Wimbledon Guardian: The Wimbledon Free School as it was known after 1773. Pictured in 1810 as drawn by the artist Porden. The Wimbledon Free School as it was known after 1773. Pictured in 1810 as drawn by the artist Porden.

As Wimbledon schools face the prospect of growing class numbers in the near future, a unique landmark beside the Common recalls how far back the question of local education really goes. The two-storey octagonal building in Camp Road first opened for lessons exactly 254 years ago this week on 31 December 1759. Known as the Wimbledon Charity School, it was the brainchild of Rev John Cooksey (1707-1777), vicar at St Mary’s, who had worked for three years to get it off the ground as a means of teaching poor children to read the Bible and learn basic writing skills.

He persuaded the Vestry, Wimbledon’s local authority of the day, to establish a committee of wealthy local residents who would fund the building. They convinced the Lord of the Manor, Earl Spencer, to permit the enclosure of two acres of the Common and the octagon was duly built there. It contained both the classroom for 50 pupils and the teacher’s accommodation. Some of the pupils came from the workhouse next door – now the site of the almshouses - and were to be trained for domestic service.

Unfortunately problems arose and the schoolmasters conflicted with parish officials. Mr Lewis, third candidate to be interviewed for the post in 1759, cheated on his application form and was rejected immediately. Many years passed but in 1773 the place was renamed the Wimbledon Free School, the building underwent repairs and a minute-book was introduced to keep clear records. Joseph Andrews and his wife were appointed to teach 50 boys and 50 girls and stayed for 15 years. Arithmetic was added to the curriculum in 1778.

Funded by subscription, the Free School was supported by several famous local residents, including Earl Spencer, the future Prime Minister Lord Rockingham, and Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton. The anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was treasurer of the school during the 1780s, his uncle having been one of the original trustees.

Then, 200 years ago in 1813, there was another name change when it became the Wimbledon National School, linked to the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. The octagonal building was extended in 1834 and again after 1870.

During the later 19th century the name changed yet again to the Old Central School. In 1889, John William Selby, the longest serving headmaster (1873-1919), was the first chairman of the Old Central football club which later became Wimbledon FC and played on the Common during its formative years.

Wimbledon Guardian:

Octagon House, Woodhayes, where Rev John Cooksey lived. This property shared a common design with the school house. Both were  built by William Jennings. The watercolour by John Hassell (1767-1825) dates from 1825.


The Old Central name lasted until 1966 when the Church of England transferred its operation to the newly built Bishop Gilpin Primary School building in Lake Road and the octagonal building was taken over by the new Merton Council. Partly rebuilt, it reopened as the William Wilberforce School for children with learning difficulties but later in 1992 it was sold to The Study Preparatory School for girls and refurbished once more. Since then it has been used for the younger pupils of this private school.

Written to mark the octagonal school’s 250th anniversary in 2008, the book A Firm Foundation - The Story of Old Central/Bishop Gilpin School, Wimbledon, 1758-2008, by John Harvey tells the full story. It covers lesser known characters such as Betty Syrett, a descendant of Wimbledon’s first postman (see Heritage story 23 August 2013) and a pupil at Old Central 1926-32. She vividly recalls being introduced to laundry work and playing hockey coached by the fearsome headmaster, Major Bernard Ogden. Copies of the book are available from the Museum of Wimbledon at 22 Ridgway.


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