Born on 4th May 1851 into a wealthy family, Henrietta Barnett devoted much of her life to trying to improve the lives of the poor, particularly women and children. Influenced by the work of social reformers such as Octavia Hill and John Ruskin, the young Henrietta believed strongly in the transformative power of education. In the 1870s, together with her husband, Canon Samuel Barnett, Henrietta set to work in the East End of London on a wide range of social and educational projects designed to alleviate urban poverty and promote a wider love of learning and culture. These included the foundation of Toynbee Hall (1884) and the Whitechapel Art Gallery (1901). The first woman to be appointed to a government committee, in the 1890s Henrietta led a campaign to abolish the hated Poor Law District (‘Barrack’) Schools and improve the quality of education for underprivileged children in the capital.
Henrietta Barnett’s most ambitious scheme, the building of a model ‘Garden Suburb’ community to the north of London, allowed her to combine her passion for architecture, education and the arts. ‘The Institute’ Hall, situated in the centre of Hampstead Garden Suburb and officially opened on 28th March 1909, originally housed both adult education classes and a temporary infants school. However, as the suburb’s population grew, plans were drawn up for a permanent girls’ school. Despite the preponderance of boys’ schools in the local area, Henrietta had to fight hard for several years to persuade authorities of the necessity of building a girls’ school. Thankfully she persevered and at 9.15am on 17th January 1912, the first six students to attend Henrietta Barnett’s ‘Institute Kindergarten and High School’ (the future HBS) arrived for morning lessons with Miss Matzinger
The school, with exterior designs by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, grew rapidly and was developed in three main stages between 1909 and 1929. On 23rd October 1918, Queen Mary, made the first of several visits to lay the foundation stone of ‘The Barnett School’ (renamed ‘The Henrietta Barnett School’ in 1922) on a temporary plinth. Six years later it was transferred to the new Queen Mary Wing, named in her honour and opened on 31st May 1924. The final stage of the main building, known as Crewe Hall after the 1st Marquess of Crewe, was completed in 1929. The addition of these purpose built classrooms, including the first science laboratories on the site, enabled the school to increase to two-form entry. In 1938 the school site was once again expanded by the addition of The Henrietta Barnett Preparatory School, which accepted mixed pupils aged 5-11 and which occupied the Bigwood site until 1976. Finally on 4th May 2011, almost 100 years after the arrival of the first students, the completion of the new Hopkins Wings provided today’s students with splendid new art, music, drama and design technology facilities.
Dame Henrietta Barnett strongly believed in the power of education to shape people’s lives and founded the School to provide educational opportunities of the highest quality for its pupils. She built the School on the principle that education should be open to girls from different backgrounds to study and learn together and from each other, regardless of social, economic, cultural, ethnic or religious background. Until her death on 10th June 1936, Henrietta Barnett took an active interest in the life and running of the school. An article from the school magazine in 1948 recalls: “On the stage sat all of the important people on Prize Day, and the most important person was Dame Henrietta herself, who lived across the Square. She was an amazing person, vital and alive, with a fine presence. She came over to the School fairly often to tell us of her travels or anything else that she thought might interest us”. One year later, on 4th May 1939 the school celebrated its first ‘Founders Day’.
In 1911, educational opportunities for women were severely limited and fewer than 1 in 100 girls went on to university. Today, The Henrietta Barnett School achieves excellent results and university entrance rates and is recognised as one of the top girls’ schools in the country. Yet the school remains true to Henrietta’s original vision and her legacy continues into the 21st century. Over the last hundred years, the School has become a warm, vibrant, lively, exciting place for girls to learn – one that provides a high quality education within a caring and secure environment. It remains committed to providing a broad education for all pupils that is ambitious, varied and stimulating. It remains committed to developing the whole person, to encouraging girls to explore their interests in a wide variety of ways and to promoting curiosity of mind, independence of spirit and a love of learning in keeping with the founder’s vision.