History of The Oratory School
Founded in 1859 by Saint John Henry Newman.
Saint John Henry Newman founded The Oratory School with the intention of providing boys with an alternative to the other Catholic establishments of the day. He had been very influential in the conversion to Catholicism of many formerly Anglican, middle-class, professional men. They now wanted him to educate their sons, giving them a liberal, classical education, which would fit them for universities and public life, but in a sound Catholic context. The Oratory School opened on 2 May 1859, with nine boys. The Head Master was to be the Oratorian priest, Fr Nicholas Darnell, and Newman appointed a Dame, Mrs Frances Wootten, imitating the great public schools.
Over the year the school steadily grew in numbers, in popularity, and in prestige. The sons of the old recusant families started to come, too. High-calibre lay staff were employed, schoolrooms built, playing fields rented, and extra-curricular activities thrived: all the trappings of an English public school were present by the late 1860s. In all things, however, the spiritual and religious life of the boys continued to be paramount.
Newman’s friend, Ambrose St John, took the helm, though Newman himself was often involved with the finances, the examinations, the annual Latin play, and the orchestra. He often wrote to, and had dealings with, the parents. After St John’s death, Fr John Norris and, in the early 20th Century, Fr Edward Pereira, were both outstanding Heads who made the school what it was: successful; Catholic; attractive to converts and old families alike. Boys went on to university, to Sandhurst and Woolwich, into Medicine and the Law. Many played a notable part in the Armed Forces, with 84 giving their lives in the Great War. Although Newman died in 1890, the school continued to be very much his school, still attached as it was to the Birmingham Oratory Fathers’ house, and with Fr Pereira, a former pupil of the Cardinals’ day, as Head Master.
In the early 1920s, a new site became necessary and the school was relocated to Caversham, just north of Reading. In this inter-war period, there were several changes of Head Master, a devastating fire, and national economic difficulties which, together with the removal from the historical Birmingham site, caused problems for the school. In 1941 the Caversham site was sold to the BBC and a new site was purchased in Woodcote, where the school remains to this day. Extensive building programs under Dom Adrian Morey OSB in the 1960s, Adrian Snow in the 1970s and 1980s, and latterly under Clive Dytor, gave the school hugely improved sporting facilities, classrooms, and new boarding houses.
Now with Joe Smith as the Head Master, Newman’s school continues to thrive with girls and boys.
2019 was an exciting time for The Oratory School as we celebrated 160 years since the school was founded by Saint John Henry Newman. We are proud of our rich history and innovative approach, which is at the heart of our long-standing reputation.
The Oratory in 1859
The Oratory in 1929
The Oratory in 2019
The Oratory is Saint John Henry Newman’s School. Newman was born in 1801, and was one of the foremost churchmen and theologians of his day. Learn more about our founder here.
In September 2020, The Oratory School became a coeducational school, welcoming girls alongside boys for the first time in its 161-year history. "The date of the school’s opening – 2 May 1859 – is now joined by 8 September 2020 as the two most significant dates in our proud history." Joe Smith, Head Master