Education was at the heart of St Augustine, Augustine of Canterbury’s, mission to England in 597 and the great Benedictine monasteries of the Cathedral Priory and St Augustine’s were centres of teaching and learning in the middle ages. In view of the rich heritage of Christian learning it is not surprising that in the 20th century Canterbury became pre-eminent as a centre of education. Physically the expansion of schools and universities filled every vacant space in the city, pushed the physical boundaries to new limits and, in the maps of the Canterbury mind, took the example and influence of their alumni far beyond.

The King's School

The tradition of education in Canterbury goes back to 597 when Augustine arrived to evangelize England. The education provided by the monastic foundation, and by the ancient school of the City of Canterbury, was in 1541 made the responsibility of the new Cathedral foundation of Henry VIII. Thanks to this the school became known as King’s School, but the school of Christopher Marlowe and William Harvey remained in the confines of the NW corner of the Precincts, in the Mint Yard, until the late-19th century. It was not until the coming of the railways that King’s was able to open its doors to a wider public, became a Public School, built boarding houses, set rigorous academic standards for boys to win scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge and embraced organised sport.

By 1900 the school had acquired Blore’s Field off St Stephen’s Road, named after George Blore (Headmaster 1873-86), where in 1990 the school’s Recreation Centre combining a swimming pool and sports hall with all the facilities of a municipal sports centre was opened. The King’s ‘Rec’ operates a membership scheme for the community. The school pushed out further from St Stephen’s road when in 1927 George Birley (Head Master 1927-35) bought 22 acres of farm land contiguous with the Canterbury West to Ramsgate railway. The playing fields known as Birley’s comprise six rugby pitches or three grass wicket squares and 26 cricket nets according to season, an artificial grass hockey pitch, hard courts for tennis and netball and a fine pavilion. Birley’s playing fields proved a farsighted acquisition when the surrounding land was sold for post war housing.

King’s scholars have included the novelists Hugh Walpole (1884-1911) and Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). Their contrasting experience of the school appears in Maughan’s semi-autobiographical Of Human Bondage, as the dismal place where Philip Carey endured his school days, and Walpole’s The Cathedral, which reveres the architecture and monuments around the only school where he felt happy. Walpole’s reputation as the bestselling author of the inter-war years took a blow from Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (1930), in which a novelist of more pushy ambition than literary talent was widely taken to be Hugh Walpole. Despite Maugham’s depiction of his school and his emphatic atheism, his ashes were scattered in the Cathedral Precincts garden near the Norman Staircase.

The modern development of the school was largely the achievement of Canon Shirley, who became Head Master in 1935, acquired and built more boarding houses in the Precincts, expanded the school in numbers, started the festival of music and drama at the end of the summer term known as ‘King’s Week’, and whose eponymous assembly and concert hall is a grandiose legacy.

Modernisation and further expansion continued apace from girls joining the school in the sixth form with the acquisition of St Augustine’s College next to the ruins of the medieval St Augustine’s Abbey and, in 1990, becoming fully co-educational as a school of 850. Today 13 boarding houses are scattered around the Precincts, Broad Street and St Augustine’s. In the process King’s has taken on the conservation and enhancement of the ancient buildings in the Precincts and St Augustine’s, which in 1988 were declared by UNESCO as part of the Canterbury World Heritage site. In addition the historic buildings of the Dominican Priory, St Alphege Church and, more recently, the Malthouse, a 19th-century brewery converted into a state-of-the-art theatre, with the Shirley Hall, are made available by the school for community use.

Simon Langton Grammar Schools (for boys and for girls)

The Simon Langton Boys Grammar School, founded with its sister school in 1881, succeeded the Blue Coat Boys’ School which had been housed in the Poor Priests’ hospital. The two schools were built on the site of the Whitefriars (now the shopping centre) and were named after Simon Langton, Archdeacon of Canterbury (1227 until his death in 1228) who left endowments bequeathed to the schools, which nonetheless were non-denominational.

No school was more tragically harmed by the two World Wars than Langton Boys. In the Great War (1914-1918) some 400 boys served on the western and eastern fronts, of whom 98 were killed. an exceptionally high proportion for any school. The house system is named after some of those boys who died in the service of their country. In the Second World War, while King’s was evacuated to a safe place in Cornwall, Langton boys and girls bore the brunt of the air raids. Following the severe damage to the Whitefriars buildings by the Baedeker Raid of June 1st 1942 schooling take place in shelters, huts and the open air. The Butler Education Act (1944) set out the future for selective state grammar school, technical and secondary education, which in Canterbury (as with the county of Kent) has prevailed in a modified version until today.

After the war the Langton schools were rebuilt on farm land beyond the Kent county St Lawrence cricket ground to the south east of the city, the Boys’ in Nackington and the Girls’ School on the Old Dover Road. For schools which aspire to a seemingly modest motto, Meliora Sequamur (May we follow better things), the devastating experience of two world wars has been followed by infinitely better things. These are expressed by the Langton values of academic excellence, ambition, independence and resilience.

St Anselm’s, the Archbishop’s and Canterbury High

Built off the Old Dover Road on land between the Langtons, St Anselm’s Catholic School is a strong learning community, embracing the spiritual values of “Hope, Charity, Justice and Peace” for students of all academic abilities. Set in parkland at the foot of St Stephen’s hill, the Archbishop’s School (Church of England), also open to children of all abilities, became the Canterbury school in the post war decades which attracted most applications for places. By the London Road Estate, founded as a secondary school in 1952 on land donated by Frank Hooker, Canterbury High School, which today has outstanding facilities as a specialist Sports Academy, draws more than 1000 students from across the city. Canterbury High School Academy (as now) works in partnership with Simon Langton Boys and shares the spacious campus and modern facilities with the Canterbury Adult Education Centre.

Barton Court

Barton Court Grammar School started as the Girls’ Technical High. It occupied the site of the old hospital building in the grounds of St Augustine’s between 1937 and 1945 when the Technical High crossed the road to the grounds of the Barton Manor estate to re-open as Barton Court Grammar School for Girls. The 18th century manor house, gardens, playing field and lake, formerly used by the abbey as a fishery, must have seemed an idyllic place to learn. In the 1960s a brand new school building designed by city architect John Berbiers was built, part cantilevered over the pond. It was and still is called the ‘60’s Block’. In 1990 the school became co-educational and more buildings were developed around the lake as the school grew in numbers and ambition. Uniquely among Canterbury schools Barton Court took on the International Baccalaureate in place of A levels, with foreign languages a distinctive strength. Today the Barton Court Academy Trust is busy with further expansion, taking over the adjoining site of the former Chaucer School in order to create a new ‘free school’ for children aged 11 to 18.

Chaucer Technology College

The Chaucer was Canterbury’s best example of a Technical School under the provisions of the Butler Education Act 1944. Originally founded as the Canterbury Technical High School before World War II, the school moved to its Spring lane site in 1967 and was renamed the Geoffrey Chaucer School on becoming co-educational in 1973 and subsequently Chaucer Technology College. The Chaucer was a well-managed, happy and successful, mixed ability school and there are plenty of former boys, girls and staff who will tell you that it was a good school. But in 2009 the Chaucer was tarnished by a television news feature about the dangers of asbestos in school buildings, even though the school had dealt with the problem. Owing to dwindling pupil numbers and deteriorating academic performance Kent County Council closed the school in September 2015. To meet the increase in population and demand for school places in Canterbury a new school is under construction on the Chaucer’s site, to be run by the Barton Court Academy Trust.

St Edmund’s School and Kent College

Even with the array of educational excellence among Canterbury’s state schools, King’s is just one of three independent schools which have also developed and flourished over the past hundred years. Separated by just a few yards across the Whitstable Road, St Edmund’s School and Kent College have consistently enhanced their own educational identity.

The fine Victorian buildings of St Edmund’s School, built on parkland acquired in 1855 by the Reverend Dr. Samuel Warneford for the Clergy Orphans Foundation, overlook the city from the prominence of St Thomas’ Hill. In 1972 St Edmund’s took in the Cathedral Choristers Choir School which had existed as an entirely independent school within the Precincts. The choristers still live in the Choir School building by the Deanery known as Junior House, an enclave of St Edmund’s within King’s! The choristers are provided with minibus transport for main school lessons and activities. St Edmund’s as a day and boarding co-educational school combines all the best features of a caring, happy, successful academic community which is committed to educating the whole person, including some very talented members.

Kent College, founded 1885 as the Wesleyan College, Canterbury, on land made available by a farmer, Edward Pillow, occupies a rural site on the Whitstable Road. As an independent day and boarding school, the College more than kept pace with the 20th century in the expansion of buildings, facilities, and excellence in academic achievement, sport and music. The school also owns and manages the adjoining Moat Farm estate and students exhibit livestock each year at the Kent County Show. Sharing a common connection with the Methodist Church with thirteen independent “sister schools” in Great Britain and its own offspring, Kent College Dubai, Kent College aspires by its motto Lux Tua Via Mea (Let Your Light be My Way) to world class excellence.

Return to the homepage for 20th-century Canterbury, or explore Canterbury's economic growth through the essays on Canterbury's commerce and industrial heritage, its retail industry and trading estates, or Canterbury as a boom city. You can also learn more about Canterbury's universities, and how Canterbury has been shaped by other facets of its transport infrastructure and the railway, planning decisions, as well as the significant impact of the Second World War and the disastrous 1909 floods.