In the 1880s there was great national concern about the technological development of some of the European competitors of the United Kingdom. In particular, Germany was believed to be surging ahead in the technical education of young people. In response to this, the Portsmouth City Council decided to construct a Higher Grade School for boys to take them beyond the school leaving age, which was then 13 (or ten in the case of pupils who passed a school-leaving test at that age). There were many private schools in the city at that time for parents who could afford the fees, but the great majority of young people did not receive secondary education .
The school was, in effect, a technical school and the subjects taught, in addition to reading and writing, were mainly mathematics, commerce, mechanics and book-keeping. It was opened in November 1888 in temporary premises in Commercial Road while moves were made to purchase a site for a new building. After reviewing and rejecting other possible sites, the City Council purchased part of “The Wilderness” in 1890 for £3,000 and a building for the new school was constructed on it in the area now occupied by the gymnasium and quadrangle buildings. The building was completed in May 1892 at a cost, in addition to the amount paid for the site, of £9,704. It was similar in size and general architectural style to the present main building of Priory School. Little now remains of the boys’ school except for the low building which forms part of the kitchen, the careers room and the glass-roofed caretakers’ store.
By the turn of the century there had been an evolution in the philosophy of education for older children, enshrined in the Education Act of 1902, and in 1904 the boys’ Higher Grade School became recognised by the National Board of Education as a boys’ secondary school, with somewhat broader aims. At this time, there was also a growing realisation that the secondary education of girls was important. Just as the secondary education of boys was a response to economic factors, mainly the need to produce a technically skilled workforce, the education of girls beyond the elementary stage was largely prompted by the need to produce teachers with the basic skills required to staff an expanding educational system.
A girls’ school for pupils proceeding from elementary education was established initially in March 1904 at Francis Avenue School, now Fernhurst Junior School, and it was planned to provide what was then known as higher education for 320 girls. Miss A M Hitchcock BA, whose photograph is displayed on the wall of the Head’s room, was appointed head mistress with eight assistants. One of her distinctions was that she drew her teacher’s pension for a longer period than she taught: having retired as a head in 1930, she died at the age of 100 in 1972.
While the boys’ school was being built, St Andrew’s House was also being constructed on another part of the present school site. It was founded by Emma Marrett Day, known as Mother Emma, who was asked by the Bishop of Winchester to set up the Diocesan Deaconess Institution. The Institution started in two houses in Victoria Road but Mother Emma raised enough money to build St Andrew’s House. The foundation stone was laid on All Saints Day 1889 by Mrs Harold Brown, the wife of the Bishop. The stone, of a red sandstone, is now somewhat weathered but may be seen on the east side of the Chapel building by the narrow path leading from the sports hall to the main building.
The Chapel was consecrated on 8 July 1890 and other buildings were added as money came in. There was accommodation for fifty ladies (sisters, probationers and church workers). On the wall at the top of the stairs now leading into St Andrew’s House from the main building, there is a marble stone commemorating a gift of money by the Bishop on the occasion of his golden wedding in 1890. The students spent some time in a hospital learning how to nurse the poor in their own homes and had experience in refuge, rescue and penitentiary work. They also worked in a children’s home and received training for “teaching and school management”.