The Ursuline convent at Greenwich was founded from Duderstadt in Germany on 1 October 1877. The sisters had lived in Duderstadt since 1700 but they were expelled from their convent by the German Chancellor Bismarck who wanted the state to control all educational establishments.
After some searching the sisters found a suitable property, 70 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, formerly a boys’ orphanage but subsequently empty. They took the house on a 50 year lease at £80 a year and 21 sisters came over from Duderstadt, opening their first school with 25 pupils.
Five years later, however, in 1882, an appeal came from an Australian bishop for the sisters to make a foundation in New South Wales, ‘Ten sisters volunteered to go, and after a journey of more than 3 months they reached Armidale and set up a school, eventually establishing a network of convents across the state and up into Queensland.
Meanwhile in Greenwich the school was proving popular and in 1886 the sisters purchased St Mary’s Lodge, adjoining 70 Crooms Hill and doubling the size of the property with its generous accommodation and garden. At this point however, circumstances in Germany were improving and 12 of the 15 sisters left at Greenwich were anxious to return home.
At the same time the French government had, it its turn, become very anti-Catholic, and was moving towards legislation to close all convents and take over their schools, so the Ursuline sisters of Gravelines in N. France were looking for an alternative refuge. In 1892 therefore the German sisters at Greenwich asked if they would be interested in taking over their school in England. The convent on Crooms Hill was so attractively situated that the French Ursulines readily agreed to continue the work the German sisters had started.
The school now had French boarders, as well as German, Norwegian and English students, and the boarding school remained in existence until 1950. But increasingly the concentration was on day pupils and on building up academic subjects. St Ursula’s was officially recognised as a small private school in 1904. In 1920 it was able to admit scholarship pupils and by 1935 it was an efficient 2-form entry grammar school.
Then in 1939 came World War 2. The school was evacuated to Hastings and when this became too dangerous they moved to Brecon in South Wales. Eventually peace returned, and when the school became Voluntary Aided in 1949 fee-paying ceased and numbers began to build. In 1977 in yet another development St Ursula’s became a 3-form entry comprehensive school.
The Sixth Form expanding to 100 had their own specialised accommodation in Heathgate and Stobcross. In time however sixth form opportunities needed to offer a wider choice, and St Ursula’s opted to support the new sixth form college structure which was emerging. As a consequence the school became 11-16 and 4-form entry. This has allowed for greater choice and variety in the curriculum, and the school is held in such high esteem that applications to enter the school each year number 4 times its actual capacity to accept them.
In 1992 the sisters moved out of St Mary’s Lodge which had been the convent for 110 years and this area was given over to the expanding school. The present convent is now to be found in Heathgate and Stobcross, formerly the sixth form area. There the sisters continue to pray for the wellbeing of everyone connected with St Ursula’s – both past and present.