History of Barr’s Hill House and Barr’s Hill School to 1975

Barr’s Hill house was first mentioned in the 1851 census and when it was owned by a partner in a firm of silk brokers. In the early 1890s John Kemp Starley moved in. He was the nephew of James Starley who made the first bicycle with gears. John Kemp Starley worked with his uncle and later set up his own company developing the Rover Safety bicycle which was the forerunner of the modern cycle. He died in 1901 having developed a grand Victorian house and beautiful gardens in the four and a half acres of grounds. His widow continued to live in the house until 1906. In 1907 Coventry City Council acquired it at the cost of £5,500 plus spent another £5,000 on alterations for the establishment of the first general Girls’ Secondary School in Coventry.

The building was adapted for school use, the fine conservatory being demolished and the length of the building extended. The first pupils were girls who were being trained and educated at the Coventry Pupil Teachers’ Centre in Wheatley Street. There were 120 girls, the boys having been transferred to Bablake in 1905. The school was officially opened as a Grammar school for girls on October 1st. 1908 with Miss Grace Howell appointed as headmistress. The school motto was Vita Nuova (New Life). This was very different surroundings from those that a lot of the girls were used to.

In 1909 Barr’s Hill Guild for leaving pupils was formed and this still exists with approximately 450 members worldwide.

The pupils were made socially aware of things going on in the outside world – in industrial troubles, the First World War, the opening of the Panama Canal and the Women’s Suffrage movement. Two of the teaching staff were imprisoned for three days for demonstrating in London. Girls were admitted either by a scholarship examination or were fee paying at £5 per year. School uniform was imposed. Boots and shoes were not allowed indoors and they had to have special pumps to change into. Some travelled quite a distance and they could purchase a lunch of soup and pudding costing four old pence or they could bring their own in a basin to be heated in school ovens.

They helped to entertain wounded soldiers who were housed in a large house next door. They continued this type of charity work for many years. By 1917 the school had 380 on roll and was very full but Stoke Park opened and eased the situation. The senior Cambridge examination was taken for the first time by the Lower Fifth (Year 11) and took second place in England. In 1927 the New Wing and covered way from the old House was built although it was not completed with the assembly hall until 1936. The Wing is the only building left of the old school.

During the next decade the hut was built where the music block is now. Girls were still giving parties for wounded soldiers. There were garden parties for old girls to bring their babies. There was a Girl Guides group attached to the school and a League of Nations Group formed

In 1931 Miss Howell retired and Miss Winifred Barrow became headmistress.

In September 1939 a party of girls with staff were evacuated to Leamington and the school cellars were prepared as an air raid shelter. Even during the war it was possible to buy a warm fruit bun at break time from the window of a classroom on the terrace. On 14th November the school was bombed in the Blitz and closed for a short while but opened again on 2nd. December. The new Hall had been demolished and seven pupils were killed during that night. The school caretaker was awarded an OBE for his work in saving the rest of the school. A large group of girls had been evacuated to Atherstone where they were to remain for another three years. The rest of the pupils were crammed into the old house as the new wing was so badly damaged. Many had to travel long distances as their families had moved out of Coventry to surrounding villages.

The school continued with its community work and by 1945 there were 575 girls on roll. There was a unit of the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade in the school where girls could learn basic nursing and first aid skills. The school was so full that rooms had to be used in nearby St. Columba’s Church. Most of the New Wing had been repaired during the previous years although the hall was being used as an outdoor play area with the walls being used to practice tennis strokes. The hall was eventually repaired and in use in May 1951 when the whole school could meet together and it could be used for physical education.

In 1952 Miss Winifred Barrow retired and was succeeded by Miss Mildred Melhuish. The following years remained fairly calm with the school gradually becoming equipped with better furnishings and equipment. The area adjacent to the school called The Dell was landscaped in 1966 as this became available when old cottages were demolished. At the end of 1968 Barr’s Hill took over the huts next door which had previously belonged to the Coventry Art School. At about this time there was a great deal of discussion about comprehensive education and the future role of Barr’s Hill.

In 1969 a new science block was opened. The very traditional Speech Day which had been held at the Central Hall for decades was replaced by an Open Day at the school for parents and pupils..

There is little information about the following years. In 1972 Miss Meluish retired and was followed by Miss Susan Hunter who saw the change from Grammar school to Comprehensive school take place in 1975 when the first boys were accepted and entrance examinations dropped. Gradually new buildings appeared in the grounds as the school expanded and the old building started to deteriorate. In the next few years dry rot and wet rot were diagnosed and in spite of thousands of protests the Council decided it would not afford to save the much-loved Victorian building. It was demolished in 1981.

The school magazine ceased production in 1975 where some of this material was sourced. The main part of this history has been obtained from “The Chronicles of Barr’s Hill House 1850-1982”, written by Kathleen Adams, a former pupil and Guild member.