Plaque on the restored gates in Bridge Lane, off the Wigginton Road, near York Hospital, YO31 8HE

Robert Holgate (c.1481-1555), founder of Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School, was Archbishop of York and President of the King’s Council in the North. His career was typical of the Tudor century with its flowing and ebbing tides of popularity and power under a succession of monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. He rose to high office in both church and state as did his predecessor, Thomas Wolsey, in the See of York, only to fall with sudden finality under Mary I. Robert married in 1550, aged 68, scandalising the conservative northern clergy. Although a court case during Edward’s reign upheld his marriage, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London under Mary I on a charge “for divers offences” but especially for entering into a marriage after a vow of chastity. Deprived of office, he apologised to the Queen, offering the payment of £1,000 and was released in 1555 with a huge fine. Ten months later he died.

Grammar school founded

In 1546, with the authority of Henry VIII, the Archbishop founded three schools “free and perpetual” in York, Hemsworth and Old Malton. He bought the Treasurer’s House and other property in Minster Close and established a school and master’s house in Ogleforth “close by the cathedral”. The early grammar schools in England were established to train students for the clergy and the curriculum comprised Latin, Greek and Hebrew with some history, geography and mathematics, but the emphasis was on religious and moral education based on the Bible. Discipline was severe and hours were long with few holidays.

An advertisement in the York Courant of December 1799 states that “Notice is hereby given That the Free Grammar School situate within the Close of the Cathedral Church of York, founded by Archbishop Holgate, for the Instruction of Youth in the knowledge and understanding of the Latin Tongue and Grammar, will open again after the Christmas recess on Monday, January 20th 1800”. During the early part of the 19th century, grammar schools throughout the country were at a very low ebb as they had not adapted the curriculum to meet the educational needs of the sons of aristocrats and those of the rapidly expanding professional classes. Archbishop Holgate’s school was no exception; scholars numbered only 10 in 1818 and 17 in 1824. However, the fortunes of the school saw an improvement with the move to the Yeoman School at St John’s College.

Move to new premises

The York Diocesan School Society had moved in 1845-6 from Monkgate to a new site on Lord Mayor’s Walk where a new training college had been constructed in impressive buildings by George Townsend Andrews (1804-55), the “railway architect” who had built the first York station within the city walls plus many other stations and associated buildings. The Yeoman School, built next to the college on the same site, was opened in 1846 to cater for the “middle-class children” of agriculturalists and as a practising school for St John’s teacher-training students. But the Yeoman School began to experience financial difficulties and an agreement was made for Archbishop Holgate’s School to take over the school from 1858 to which it moved after more than 300 years in Ogleforth. The school began to flourish in its new home under the headship of The Revd. Robert Daniel. In 1828, there were 18-28 day boys and 38-48 boarders. By 1874 there were 45 day boys and by 1875 105 boarders. However, following the death of Daniel in 1882, the school experienced a period of decline.

The school’s fortunes were turned around by the appointment of The Revd. William Johnson who was headmaster from 1896 to 1915. In 1907 there were more than 200 pupils and by 1915 when Johnson retired the roll had risen to 294. In the late nineteenth century, the playing of sports such as rugby football and cricket had been introduced and a request was made to use Bootham Stray as playing fields. William was a great supporter of rugby and a cricketer himself and the school excelled at games during his headship. In 1909, part of Bootham Stray was formally leased for playing fields.

Walker Iron Foundry

Walker’s Foundry Yard was through this archway in Walmgate

George Townsend Andrews, the architect who designed St John’s College and the school later to be taken over by Archbishop Holgate’s on Lord Mayor’s Walk, had a long association with the Walker Iron Foundry on Walmgate in York. John Walker (1801-1853) was originally an apprentice, then partner, at Gibson’s foundry at 33 Walmgate, York which he had bought by 1837. The construction of St Leonard’s Place in the 1830s provided work for the Gibson-Walker partnership and the railings, balconies and stair balustrades here are the largest surviving work showing the excellence of their craftsmanship. John Walker built up a prestigious clientele and the firm cast the gates for the Queen’s gardens at Kew after which the Royal Coat of Arms appeared on some of the foundry’s work. Shortly after, the foundry, now known as Victoria Foundry, moved to 76 Walmgate. In 1851, the foundry was awarded its largest order: the railings and gates for the British Museum. John was succeeded by his son William Walker (1828-1911).

A natural outlet for the products of the foundry during the 1840s was the ever-expanding railway system which George Townsend Andrews took a major part in designing in his association with George Hudson. John Walker is known to have been involved in this work, one of his advertisements calling him a railway coach builder. He produced railings, gates and balustrades at the railway station in York designed by Andrews for George Hudson. Many other examples of Walker’s iron foundry work were commissioned in York including staircase balustrades at the De Grey rooms, St Peter’s School, York City & County Bank, the Bar Convent and the County Hospital, and railings and gates at St Leonard’s Place, York Cemetery, Dean’s Park, St Peter’s, Mill Mount House (now school), The Mount, the old railway station and hotel, Unitarian Chapel, and St Saviourgate, to name but a few. The gates to Archbishop Holgate’s School playing fields, 1850-60, are marked “John Walker, York” and are in the style of many produced by the foundry to be found in the firm’s pattern books. That these gates would become those of the playing fields to Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School at St John’s College on Lord Mayor’s Walk built by the railway architect George Townsend Andrews is testament to the interlocking lives of skilled craftsmen in York in the 19th century.

In 1963 Archbishop Holgate’s School moved to its present site on Hull Road in York. The school is now a coeducational Church of England secondary school and sixth form with academy status.

Information on the restoration project.


E.N Jewels, A History of Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School, York, 1546-1946, (York, 1963)

John Malden, The Walker Iron Foundry, York, c.1825-1923, (York Historian, Vol.1, 1976).

G.P. McGregor, A Church College for the 21st Century?: 150 years of Ripon & York St John, 1941-1991 – A Study of Policy and its Absence (York, 1991)

© Pat Hill