Dame Alice Owen’s School  – The Oldest Educational Establishment in Islington?

Lady Owen’s School, Islington. Wood engraving, 1840. CC BY 4.0

Although now located at Potter’s Bar, Dame Alice Owen’s School still remains in the Islington psyche – many former pupils, known as Old Owenians, who were educated on the original site between Goswell Road and St. John Street speak fondly of their time there. Dame Alice Owen founded the school in 1613. But what motivated her to establish it? It’s an unusual tale…

As a young unmarried woman, Alice Wilkes was crossing Islington Fields where the archers were practising.  An arrow pierced her hat, at which Alice fell to her knees, exclaiming, “Thank God that the arrow pierced my  hat, not my heart!”  She vowed that, when money allowed, she would establish a school for 30 boy scholars from Islington.  Another version of Alice’s miraculous escape has her accompanied by a young servant; they stopped to watch a cow being milked and Alice tried her hand at milking.

Fifty years and three marriages later – to a brewer, a mercer and Judge Thomas Owen (all wealthy) – Alice was able to fulfil her vow with her inherited fortune.  

She died on 28 October 1613 and was buried in St. Mary’s Parish Church on Upper Street.  Alice’s grave and effigy were lost when the church was demolished in 1751, but she has recently been commemorated by a bronze roundel in the churchyard footpath.  There is also a statue of her by Robert Frampton in the current school at Potter’s Bar.

In addition to the school, Dame Alice also founded almshouses for 10 aged and poor women on St. John’s Street.  In 1886, girls were admitted to the St. John Street site and the school left Owen’s Row in 1973 for a new home in Hertfordshire.  

The original entrance posts to Dame Alice Owen’s School on Goswell Road (photo: Jenny Watson-Bore)

Stone pillars marking the Goswell Road entrance still exist and the site is now occupied by City and Islington College.  Nearby street names also remind us of the school – Owen’s Row, Owen’s Fields and Owen Street.

Owen's Row
Owen’s Row (Photo: Jenny Watson-Bore)

The school motto is ‘In God is all our Trust’ and the school crest has direct links with the Dame Alice Owen story – it has crossed arrows and three beer barrels as Alice’s first husband was a member of the Brewers’ Company – in 2024, the livery company still acts as administrators of the school.

Dame Alice Owen’s establishment has certain traditions such as Visitation, the day when the governors inspect the school.  In its early years, the original scholars collected flowers from the Islington fields to make buttonholes and to decorate the school; now, all pupils in Years 7 to 11 wear white carnations, and red carnations are worn by the 6th form and any Old Owenians.

Then there is the Beer Money Ceremony which takes place annually at Brewers’ Hall, the home of the Worshipful Company of Brewers. Beer is no longer given to the youngest pupils – instead, every member of Year 7 receive a £5 commemorative coin from the Master.

Wherever there is an historic building or institution, then there is sometimes tragedy.  In World War II, 90 former students and a former member of staff were killed in action; however, the worst incident occurred on 15 October 1940. Approximately 150 local people were asleep in the air-raid shelter in the basement of the Dame Alice Owen’s Girls School when a large parachute mine hit the building, most of which collapsed.  The major water main was fractured and the New River channel overflowed, drowning many who were sheltering.

On a brighter note, famous alumni of the school include the film director Sir Alan Parker, Dame Beryl Grey who was a prima ballerina at nearby Sadlers Wells and Gary Kemp, actor and musician of Spandau Ballet fame.

Jenny Watson-Bore is an Islington Guided Walks and London Blue Badge guide. You can find out more about upcoming walks in Islington here.