The Whitley Pump

The view from Katesgrove Hill

Katesgrove School Buildings

Katesgrove Primary School

As my knowledge of the history of Katesgrove school grew, it became apparent that it was possibly unique; two Victorian Schools on one site built to quite different designs. This was of great interest for visitors interested in the history of education.


Until 1870, education for the poor in England was a mixed bag. Members of the English establishment were worried that teaching the poor to write could cause unrest. They would be able to not only read anti-establishment thoughts but also communicate them. This was in contrast to the northern European Calvinstic churches that wanted their congregations to read and write.

Prior to their dissolution, monasteries had provided some schooling in England, poor children could attend charity schools, grammar schools or the church schools that were built in the first half of the nineteenth century. Attendance was not compulsory and children had to pay.

1870 Forster Education Act

By the 1860s England was losing its industrial competitiveness against Germany, which had a well-established education system. In 1870 the Forster Education Act decreed that there should be sufficient school places for all children from the age of five to thirteen. Town councils had to raise the money from the rates and ensure there were school places for the children within the town.

Within twenty years two schools were built on adjacent sites in Katesgrove, the first in Katesgrove Lane and the second on Dorothy Street. Both were designed by Joseph Morris, an important local architect and Berkshire county surveyor, the first in the gothic style, a style favoured by many church Church of England schools up to that date, and the second to a German design, in the Queen Anne style. To emphasise the importance of education for all, the new schools were built to look very imposing.

In 1873 Katesgrove Board School on Katesgrove Lane was built for 631 mixed infants and girls aged from seven to thirteen. It was one of the first in Reading and was on the site of Katesgrove House.

Katesgrove House in 1802, extract from Charles Coates’ plan of Reading

Before the days of electricity, light was very important, hence the high windows in this building, and where possible, windows in more than one wall. At a time when infectious diseases were rife, good air was considered essential; another reason for high ceilings, tall windows and adequate ventilation. Originally the school was heated with fireplaces in each classroom.

After infant school, boys and girls from seven to thirteen years old were educated separately. It is understood that the boys used the second floor of this board school until 1891 when they moved to the adjoining Central School.

The playground was at the rear of the building and the boys used a ‘tunnel’ still in existence, to reach their playground higher up the hill where the later school was built.

The head teacher’s house for the board school, on Katesgrove Lane, still stands. In the 1980s the magnificent original water closet, although broken, was greatly admired.

Miss Charlotte Pell had run a small school in Katesgrove and she became one of the first managers of the girls and infant school. The Reading School Board ran the school and dictated the curriculum.

1890 Education Act

In 1890 another education act decreed that education for all children was not only compulsory but free. More schools had to be built, and in 1891 the Central School, now the Dorothy Street building, was built for 466 boys. Unfortunately the log books for the boy’s school were later destroyed.

Dorothy Building c1996-98 with the playground in the foreground

This school was built to maximise daylight and had a central hall lit by windows around the walls near the ceiling and had central heating and gas lights. In the classrooms, the windows, being above the children’s heads, prevented them sitting in a draught. The cupola on the roof to the south of the building removed stale air.

All the classrooms had internal windows facing into the hall so classes could be easily observed by the headmaster and visitors. The classrooms faced either east or west so that they were never too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. The boys sat facing south on the east side of the hall, and on the west side they faced north. This was to allow the daylight to fall over their left shoulders to avoid casting a shadow on their work. This meant of course, that pupils, or scholars, as they were known, had to write with their right hand, a practice that lasted up to the mid-twentieth century, long after electric light had been installed and dip pens were no longer in use.

At the coldest north end of the building, and approached by steps up from the hall, emphasising the importance of the head, was the headmaster’s room where the school bell rope hangs down from the ceiling. Next to it, in what is now the head’s room was the school library.

The two large entrance doors in the north wall on either side of the building allowed the boys to enter on the same side as their classroom then passed through the hall to the cloakrooms at the south at the end of the hall where coats were hung. Again there is a door at each side of the hall for ease of access. There were no inside lavatories. Only the upstairs classroom, a room used within living memory as a science room, had south facing windows. The central hall was used for assembly and as a gym.

The staff room and staff lavatory or office, as it was called, were upstairs in the north west corner of the building.

Underground cellars 1987

There are cellars under the school and a loft running along both sides of the hall roof. When the school had a boiler heated by coal and later coke, this was stored in the coal cellar.

The caretaker’s house (Katesgrove House) was built opposite the head teacher’s office and the main entrances, adjacent to the long building to the north. The ground floor of this building was originally used as a craft room with a woodwork room above and there was a door between this and Katesgrove House. The boys were not expected to be academic. They were being educated as workmen and artisans.

After the Second World War and the 1944 Education Act, when the school became a junior school, a dining room with its own kitchen was built. Until then, in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, children went home for dinner at 12 noon.

The twentieth century

During the First World War, the school was used as one of Reading’s war hospitals. One ex-pupil of the school was Frederick Potts whose heroism at Gallipoli in 1915, for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross, is now commemorated by a statue in The Forbury. Reading Museum has a painting of him by Percy Harland Fisher.

Trooper Potts memorial

During the Second World War, air raid shelters were built on the land to the south-east of the urinals. In the 1950s this is where the swimming pool was located; prior to this the boys had swum in the River Kennet. The pool was closed at the end of the twentieth century because it was no longer financially viable.

The playground surrounded the Central School. To the east, near the site of the lavatories and urinals, against the wall surrounding the school premises, was a covered area to provide shelter when playtimes were wet. No staying indoors in inclement weather! This was later converted to a garage and storage. When the toilets were knocked down in the 1990s, they were so well built that it took a week to demolish them.

Dorothy Street entrance c1990

Earlier, houses were demolished from Dorothy Street towards the Tanners Arms (Hook and Tackle) pub for extra land. There was a big field on a slope, with a flat area at the bottom, used in summer for school sports days (see photograph of the Dorothy Street building).

These magnificent buildings are a lasting testament to the pride Reading took in establishing public education for all its children.

The Henry Building, Dorothy Building, former caretaker’s house and boundary wall were Grade II listed in 2010 (1393842).

A plan showing the age of Katesgrove School buildings from planning application 110356

In 2011 plans (110356) were submitted and approved to expand the school to three form entry which included the new four storey building which is there today.

Links and references
  1. Katesgrove Primary School
  2. ‘Trooper’ Potts VC memorial to be unveiled in October
  3. Reading Museum online collections
  4. Katesgrove School on the Whitley Pump
  5. H. Godwin Arnold and Sidney M.Gold. (1989) Morris of Reading – A family of architects 1836-1958. Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society 1989.

1 comment

  1. Ciarán Coughlan

    30 August 2018 at 8.59 pm

    A fascinating and fantastically written article – thank you. I would never have known that they were two distinct schools once-upon-a-time. Glad to hear they’re Listed.

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