In the following Christine Evans Appleyard offers some fascinating details on the history of Gipsy Hill College at KU’s Kingston Hill campus.
Any new year is a time for looking forward with optimism but at Kingston University (KU), 2017 marks the centenary of the founding of Gipsy Hill Training College in South London – one of the earliest ancestors in the KU family tree. Not only was this small, independent teacher training college for women the forerunner to Education studies at KU but it is likely that without it, the University’s Kingston Hill campus would not exist today.
Gipsy Hill’s arrival in Kingston in 1946 marked the half-way point in the history of the college. Its founding in 1917 reflected significant advances in opportunities for women and children through education brought about by the First World War. Back in the Victorian and Edwardian days, most women were educated to become wives and mothers and women primary teachers commonly toiled their way up through the ranks as pupil-teachers. The prospect of attending training college and leaving with a certificate which would effectively guarantee them not just a teaching job, but independence, must have seemed as likely as free University tuition is today.
The 1917 Fisher Education Bill, which proposed that local authorities took responsibility for educating two to five-year-olds, was the catalyst the founders of Gipsy Hill needed to set up their new college for women nursery teachers. Founder and lifelong-supporter, Belle Rennie, secured premises and recruited a small group of mostly mature women students, many of whom had practical experience of war work, to study under the guidance of the college’s first Principal, Lillian de Lissa, whom she brought over from Australia.
At 32, Lillian de Lissa was already internationally known for both her unique brand of progressive kindergarten education and her work with disadvantaged families. She was also passionate about training women teachers.
For those who could afford the fees of £54 per year, the college offered independent-minded women the chance to gain credentials in a profession offering respectability and financial stability, as well as to make a real difference to young children’s lives. Nevertheless, Gipsy Hill was new, untested and partially reliant on the financial underpinnings of Belle Rennie. Like Lillian de Lissa, each student needed to enter its gates with not only a ‘can-do’ attitude to hard work, but also a fair share of optimism and spirit.
One such student was civil engineer’s daughter, Gwendolen Watkins, one of the first cohort of 14 students who started at the college on its first day of opening in October, 1917. Like many others who attended Gipsy Hill in the first five years, Gwendolen – at 25 – was just a few years younger than the Principal, reasonably well-educated and unmarried.
Following her graduation from the two-year training course, Gwendolen travelled to Montreal in Canada, where she became one of two British nursery teachers to run the McGill University nursery school laboratory, as part of a study into child mental health. In so doing, she blazed a trail followed by many other Gipsy Hill students who took Lillian de Lissa’s teaching methods with them around the world.
It is hard to imagine now that Kingston Hill’s expansive campus started out life as a handful of buildings accommodating just 86 students. But, back in 1946, Gipsy Hill was in desperate need of a new home after having been evacuated to a temporary base in Yorkshire during the Second World War. Surrey County Council rescued the college from closure by offering it a permanent site in Kingston, accommodated in whatever buildings could be procured. Remarkably, these included such historic premises as Combe Hurst – once owned by Samuel Smith, the nephew of Florence Nightingale – and Kingston Hill Place, a magnificent mansion bought for his mistress, Lillie Langtry, by the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII. The college’s main building, Kenry House, and its accompanying 36-acre grounds, complete with Nissan huts, was not acquired until 1949, when it had ceased to be a rehabilitation camp for German prisoners-of-war.
The Kingston years saw rapid growth and change for Gipsy Hill, starting with the retirement of Lillian de Lissa and the appointment of a new Principal, Frances Batstone, in January, 1947. Over the years, the college significantly expanded both its remit and student numbers. An acute shortage of teachers during the 1960s saw the opening of a separate annexe at Guildford for mature students, and the admission of the first male students at Kingston Hill, with a four-year Bachelor of Education degree also introduced that decade.
By the beginning of the 1970s, however, a national fall in the birth rate meant the number of new teachers being trained needed to be drastically reduced. Relatively small colleges like Gipsy Hill were forced to amalgamate with larger institutions, or face closure. A collaboration with Kingston Polytechnic was successfully brokered on 1st April, 1975, and Gipsy Hill officially became Kingston Polytechnic’s newly-created Division of Educational Studies. Then, in 1992, when Kingston Polytechnic became Kingston University, Educational Studies was absorbed into the new Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education.
There may be no timetabled necessity for Penrhyn Road-based History students to visit Kingston Hill campus, but I would encourage anyone to make a visit. You’ll find plenty of evidence of the old Gipsy Hill Training College still there – Kenry House, complete with nearby Nissan hut, Combe Hurst, De Lissa Hall – named after the first Principal – and a plaque dedicated to founder Belle Rennie in the Business School building. Kingston Hill Place, now in private ownership, is situated opposite the campus entrance.
In October this year, do spare a thought for Lillian de Lissa and Belle Rennie, as well as Gwendolen Watkins and others from the class of 1917. Between them, they helped pave the way for all that eventually followed at Kingston Hill campus, and for KU in 2017 that’s surely worth celebrating.
Christine Evans Appleyard gained her degree in History and Sociology from Kingston University in summer, 2016. She became interested in the history of Gipsy Hill and the School of Education after volunteering in the KU archive during her second year, and went on to write her dissertation on the history of the School in the 1960s and 1970s.