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William Ellis and the History of the School

William EllisPicture of William Ellis

The school’s founder, William Ellis, was born on 27th January 1800. He was respected in the City as a man of outstanding business ability and acumen and he combined this with a gentle manner and perfect politeness.

Not only was William Ellis successful in business but he was also distinguished in two fields of learning: education and economics. He became inspired in these areas when he joined a philosophical group in 1820.  The group were united in their search for intellectual truth and upheld political liberalism, religious tolerance and legal reform. He became absorbed in the ways and means to promote ‘progression of the human race in the career of improvement’ and the need for a national system of education.

In 1848 he founded the first "Birkbeck School" and by 1852 he had founded five of these schools at his own expense, naming them after George Birkbeck. Dr Birkbeck, a man who was greatly admired by Ellis, was the founder of the Mechanics Institute (now called Birkbeck College, University of London). Our school was the last he founded but unlike all the others it bore his name. This was in October 1862. One of the chief aims of the Birkbeck Schools was the development of the thinking powers of children, quite radical at the time, rather than merely cultivating their memory.

William Ellis stood out as an innovator on a grand scale in founding schools where the sciences, including social sciences, formed the main basis of tuition and the development of the faculty of reason was regarded as the basic function of education. He valued, as he himself said, his conscience and his feelings for human wellbeing above all else.

The link between Birkbeck College remains and it has representation on the school’s governing body.

William Ellis School was first established in 1862 in Gospel Oak and catered for girls and boys of a wide age range. In 1889 it was reconstituted as a boys' secondary school. The school moved to its present site, backing onto Hampstead Heath, in 1937.

Since then classrooms have been adapted and extended, parts of the building have been converted and there has been a great deal of building to provide the specialist classrooms required. The most recent building programme gave us a new school hall and fully computerised learning resource centre, library and office.

The school has been fully comprehensive since 1984, having admitted its first mixed ability intake in 1978. It has a large joint sixth form with Parliament Hill School, which is part of the highly regarded La Swap Consortium with La Sainte Union and Acland Burghley School. The school has a long history of success and in 1997 became one of the three boys’ schools in the country to earn specialist Language College status.

William Ellis is unusual in being a non-denominational ' Voluntary Aided' school within the London Borough of Camden. There are not many of these schools, and they are mostly attached to the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, a Jewish community or a Livery Company. We stand on our own, supported by the William Ellis and Birkbeck Schools Trust, a registered charity whose funds are solely for the purpose of assisting the school. The Trustees work closely with the Governors and appoint the Foundation Governors. Many of our Governors are parents of current or former students of the school, and a few are former students.