Westminster School

Motto:Dat Deus Incrementum
Dat Deus Incrementum

Westminster School (in full, The Royal College of St. Peter at Westminster, but almost always referred to as Westminster School, or even just Westminster, for short) is an ancient English public school, located by Westminster Abbey in Westminster, in central London, and with a history stretching back to the 12th century. Its A-level results in 2004 were the highest in the country. The current Head Master is Tristram Jones-Parry who is retiring in July 2005, to be replaced by Dr Stephen Spurr.



The School originally became a public school (and so available to all members of the public, provided that they could pay for tuition costs) in 1179, as the educational part of the Roman Catholic Abbey at Westminster, the Benedictine monks being required to provide a small charity school by decree of Pope Alexander III.

However, this arrangement changed in 1540, when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the Benedictine Monasteries of the Catholic Church in England, the King ensuring the School's survival by statute, becoming The College of St. Peter and carrying on, with forty "King's Scholars" funded from the royal purse. Although during Queen Mary I's brief reign the Abbey was reinstated as a Roman Catholic monastery, it was redissolved on Queen Elizabeth I's accession, and neither of these events had a major impact on the School.

Elizabeth I formally refounded the School, this time as a separate body, in 1560, with an endowment to keep 40 "Queen's Scholars" at all times; this date is now generally accepted as the date that the school was "founded", although final independence from the Crown was only achieved with the Public Schools Act 1868.

In 1943, Westminster Under School was formed as a semi-separate entity for the teaching of day pupils from the ages of 8 to 13 (now 7 to 13). The current headmaster of the Under School is Mr. Jeremy Edwards. Originally situated in Little Dean's Yard (the main square of the School, off Dean's Yard), it later took residence in Vincent Square after it was left to the School by Lord Vincent. In 1967 the first girl pupil was admitted to the School, with girls becoming full members of the (Upper) School from 1973 onwards.


Little Dean's Yard from Liddell's Arch
Little Dean's Yard from Liddell's Arch

The School is located primarily in the former grounds of the now-defunct monastery at Westminster Abbey, its buildings surrounding the (private) square Little Dean's Yard (known as 'Yard'), off Dean's Yard, where Church House, the headquarters of the Anglican Church, is sited, along with some of the Houses, the Common Room, and College Hall. The humanities are taught in Sutcliffe's on the neighbouring Great College Street (named after the sweet shop that used to occupy the ground floor of the building in the 19th century), and the Robert Hooke Science Centre is located some way away, just off Smith Square. Further, College Garden, to the East of Little Dean's Yard, is believed to be the oldest garden in England, under continuous cultivation for at least the last thousand years. As part of a recent expansion programme, the school has added the Millicent Fawcett Hall for dramatic performances, the Manoukian Centre for music and redeveloped 3/3A Dean's Yard for the humanities.

Notable buildings

The 14th century Abbott's dining hall, now named 'College Hall', is thought to be one of the oldest and finest examples of medieval refectory in existence.

'College' (which houses the Houses of College, Dryden's and Wren's) is a dressed stone building bordering College Garden, the former monastery's Infirmary garden, which is now the property of Westminster Abbey. It dates from 1729, and was designed by the Earl of Burlington based on earlier designs from Sir Christopher Wren.

'School', the School's main hall and former monks' Dormitory, which is used for Latin Prayers (a weekly assembly with prayers spoken in the Westminster-dialect of Latin), exams, and large concerts, plays and the like. It was formerly used, from 1599 onwards, to accommodate the pupils when taught, the Upper and Lower Schools being split by a curtain hung from a 16th century bar made of pig iron, which remains the largest piece of pig iron in the world. The stone steps and entranceway to School have been attributed as the work of Inigo Jones, and is engraved with the names of many pupils who bothered to hire a stonemason, though the practice no longer occurs. The panelling within the hall similarly bears the coats of arms of many former pupils, though in a more formal manner.

The roofs of both School and College were destroyed by an incendiary bomb in 1941 dropped as part of The Blitz, the buildings being re-opened by George VI in 1950.


A service is given in Latin each year in Westminster Abbey, called 'Little Commem.', in which the School celebrates its founders, most notably Elizabeth I. Every third year a much larger service is given in its place, and called 'Big Commem'.

Missing image
Pupils fight for the pancake (left), watched by the Dean of Westminster Abbey and the Head Master (right). Also present is an ancient set of scales for determining the winner.

On Shrove Tuesdays since 1753 the 'Greaze' takes place in School, in which the head cook is required to throw a horsehair pancake over the bar that used to separate the parts of the schoolroom, over which elected members of the school are to fight for one minute whilst being watched over by the Dean of Westminster Abbey and the Head Master, the pupil with the largest piece after the minute is up being the winner, and awarded a sovereign. Were the cook to fail to get the 'pancake' over the bar within 3 tries, he or she would have been booked, or pelted with (rather heavy) Latin primers; it is rumoured that this has taken place on (at least) one occasion. The Greaze is still an extremely popular tradition with most members of the school, although the tradition of booking the cook no longer exists.

The privilege of being the first in the land to acclaim the coronation of the new sovereign at coronation in Westminster Abbey is reserved for the current Queen's Scholars, who sit in a high chamber in the main tower of the Abbey.

The Latin Play, acted by members of College is presented annually in College, with a prologue and humorous epilogue given (in Latin) by the head of the House (known as the Master Of The Queen's Scholars, regardless of their sex) on contemporary events. No other school in the world can claim to have carried this ancient custom, inaugurated by Elizabeth I in 1560, almost without interruption to the present day.


There are 4 main points of entry for prospective pupils:

  • For the Under School, at ages 7 and 11, judged by combination of internal exam and interview.
  • For the Lower School, at age 13, judged by either Common Entrance, a standardised, national (though not official) set of exams for entrance to independent schools, for standard entry, and the Challenge, an internal set of exams, for scholarship entry, as well as interview.
  • For the Upper School, at age 16, judged by subject-specific exams and interviews and conditional upon GCSE results. This is the only point of entry for girls, and a handful of boys.

As well as the "Queen's Scholars", whereby one half of boarding fees are paid from endowment, and of which there are (almost always) 8 in each year, pupils applying for entry under the Challenge have available a small number, usually 2, of (non-boarding) Honorary Scholarships. Those entering the Lower School also have the opportunity to obtain scholarships based on musical talent, and bursaries for those whose parents are not able to fund their tuition. Ignoring scholarships and bursaries, annual fees before incidentals range from 10,500 (approx. $20,000 US) for pupils at the Under School to 22,000 (approx. $42,000 US) for boarding pupils.

Westminster jargon

Year names

Westminster has an unusual system for naming the school years, which can cause confusion to those not familiar with the system. For this reason the Under School changed to the nationally standard year names in September 1997.

Under School (no longer in use)
  • Year 3: Year not in existence until after names were dropped
  • Year 4: Petty B
  • Year 5: Petty A
  • Year 6: Form 1
  • Year 7: Form 2
  • Year 8: Remove
Great School (still in use)
  • Year 9: Vth Form
  • Year 10: Lower Shell
  • Year 11: Upper Shell
  • Year 12: VIth Form
  • Year 13: Remove

When the above names were phased out, entrance to the Under School was at 'about' 8 (though in practice, many entrants were 7); now the cut-off is precise (pupils must be 7 on the first day of the school year to join Year 3), which means that while direct comparison is not possible, it has been speculated that Year 3 would have been called 'Petty C'.

The Lower and Upper Shell years are named for the shell-like alcove up School where they were originally taught.

Other jargon

  • Abbey - When used without a pronoun refers to the compulsory morning service in the Abbey on Mondays and Fridays; "It's time for Abbey".
  • The Challenge - The exam sat by pupils applying for scholarships. Wholly oral until 1855
  • Gating - Pupils are 'gated' as the worst form of punishment next to expulsion or suspension.
  • The Greaze - See customs.
  • Green - Dean's Yard; "They played football on Green".
  • SAP - Saturday afternoon punishment; detention on a saturday afternoon.
  • Station - Sports; "He missed Station as he was sick".
  • Up house/school - "Smith was up Grant's/house/School".
  • Yard - Little Dean's Yard; "Smith was in Yard".
  • Latin Prayers - A form of assembly where Latin Prayers are 'sung' principally by the school monitors and the Headmaster, but also by other members of the school.


Missing image
Rigaud's House (far right), Grant's House (right), residence of the Master of the Queen's Scholars (centre) and College (far left)

The School is split into 11 Houses, some which are 'day Houses' (and only admit day-pupils, those who go home after school), the others having a mix of day-pupils and boarders. The Houses are named after people connected to the house or school in various ways - mainly prominent Old Westminsters but also former Head Masters and House Masters. Houses are used as a focus for pastoral care and social and sporting activities, as well as accommodations for boarders. All the day houses are mixed-sex, and all houses admit day girls, however only Busby's and Purcells provide boarding accommodation for girls.

Day houses:

  • Ashburnham
  • Dryden's
  • Hakluyt's
  • Milne's
  • Wren's

Boarding houses:

  • Grant's
  • Rigaud's
  • Liddell's
  • Busby's (mixed)
  • Purcell's (girl boarders only)

There is also 'College', the House for the Queen's Scholars (all of whom board), but which has assigned to it some of the (non-boarding) girls who enter the School in the VIth form.


The School has one of only a few Eton Fives courts in the world, being different from Fives in having a buttress and step, and semi-regularly fields pupils as national entries in international competitions in rowing, or "Water", and fencing. Sport facilities at the school are however fairly limited due to its location in the centre of London, and hence being unable to provide sports facilities for the wide range of sports available. The main sports ground that Westminster School uses are situated in Vincent Square (SW1) but it is limited to football, cricket and tennis.

Former pupils

Main article: List of former pupils of Westminster

The following people were educated at Westminster, and are usually listed with OW (Old Westminster) after their name (collectively, OWW):

External links

Further reading

  • John Field - The King's Nurseries: The Story of Westminster School (2nd edition) - James & James - 1987 - ISBN 0-907-38301-7
  • John Dudley Carleton - Westminster School: A History (revised edition) - R. Hart-Davis - 1965
  • Lawrence Edward Tanner - Westminster School: A History - Country Life - 1934
  • Reginald Airy - Handbooks to the great Public Schools: Westminster - George Bell & Sons - 1902
  • John Sargeaunt - Annals of Westminster School - Methuen - 1898

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