James Allen's Girls' School


The week of the release of the 21 Chibok schoolgirls (197 are still missing) was a good one in which to reflect that we still can’t take women’s education for granted. Perhaps then, it was also a good week to visit the historic, illustrious, James Allen’s Girls’ School in southeast London (founded in 1741). I live fairly near to the school and know how highly it’s regarded. So it wasn’t a surprise to meet a whole day’s worth of intelligent, resourceful students performing and conducting their own, and each others', compositions.

Music is a subject given special honour at JAGS (though I suspect everyone there is good at everything, science, languages, you name it) because of its links with two great 20th century composers. It seems that Ralph Vaughan Williams taught there briefly (in 1903 for one year? Ursula VW’s biography is a bit impressionistic here) before handing the gig over to Gustav Holst, who remained until 1920. During this time Holst also became head of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in 1905, and at Morley College in 1907. He is touchingly commemorated at JAGS by the stained glass windows (pictured) in the main school hall, the Holst Hall.

Dashing around the deceptively large school campus, I had an interesting conversation with current staff members about Holst’s teaching overload. Commenting on Holst’s assumption of his JAGS teaching from RVW, Imogen Holst (in her biography of her father) remarks: “In this way he began his career as a teacher, and from then onwards there was never any difficulty in finding work: the only difficulty was in finding time to do all the work he had been given.” Did he have a commitment to women’s and workers’ education – our preferred conclusion – or did he also really need the money ? Though the JAGS period covered the composition of The Planets (1914-16) royalties rarely appeared in those days. The biography movingly details his increasing exhaustion under his many burdens leading to his death aged 59. Surely Imogen would be pleased to hear her father’s name mentioned many times a day at JAGS (Holst Hall) Morley College (Holst Room) and SPGS (numerous Holst references).

[With many thanks to Peter Gritton, Jonathan Lee, and all other JAGS music staff.]

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer