History of Friends' School, Saffron Walden - Founded in 1702

Click here to see books, photographs and films about the history of Friends' School. Click on the photos to enlarge.


Most of the school's pre 1936 archives were moved in 1986 to the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford. For information on how to access the Essex Record Office click here.

A catalogue of documents in the Essex Record Archives can be found at www.essex.gov.uk/ero. To search enter Friends School Saffron Walden and then in the Document Reference box - top right - enter DQ/ 49 (note there is a space between DQ/ and 49). At the moment this online catalogue only shows pre 1936 items that were deposited with the ERO in 1986. See below for more recent items deposited.

This document indicates which of our archives were deposited in the Essex Record Office in 1986.

Following the school's closure in July 2017 the Essex Record Office collected the first batch of archives in April 2018 and these are shown in the following Excel spreadsheet and pdf file. They are still to appear in their online catalogue. In October 2018 the ERO collected the 2nd batch of archives but these have still to be sorted and catalogued by them.

Click here for list of students from 1825 to 1879, when this school was located in Croydon before it moved to Saffron walden in 1879.

A brief account of the origins of Friends’ School

Friends’ School has occupied 4 sites during its history, the first 3 being in London: Clerkenwell from 1702 to 1786, Islington Road from 1786 to 1825, Croydon from 1825 to 1879, and Saffron Walden from 1879.

Further information can be found in David Bolam’s book “Unbroken Community – The Story of Friends’ School Saffron Walden 1702 – 1952” and in James Backhouse Crosfield's booklet "Saffron Walden School - A Sketch of Two Hundred Years" - 1702 to 1902. See also Farrand Radley’s account of ‘The Four Site Saga’ in our Tercentenary book “The School on the Hill” published in 2002. Click here to read Farrand Radley’s account. Click here to see a Timeline of our first 300 years.

Clerkenwell 1702 - 1786

In addition to supplying basic needs, each community would also care for its old people and sick, train its children, and make a profit for the public-minded men who had supported the schemes with capital. Above all, the life of the community would be harmonious. No man would need to be a rival of his fellows, “everybody is working for him.” “This Colledge,” John Bellers claimed, “will be a Community something like the example of Primitive Christianity that lived in common...”

His idea was for communities of poor old people and children, who were a burden on society. Here the children would learn trades which would help them to be later apprenticed when they left, and also provide saleable articles to support the communes in the meantime. Thus the communes or communities would be able to finance themselves.

John Bellers (1645 - 1725 - Quaker cloth merchant, philosopher, polymath, philanthropist, and Fellow of the Royal Society 1798) put his proposal before the Quaker London Yearly Meeting in 1697 and they were approved in 1699. But it was the Quaker Middlesex Quarterly Meeting that took up his idea in 1699 and decided to implement his project, but for only one such community.

A fund of £1,923 was raised and a former workhouse in Clerkenwell was leased. However, John Bellers’ dream was not to be fully realised as the colony that was set up was not to be his idealised self supporting colony but more akin to a traditional workhouse with a mixture of old people past their working life and impoverished children, and just for Quakers.

Some teaching was provided, initially at the local Quaker Meeting House at Peel, for the workhouse children who left at the age of 14 to take up apprenticeships. The first schoolmaster was appointed in 1706 and paying boarders admitted in 1707. The workhouse gradually evolved into a combined Quaker Boarding School and Workhouse.

For a greater insight into the running or the'Friends' School and Workhouse' in the eighteenth century see the Clerkenwell Book of Rules of 1780 (click here) and Richard Hutton's Complaints Book (click here).

Islington Road 1786 - 1825

In 1786 the Committee decided to find a new home because ‘the numbers of Antient Friends were felt to be inhibiting the development of the children’s school’ and the school moved to nearby Islington Road. It was whilst at Islington that the workhouse element disappeared altogether and the Quaker School and Workhouse became known as Friends’ School. However, there were concerns over the low height of the ceilings and problems resulting from dampness which led to fears of ill health and which prompted the move to Croydon in 1825.

To find out more about the school at Islington Road and its move from Clerkenwell and then to Croydon, see the Croydon School Rules below.

Croydon 1825 - 1879

In 1825 the School took over a beautiful house in Croydon, built in 1708. But they had learned: a minute of 1824 says “it is desirable that the rooms in the wings (the new additions to be built) be not less than thirteen feet in height and those of the dormitories not less than twelve feet”.

When Croydon became too unhealthy from typhoid fever other locations were explored, one of them being Saffron Walden. In 1876, came an irresistible offer from a Saffron Walden Quaker, the banker and former Mayor of the town, George Stacey Gibson, of a site – and a free one too! “It is beautifully situated . . .on an open breezy hill above the town, near the railway station and within a very easy distance of the Meeting House.” And what clinched it, after the Croydon experience, was that it had “a good supply of water from a deep artesian well”.

To find out more about our school in Croydon and its move from Islington Road click here to see the Croydon School Rules 1870.

Click here for list of students from 1825 to 1879, when this school was located in Croydon before it moved to Saffron walden in 1879.

Saffron Walden from 1879

An architect Edward Burgess was appointed and plans drawn up for a boarding school to accommodate 150 children. The Croydon site was sold for about £22,000 which covered the cost of the new build in Saffron Walden and the purchase of some additional land. On 19th August 1879 58 boys and 32 girls were installed in Friends’ School Saffron Walden.

Click here to read John Woods' account of the first 100 years at Saffron Walden. Also click here to see the 1926 prospectus.

Books, Photographs, Films and other information about the History of Friends' School

  "Why was there a Quaker School in Saffron Walden" - Click here to download this very interesting article by Tony Watson YG 54 which appeared in the Saffron Walden Historical Journal (Vol 18 No 36) Autumn 2018. With kind permission of the author and the Saffron Walden Historical Society.
"Saffron Walden School - A Sketch of Two Hundred Years" - 1702 to 1902 by James Backhouse Crosfield. Click here or on the image on the right to view this scanned booklet.  
  “Unbroken Community – The Story of Friends’ School Saffron Walden 1702 – 1952” by David Bolam. Click here to download the online version of this book, or to download it in 3 parts click on part one, part two and part three.
'A Hundred Years at Saffron Walden - 1870 to 1979'. Click here to read John Woods' account of the first 100 years at Saffron Walden.  
  "The School on the Hill" - Memories of Three Hundred Years of Friends' School Saffron Walden 1702 - 2002, by those who taught, learned and grew up there. Click here to see the online version of this book.
'A Community Through Three Centuries'. A calendar of the main events in the history of Friends' School 1702 - 2002 by Roger Buss. Click here to download this document.  
  'Unwillingly to School - Memoirs of the Friends' School Saffron Walden 1924-1928' by Charles Kohler. Click here to download this personal account of life at Friends' School in the 1920's

Richard Hutton's 'Complaints Book' - transcribed and edited by Timothy Hitchcock. This is the notebook of the steward of the Quaker Workhouse at Clerkenwell 1711 - 1737, which developed into Friends' School. Click here to have a look at this fascinating historical set of personal notes about life in our workhouse/school 300 years ago.  

Friends' School and Workhouse at Clerkenwell "Book of Rules 1780". This book gives a delightful insight into how the school and workhouse were managed in the eighteenth century. Please be aware that the letter s is often substituted by the letter f. Click here to download this scanned pdf document which is about 17Mb and may take time to download. See below*

"Croydon School Rules 1870". This book gives much information about our school in Croydon and of its move from Islington Road, as it has Introductions from the 1817 and 1829 editions and is very similar to the 1853 edition. Click here to download this scanned pdf document which is about 2Mb in size.

  'List of Croydon Scholars from 1825 to 1879' Click here to download this booklet listing all the students who were at this school when we were located in Croydon prior to our move to Saffron Walden in 1879.

"Friends' School Saffron Walden Prospectus 1926". Click here to download a copy of this pdf document which is about 9Mb in size. See below*  

  Timeline - showing major events in the history of Friends' School during its first 300 years. Click on image to download a pdf. Click here to download a low resolution jpeg or click here for a higher resolution jpeg.

  1963 Film of the School. Film of the School produced and directed by Old Scholar Matthew Robinson in 1963. It is in 3 parts on 'YouTube'. Click here or on the image on the left to view this 27 minute film. Click here to read the article by Matthew Robinson from the School Magazine 'The Avenue January 1964', about the making of this film. Click here to read the diary of how the film was made.

Whole School Photos. 42 whole school photos dating back to 1922 have been scanned and are available for viewing. Click here to access these photos.  

  BBC Film of the School in 1977. This 10 minute film shows how the sixth form students at Friends' School Saffron Walden used to run the school for one day each year in the absence of teachers, on 'School Day', using their own alternative timetable. Click here to see this film on YouTube.

Video of the School in 1989. This 10 minute video about Friends' School was filmed by Friends' School students in 1989 and produced and directed by John Dickinson. This version, and the only one I can find, is without the added soundtrack.Click here to see this film on YouTube.  

  When we were four - History of 'The Nomads' - Friends’ School's first rock band, 1962 to 1964. Click here to read Paul Fry's account of 'The Nomads' written in 1968. "it does record for posterity, an image of the school from a particular view that coincided with an important time in the development of popular music and teenage culture in Britain."

A History of the Junior School. Written by Tony Watson to commemorate the opening of the new Junior School buildings in September 2012. It follows the education of the young children in the school on the four sites the school has occupied since 1702.  

  “Walden Born & Bred - A boy's life in the 1920's & 30's” - An extract from this unpublished book by Donald Purkiss who was a pupil at FSSW from 1931 to 1937. Chapter on FRIENDS’ SCHOOL – a personal reflection of life at Friends’ School in the 1930s. Click here or on the cover image to read this fascinating account.

Quaker Archives

Notes on the archives of Quaker schools in Britain and Ireland - May 2011

Quaker Family History Society - for family historians with Quaker ancestors from the British Isles.

Click here to return to the School History of the Old Scholars' website

Click here to return to the Archives page of the Old Scholars' website