in the school (Domestic Science) and then gone as a missionary to Brazil was there from Penmaenmaur, Sister Mary Lamble (Sr. St. Esprit), Sister Veronica, Sister Mary-Jo and all the sisters from the convent in particular Sister Patricia Butler as well as sisters from other houses in England and Ireland were present.  The three Lynam sisters were there as was Miss Colette Dawson now with the Brentwood Education Service and Sister Teresa, all of them former teachers in the school.

A display of photographs and articles showed the work of the sisters not only in Upminster but in many parts of the world.  It is worth noting too that the sisters have played an important part in the development of St. Joseph’s School and St. Mary’s at Hornchurch.

Sister Teresa, a former pupil of Sacred Heart of Mary School, was for thirty-one years headmistress of St. Mary’s School and was awarded a M.B.E. for her services to education.  One of the sisters, Sister Rosemary Lenehan, Provincial Superior of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, serves on the board of governors of our school and the sisters are often seen at school functions.  Catholic education in Upminster and Hornchurch owes a great debt to the sisters and the school rejoices in its continued links with them.

 2.  The Early Years (1927-1950)

The Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School began as a small fee paying school.  Its first headmistress was Mother Leonard.  She was succeeded in 1936 by Rev. Mother Canice and then in 1946 by Rev. Mother Alcantara, who had been one of the pioneers of the Upminster Community.  Sister Alcantara lived to the great age of 103 and died peacefully in the Upminster convent in 1995.

Hill Place had extensive grounds, some of which over the years was sold leaving the school today with somewhat limited acres.  The first classroom block was that now known as the ‘A’ block, now containing the main offices, the staff room and classrooms on the first floor. 

1 Andrée and Kathleen Marshall  

It was designed by Messrs Marshall and Archard and the former’s daughters, Andrée and Kathleen were pupils of the school.  Sadly Kathleen died of diphtheria at a very young age.

The classroom block had not been completed by the time war broke out in 1939 and the original plan was never completed.  (The architects’ drawing envisages a second wing jutting out towards St. Mary’s Lane (see picture below.)  However, a fine chapel was built to the end of the house in 1935 and a hall, now the “Old Hall” leads off the main entrance hall to the school and a foundation stone can be seen to the right of the hall’s doors.  It reads:

“The first wing of this school was blessed and opened by H.L. Bishop Doubleday  May 1st 1930"

The school’s main entrance is worthy of comment.  Above the door is, not the school’s crest and motto (‘Veritas liberabit vos’) but the coat of arms of the Béziers Sisters and their motto ‘Salus Consolatio Spes Nostra’. Angels bear the canopy over the door and to the right and left are relief panels of Our Lord and His Mother.

Soon the country was at war and the school closed.  It was evacuated to Chilton House, Buckinghamshire and the Upminster buildings and the grounds were taken over by the army.  A few sisters stayed on living in a house in Boundary Road.  One of the community, Sister Maria continued to teach at St. Mary’s by day and to serve at night time on fire-watching duties.

With a big R.A.F. aerodrome at Hornchurch, Upminster did not escape its full share of bombing but the school was not hit and in 1946 it re-opened with Mother Alcantara as head of school.       

3.  The Secondary Modern School (1950-1977)

Bishop Beck of Brentwood, ever concerned about Catholic Education in his diocese suggested to the sisters that their school should become a secondary modern school.  This was agreed and the school became a ‘Voluntary Aided’ one in 1950 with Sister Stephen as headmistress.


Lay staff in the “fifties”

Seated -  Miss M. Newman,

Mrs. Beale, Mrs. Eddy,

Mrs. Llewellyn,

Mrs. Mona Butler,  




Miss Theresa Watson

Standing – Mrs. Nash (secretary),

Miss J. Moloney,

 Mrs. Margaret Campbell,

 Miss Imelda Betchetti  




Voluntary aided status meant of course that pupils no longer had to pay fees.  In January 1947 a fourth form pupil’s fees were 9 guineas for tuition and five shillings for stationery making a grand total of £9.14s.0d.  The receipt for this bill has a 2d stamp!

A number of lay teachers were now on the staff and the school, which still had a boarding department until 1950, had increased its numbers. In the next few years the New Hall was built as were the blocks now known as C block (used originally for drama and the library) and F block (now the sixth form).  Unfortunately subsidence necessitated the fine chapel at the east end of the convent being demolished.  God has been replaced by Mammon in the shape of the car for the area is now a car park!

In 1967 Sister Saint-Esprit became headmistress.  A lady of quiet charm and real scholarship, she continued as headmistress for sixteen years.  During her term as head she, assisted by Sister Colette Dawson, started sixth form classes and they designed the school’s crest and chose its motto ‘Veritas Liberabit Vos’ (The truth will make you free).  The school in 1978 became a Comprehensive school and after a somewhat shaky start began to build up its reputation.  Already noted for its pastoral care and the good manners of its pupils and for its music and drama, the school slowly but surely began to build up a reputation for its academic successes.

4.  A New Status

The academic years 1978-79 opened with an entry of four forms and with a solemn mass for the blessing of the “D block”.  The chief celebrant was H.E.Cardinal Basil Hume O.S.B.  Father Donnelly (later Monsignor) was amongst the celebrating clergy, and there were boy servers, (this was before there were altar girls).  They were under the watchful eye of Mr Austin whose wife both before and after her marriage taught Mathematics to scores of ‘Sacred Heart of Mary’ girls.

Miss Harkins who had succeeded Sister Leonard as deputy head organised the celebrations ably assisted by Mrs Nans Jones for, of course, there was also a reception after the Mass and Sister Patrice, head of Domestic Science and her helpers were to the fore here.

Most of the staff by the late seventies were lay men and women but Sisters Patrice, Ethna and Paschal were on the staff and when the former two left and then Sister Paschal returned to Zambia, Sisters Barbara and Judith and later Sister Veronica came to teach in the school.  In later years when there were no longer any R.S.H.M. sisters teaching in the school save for Sister Veronica, the school had the services of a Notre Dame sister, Sister Maureen Lomax as a second deputy head and Sister Kathleen, a St. Louis sister.

A four stream entry led to the house system being re-organised.  In place of the   houses named for the English Martyr saints, Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line and Margaret Ward, the present houses, Lindisfarne, Rievaulx, Thanet and Whitby were formed.  For many years their heads were Mr. Addecott, Mrs. Lummis, Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Davin.

3 Thanet House Feast Day – A visit to Canterbury

Intensive rivalry between the houses was and still is evident at Sports Day and during the Inter House Drama and Music Festivals.

5.  The Eighties And Nineties

In 1983 Sister Saint Esprit left the school and its first lay head Miss Jean Johnson was appointed.  Miss Johnson’s period as headmistress was a little less than four years but in this time the importance of Science was stressed and Italian was introduced into the curriculum and soon proved a very popular subject.  The Italian Embassy has always shown interest in and support for the subject.  Annually at prize giving a number of Italian prizes are awarded and an additional teacher of Italian is provided.  One of these was with the school for some time and he, Signor Domizio Baldini became very much part of the school community.

 The sixth form began to grow and the girls were encouraged to consider a wide variety of careers and university courses.  Clare Johnson gained a place at Oxford, the first of a number of girls to gain a place in an “Oxbridge” college.  Audrey Yong (who with Sonia Vaidya had obtained very good ‘O’ level results) went on in time to study medicine after completing her ‘A’ levels.

Miss Johnson also agreed to the sixth formers having an annual ball and this continued to be a feature of Sixth Form life for several years after she had left at the end of the first term in 1987.


Some of the sixth form class of 1993 at the School Ball

Miss Harkins acted as head until Mr. Barry Welch arrived in September and amongst many other things he arranged for the Diamond Jubilee mass to be celebrated on the eve of Lady Day, March 24th 1988 before the ‘Jubilee’ year was over.  At this mass Monsignor Corley V.G. was chief celebrant assisted by Fathers Hawes, Sheils, Collings, Dolan, McSweeney and Toninello, all resplendent in gold vestments.  Much of the music was from Gounod’s Convent Mass.  The choir was under the direction of Mr. Scarf, and Mr. Everett, Chairman of Governors read the Old Testament reading.

Later in 1988 there was a Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving for the safe return of the pupils and staff who had been involved in the sinking of the cruise ship, Jupiter, in October.  Father Hawes celebrated this mass and gave an eloquent sermon.

The next ten years were ones of great progress for the school.  Italian became firmly established; CDT started when Mr. Reynolds came from Dury Falls and became a popular subject with the girls working with wood, metal and plastic.  Computer Studies began and the sixth form increased in numbers and in improving results year by year.

The new Library and the B block (housing at first Science and Art and Technology) was opened by Sir Nicholas Bonsar  Bt., M.P. in 1990.  Six years later the E block (Technology and Modern Languages) was opened by Lady Bonsor in 1996.  On this occasion Sisters Stephen and Saint Esprit, both former headmistresses, were present.


Opening of “E” Block

Mr. Welch with Sisters Stephen and St. Esprit, Mr. Yates (Chairman of Governors) with Lady Bonsor, Mrs. Eland with two sisters from the convent.

Through the Leonardo project the school became associated with schools in Vichy, Germany and Denmark as well as with the Liceo Farnesina in Rome.  Pupils from this school and from Siena have visited the school and the school has more recently made links with schools at Nettuno (near Rome) and at Massa Carrara.  There were also visits from several French schools.

By 1999 when Mr. Welch retired, the school had become firmly established as a “centre of excellence”.  It had for a few years enjoyed Grant Maintained status but reverted to Voluntary Aided status because of new legislation.  The school has had two excellent OFSTED inspections and has been rated as a “very good school”.

One sad event in these years however, was the death of Mrs. Rosina Lummis in 1997.  Mrs. Lummis had taught mathematics until forced to retire because of illness.  She had been a most efficient, wise and popular head of the ‘Middle School’ guiding hundreds of pupils when it came to “options”, dealing with all sorts of problems of her many charges and was always sane and sensible in her advice and decisions.  Rosina Lummis had also been head of Rievaulx House.  Her death was a sad loss; may she rest in peace.

Inevitably staff come and go over the years but the school has been fortunate in retaining all through its life time the services of many staff over long periods.

6Miss Harkins’ Retirement                   

Mrs. Jones, Sister St. Esprit, Sister Maureen & Miss Harkins     

During Mr. Welch’s twelve years as headmaster the time for retirement came for a number of staff who had served the school well and faithfully over many years.  In particular we may mention Mrs. Newman and some time later Mrs. Val Eland (both former pupils and at one stage the only two in the office) and Mrs. Margaret Campbell (Head of Mathematics).  Mr. Bert Bowhay, school keeper for many years retired.  Mrs. Nans Jones (second deputy head and teacher of English and for several years Head of Thanet House), Miss Mary Harkins (deputy) – both retired.  Miss Harkins died suddenly in December 2001.  She had been after retirement a fairly frequent visitor to the school and her requiem was attended by a huge congregation of mourners including pupils, past pupils and their parents, the new headmistress, Mrs. Williams, Sister St. Esprit and Miss Johnson, and many staff (past and present).  “Well done thou good and faithful servant”.

Other long serving members of the teaching staff to retire were Mrs. Austin, Mrs. Ollington (Art and a former head girl or ‘captain’ of the school in 1950-51).  Mrs. Sandra Leer, Miss Debbie Yates, Mr. Scarf, Mr. Addecott and Mrs. Christy.  The latter however continues to teach Art/Textiles on a part time basis.

With the completion of the B block in 1990, Science, with Mrs. Chanides (now Examinations Officer) at the helm and now Mrs. Murphy has excellent facilities.  Large numbers of computers have been installed in the rooms once dormitories and later used for Art and Needlework and the Mathematics Department has a ‘suite’ of classrooms in the D block.  For some time the department had Miss Marion McMahon (a former pupil) teaching Mathematics, a most welcome addition to a strong department.  Some of the Mathematics classes were for several years held in rooms in the Convent’s new  wing, that nearest to the old school buildings.  This is but one more example of the close ties between the school and the sisters.

As the century drew to its close, the school moved on to a two week timetable to allow for greater ease in accommodating the demands and needs of the large numbers of subjects on the curriculum.  Mr. Kelly has as one of his major duties, the ‘delivery’ of the time table.

6.  Into The Twenty-First Century

Mrs. Bernie Williams who had been deputy head since 1993 succeeded Mr. Welch on his retirement in 1999.  She, Mrs. Kim O’Neill, (deputy) and the staff have entered the new century confident that the school can and will continue to be a centre of excellence and that they can face the challenges of the future.  There are about 800 pupils on roll at present and the school continues to be over subscribed by applications for admission.