Nos.62-64 Low Petergate, York YO1 7HZ

Founded by the Church Schools Company, a pioneering Christian organisation for the education of women, York College for Girls was housed in a complex of historic buildings in Low Petergate from 1908 until it closed in 1997. Celebrated mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker was one of the school’s most distinguished pupils. Following retirement from the stage, she became the first woman to be Chancellor of York University.

It was rare in Victorian England for women to benefit from an academic education. In general, they were taught by governesses or at “dame schools”, if at all, and their skills were tailored towards raising a family and management of the home. Slowly, in the 19th century, opportunities for women began to improve. For the daughters of the privileged and those with progressive-minded parents, Cheltenham Ladies’ College opened in 1853 and Roedean School in 1885. Cambridge University established the first colleges for women: Girton College in 1869 and Newnham in 1872; and, in 1879, Oxford followed with Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville College.

Education for women

The Church Schools Company (CSG) was founded in 1883 to educate young women based on Christian principles. In January 1884, Surbiton High School was the first school to be opened by CSG and this was followed by Guildford High School in 1888. York Church High School for Girls was founded by the charity in 1891 in Minster Yard where it remained until 1907. In 1908, the school reopened at 62 Low Petergate as York College for Girls, an independent fee-paying day school. From 1919 accommodation was provided for 30 boarders at St Helen’s, Burton Grange in Clifton but this had closed by the 1930s.

CSG was renamed the United Church Schools Trust and now operates as United Learning owning and running 12 independent schools in England including Hull Collegiate and Lincoln Minster School. Taking advantage of the Government’s Academies Programme, the Trust took the decision to expand into the public sector and, in addition to its portfolio of independent schools, it now runs more than 45 primary and secondary academies making it one of the largest educational charities in the UK. Although Christian principles remain at the core of United Learning’s ethos, the schools welcome pupils of all faiths and the majority are now coeducational.

Nos.62 and 64 Low Petergate may seem unlikely premises for a Christian educational establishment as there were originally two alehouses on the site: the Talbot Inn and the Fox Inn. Only the rear of the Talbot existed when the school took occupation as the inn had been largely demolished and replaced with a Georgian mansion. The closure of the Fox Inn in 1955 allowed the construction of new school buildings in the 1960s accommodating the chapel, library, science labs, home economics room and classrooms. In 1981 the school expanded further down Petergate towards King’s Square to house the music wing and additional classrooms and laboratories. The school closed its doors in 1997.

The former York College for Girls in Petergate

Eminent old girls

A number of eminent women attended the school including Dame Janet Baker (b.1933), the highly acclaimed mezzo-soprano, who was a pupil during the Second World War. She made her stage debut in 1956 at Oxford University and appeared at Glyndebourne that same year. Her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden came 10 years later, in 1966. As well as becoming known for her leading roles in baroque and early Italian opera, she was closely associated with the operas of Benjamin Britten. Her final operatic appearance was at Glyndebourne in July 1982. She was Chancellor of York University from 1991 to 2004, awarded the CBE in 1970, became a Dame in 1976 and a Member of the Order of Companions of Honour in 1993.

Another notable pupil of the school, Margaret Mann Phillips (1906-1987), became an authority on Renaissance history and literature, in particular the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, and also wrote two books which give an insight into life in York in the interwar years. Margaret’s father, the Revd Francis Mann, was rector of St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate (now the Early Music Centre), 1909-29, and she was brought up in the rectory which now forms part of the Priory Hotel on Fulford Road. She won a scholarship to Somerville College, University of Oxford, graduating in 1928 with a first in French. Continuing her studies in Paris, she obtained a PhD from the University of Paris in 1934 and taught at the University of Bordeaux. In 1936 she became a fellow of Newnham College, University of Cambridge, lecturing in French until 1945.

Margaret married archaeologist Charles William Phillips in 1940 and, after taking some time away to raise her family, she returned to teaching in the 1950s. In 1964 she was appointed Reader in French at King’s College, London. Whilst raising a family and pursuing an academic career, Margaret also found time to write two books about her childhood in York. Published in 1943, Within the City Wall, A Memoir of Childhood is a fictionalised autobiography of her early years in York and, recounting her time at school in Low Petergate, Willingly to School, Memories of York College for Girls, 1919-1924 was published posthumously in 1989.

The main school building is now a restaurant, La Vecchia Scuola, where there is a display of school memorabilia, and the section of the building incorporating the surviving rear of the Talbot Inn has been converted into residential accommodation.

Nos.62-64 Low Petergate

One of the most impressive Georgian townhouses on Low Petergate, No.62 was built c.1725 for John Shaw, Proctor of the Court at York, on part of the site occupied by the Talbot Inn in the 17th century. The house was subsequently rented by clock and watch maker Henry Hindley (1701-1771) who supplied clocks both to the Mansion House and York Minster. Hindley also made scientific instruments, inventing a screw-cutting lathe and a fuse-cutting engine. In 1739, he developed one of the first dividing instruments for graduating measuring instruments accurately. Examples of his clocks can be seen in the Castle Museum and in York Minster.

Dr Alexander Hunter (1729-1809), one of the founders of the York Lunatic Asylum in the 1770s, was the next occupant. He is thought to be the owner responsible for making improvements to the house, c.1770, enriching the street façade by adding a doorcase with Doric columns and pediment (the projecting porch incorporating the doorcase was added in the 19th century), a Doric triglyph frieze

The 18th century staircase

and pedimented dormer windows. Inside, the hall has a screen of two Corinthian columns leading to the well-preserved 18th-century staircase. Here is other evidence that these are Dr Hunter’s improvements; on the ceiling above the staircase is a relief of Aesculapius, the Greek demi-god of medicine, with his rod entwined with a serpent – the international symbol for doctors – and his daughter, Hygieia, with a child. Dr Hunter would become embroiled in controversy due to the exposure of the harsh treatment of inmates at the York Asylum. This led to the establishment of the Retreat in York which adopted a more enlightened approach, providing a model for the care of the mentally ill which was adopted throughout the UK.

In addition to the projecting porch, more extensive alterations were made to the house in 1865-6. The wings on either side of the main street façade were rebuilt and the rear elevation was remodeled, incorporating corner turrets, by York architects J.B. & W. Atkinson. During the 1950s, as the school expanded into adjoining buildings, the firm of Brierley, Leckenby & Keighley was employed on a succession of projects. The façade of No.64 Low Petergate was reconstructed incorporating a timber arcade and new buildings were constructed to the rear including a chapel with stained glass by Harry Stammers. The chapel has now been demolished and Harry Stammers’ glass can be seen in the undercroft of Merchant Adventurer’s Hall.

Following the closure of the school, the condition of the buildings declined until the Malcolm Payne Group was commissioned by George Houlton & Son to design a mixed-use development which would realise the potential of the site. Some modern buildings were removed, opening up the courtyard, and the listed buildings restored. A large glass conservatory has been added to the main house, opening up the restaurant to the formal garden. The timber-framed rear elevation of the former Talbot Inn has been restored and the fine 17th-century staircase now leads to residential accommodation on the upper floors. In recognition of the quality of the conservation work and the new interventions, the project was awarded a York Design Award in 2007.

Sources for York College for Girls

P.M. Tillott (ed.), Victoria County History, A History of Yorkshire: City of York, (Oxford, 1961).

Van Wilson, The Best Years of Our Lives, Secondary Education in York, 1900-1985, (York Archaeological Trust, York, 2010)

York College for Girls © Pat Hill

Sources for Nos.62-64 Low Petergate

‘Houses: Petergate’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp.180-199. British History Online, [accessed 27 April 2018]

Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)

Nos.62-64 Low Petergate © Richard Wilcock