William Rogers

ROGERS, Rev. William 1819-1896. Social reformer.

William Rogers was an energetic social reformer particularly devoted to education. He took a leading part in the reconstruction of Dulwich College and the formation of Alleyn’s School and was Chairman of the Governors of Dulwich College for 34 years.

Reading a brief outline of the career of the Reverend William Rogers or glancing at his portrait in Dulwich College you may assume that he was a fine upstanding member of the Victorian establishment, and so he was, but dig a little deeper and you learn that he was a bon viveur, good-natured, amusing, undogmatic and devoted to the cause of education at a time when it was far from fashionable to be so. He committed public gaffes but was always the first to laugh at himself and was described as “one of the merriest… and most human of Anglicans”.

In 1843 he was appointed assistant curate in Fulham but he didn’t get on with his old-school vicar and after just two years was transferred, at his vicar’s request, to become Perpetual Curate of St Thomas’s, Charterhouse. This was a “Peel” district, a slice cut from an older parish where the population had become unwieldy. An extremely poor area on the northern fringes of the City with nearly 10,000 souls squeezed into 17 acres, Rogers called it Costermongria. Within two months of arriving he had opened the parish’s first school in a blacksmith’s shed and within two years he was educating 800 children who paid twopence a week according to their means or in most cases nothing at all. He worked for education among the poorest of his parishioners despite his clerical colleagues pointing out that these recipients of his charity were not attending his services; indeed he was not surprised by this, “it is ludicrous to think that an individual with the scanty education and loose habits of a costermonger would voluntarily sit through a liturgical service of which he could not understand a word and subject himself to a sermon which… being free from expletives necessarily seems to him dull”.

His schools went from strength to strength and he raised thousands of pounds to fund them, although there was never enough money and he often made large contributions himself; by 1854 he had started five schools, spent his inherited wealth and personally owed his bank £700 on an income of £55 pa. In 1856 some of his old school and university friends clubbed together to pay his debts, keeping the whole thing a secret until they had raised the full amount. As a mark of its own respect the bank remitted the interest. Typically, Rogers described himself “in high spirits” at this generous act and began plans for his sixth school because, “my ragamuffins still vexed my righteous soul”. It was at this time that he articulated his belief in education as a force for good when talking about a slum, “…it was a disgrace to civilisation and the only way to improve it - short of improving it off the face of the earth - was to educate its children”.

This school, in Golden Lane, the poorest part of a poverty-stricken area, was built on the site of Edward Alleyn’s Fortune Theatre, on land owned by the Dulwich Estate. The foundation stone was laid in 1856 by William Gladstone and the ceremony was attended by an Earl, a Lord, a Bishop and three Deans (“I have always been well off for Deans”). The school was opened in 1857 by Prince Albert who told Rogers in his speech that his “noble and Christian like exertions have attracted the notice and admiration of your sovereign”.

His educational work was undertaken at a time when education for the poorest classes was not a popular cause among Victorians; Rogers was one of the first reformers, paving the way by devising everything from funding schemes to timetables and all the while insisting that the poorest of the poor should have access to free education. Rogers was committed to national education, universal, compulsory and free but in the country as a whole there was an array of opposition to education for all, including his own church. Eventually in 1870 the Education Act was passed which gave rise to a national system of state education and many of Rogers’ ideas were incorporated into these schools, although he took little part in the national debate due to the amount of energy expended on the religious question; he preferred to get on and do things.

Having previously been appointed chaplain to Queen Victoria and a prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1863 Rogers was made the Rector of St Botolph’s, Bishopsgate, another poverty-stricken area, this time on the eastern outskirts of the City but with more ample resources available to the parish for good deeds. 43 years old he was to remain in Bishopsgate until his death 34 years later and continued to devote himself to the cause of education. Having started many schools for the very poorest his attention turned more to “middle class” schools which educated the sons (and later the daughters) of clerks and tradesmen.

Rogers was one of the first exponents of secular education, a lonely position for a clergyman and this may have been part of the reason he never achieved high honours in the church. At the opening of his school in Bath Street in 1866, he was asked to reply to the vote of thanks. “From the beginning we have been confronted with the economical question and the religious question and if we had waited until they were settled we should have been waiting still, so I say “Hang economy! Hang theology! Let us begin!” From then on he was known as “Hang Theology” Rogers.

His parish comprised one third Roman Catholics and many Jews and Quakers who were often foremost among his benefactors; it was obvious to him that it would become increasingly difficult to use their money to fund Church of England schools. In fact his main argument for a secular education sounds startlingly modern, “…in a school of this nature open to all classes in a community like that of the City of London…doctrinal teaching should be left to parents and those ministers whom they may select”. Despite his support for secular schools, politically he was a strong antidisestablishmentarian although it was still felt by some in the Church establishment that he was opposed to the true interests of religion.

Having previously taken over buildings and converted them to use as schools, Rogers now decided that nothing short of a purpose-built school would suit his ambitions for the children of the middle classes. He found two acres in Cowper Street, Finsbury and in 1868 he built the Middle Class School for boys. The school was a model of its kind and he raised £20,000 to build it. Rogers also took over an existing charity school for girls in his parish and united the two under the headship of the Rev Smith, his curate. When Liverpool St Station needed to expand onto land occupied by his girls’ school he persuaded the railway company both to pay handsomely for the land and to buy the school a new site.

In 1857 Prince Albert personally requested that Rogers be made a Governor of Dulwich College. Rogers went on to replace his friend the Duke of Wellington as Chairman in 1862 and remained so until his death in 1896. He took an interest in all parts of the College and was often seen as a spectator at sports matches. He was a principal agent of change in Dulwich and played a major role in the reconstruction of the Alleyn charity when the Upper School became Dulwich College and the Lower School became Alleyn’s. He had a less than harmonious working relationship with the Master, Canon Carver, due both to their vastly differing ideas as to the future direction of the College and also to Carver’s belief (undoubtedly correct) that Rogers intended large amounts of the endowment to be diverted to his parish schools, funds which Carver believed should be used in the furtherance of his own lofty aims for the College. Despite this tension, by the end of Rogers’ and Carver’s tenure the schools in the Foundation had been regenerated to a remarkable degree and in his Reminiscences Rogers was generous in his praise of Carver, saying the College had made “great strides” under Carver’s “wise management and great zeal”. Between the two of them they had produced a college “worthy of our aspirations and resources”.

With Charles Druce, the Foundation solicitor, Rogers was instrumental in the sale of a hundred acres of estate land to the railways for £100,000 (“an uncommonly good bargain”), the vast majority of which was spent on building the new College. New buildings for Alleyn’s and James Allen’s Girls’ School followed within the next few years. Rogers was particularly gratified at the secure establishment of Alleyn’s, as he said it was destined to play a “still greater part in the work of middle class education”, a cause so dear to his own heart. He was pleased also that its first headmaster when it moved to new premises in Townley Road was the Rev J H Smith who had been one of his teachers in Charterhouse, his curate and head teacher in Bishopsgate before joining the Lower School in Dulwich in 1875.

In his original scheme Edward Alleyn named four parishes which could nominate poor boys to attend his College: St Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate, where he was born and baptised; St Giles, Cripplegate Without (now St Luke’s, Finsbury), where he built his Fortune Theatre; St Saviour’s, Southwark, where he married and was churchwarden; and St Giles, Camberwell, where he lived and set up his Foundation. As part of the 1857 reconstruction of Alleyn’s charity Rogers persuaded the governors that in lieu of nominating scholars, the founding parishes should instead receive an educational endowment consisting of a capital sum and an annual income. This enabled Rogers to place his Middle Class School and his girls’ school, both subsequently re-named Central Foundation, onto a firm financial footing, since both were within Edward Alleyn’s original parishes.

As well as education, he was active in many other areas of social reform. He was a pioneer of the movement for converting City burial grounds into gardens and this was one of his first acts on arriving at St Botolph’s. This enhanced his reputation for atheism but was an act much appreciated by City workers who even today still use the gardens to sit and eat their lunch. He opened bathhouses and washrooms, drinking fountains and public urinals. He raised funds for soup kitchens and hospitals. He supported playgrounds and open spaces, picture galleries and free libraries. He inaugurated days out in the country for his pupils (“hardest day’s work I have ever done) on a Sunday, thus annoying the Sabbatarian wing of the Church. Finally, on his 75th birthday he opened “the crowning work of my life”, the Bishopsgate Institute, “for the benefit of the public to promote lectures, exhibitions and otherwise the advancement of literature, science and the fine arts”. The Institute, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend who went on to design the Horniman Museum, is still active today as a centre for culture and learning.

He died in 1896 and was buried in Mickleham, Surrey where his family had lived for more than two hundred years. In his day he was popularly known by a remark in a speech he once made, “Hang Theology” but I prefer to remember him by another quote, one he made time and time again and which sums up his outlook, “There is no darkness but ignorance”.

by Sharon O’Connor