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Saturday, 24 November 2012


In 2011, Hamden Gurney Church of England Primary School was named State Primary School of the Year. (Friends and family will share my mild pride that Bearsden Academy was Best Scottish State Secondary School the same year.) Hampden Gurney’s fortunes have been transformed over the last fifteen years by Evelyn Chua, a head teacher with vision. In 1997 when she took over it was struggling to attract pupils and teachers, and occupying a dilapidated set of buildings. Chua has created a library of 11,000 books for her pupils where once there was only a bookcase, housed in a remarkable new school building opened in 2002. If ever there was an argument for the value of libraries, it is that in the five years leading up to the 2011 award, every single one of Hampden Gurney’s children has reached the required standard in national tests.

Hampden Gurney School
new building designed by the  RDP architectural practice
and shortlisted for the 2002 Stirling Prize

The school was established in 1863 in memory of the Reverend John Hampden Gurney, a first cousin of my great great grandmother. He died the year before of typhoid, and had made enough of a mark in life not only to have a school named after him but to receive a character sketch in a religious magazine sixteen years after his death. Sunday At Home in its 26th April 1879 edition described him as “a blunt, impassioned preacher [who] offended some of wealth and power.” I like him already.

Hampden, as he was known, trained and practiced in the legal profession but withdrew from it to become a clergyman. He was the curate of St Mary’s Church at Lutterworth in Leicestershire for fifteen years before returning to his birthplace, London, to take up the post of prebendary at St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a committed supporter of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, an evangelical agency of the Church of England in the mould of the more nonconformist Religious Tract Society. During his time at St Paul’s he founded the Scripture Reader’s Society.

He was appointed rector of St Mary’s Marylebone, and his experience of inner city life during his tenure there prompted him to write pamphlets in support of the Poor Law and of church reform. Although he was himself a member of the establishment church, his family’s long history of non-conformity as Quakers and Baptists over many generations before him must have nurtured his tendency to iconoclasm. Hampden also published three volumes of sermons, two collections of hymns (known as the Lutterworth and Marylebone Collections) which included some of his own compositions, and several historical biographies.

Hampden Gurney School’s original building of 1863
(photographed c1982)

The school which carries his name moved to its present location in Nutford Place off the Edgware Road in 1967 when the then new school building, erected to replace one destroyed during the Blitz, was officially opened by the future poet laureate John Betjeman. The school originally stood on nearby Hampden Gurney Street, a road presumably laid out in 1863 when they built the school. 

There were two classrooms on the ground floor and three upstairs. That first building is demolished now, but after the school vacated it, it had an interesting series of occupants from the creative industries. It became a film production centre and a photographic studio, and in 1975 the upper floor was rented by an emerging young composer and former member of Greek pop group Aphrodite’s Child – Vangelis.

 China and the Blade Runner soundtrack
two of many Vangelis albums recorded at his Nemo Studios in Hampden Gurney Street

As Nemo Studios it was Vangelis’s recording base for the next 13 years and the birthplace of all his early triumphs – his solo albums including Albedo 0.39 and Beaubourg (and my favourite China); his three albums in collaboration with Jon Anderson; and the film soundtracks for which he is perhaps best known. Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner and many other scores were all written and recorded in the upstairs classrooms of Hampden Gurney Anglican School.

Before and after Hampden Gurney’s death, his own family was dogged by tragedy which you can read about elsewhere in this blog. His wife Maria Grey died in childbirth in 1857. Three of his daughters drowned in a boating accident on the River Nile. And his son Edmund became embroiled in an exploration of the possibility of life after death which, one feels, would have appalled Edmund’s clerical father.

The dedication to Hampden Gurney in its original position beside the Boy’s Entrance to the school in Hampden Gurney Street; the panel now hangs in the new school building in Nutford Place


  1. I attended this school from 1954 to 1961. Reading your account of Rev. Hampden Gurney's theological leanings, I wonder how he would have felt for the school at that time to be linked to the Anglo Catholic Church of the Annunciation in Bryanston Street. ?.. Thank you for this account. BR

    1. That's interesting! It wouldn't be the first time an institution founded on one branch of Christianity has later been used by another. For that matter, I wonder what he would have made of Vangelis!

  2. Graham Stephenson29 January 2016 at 20:03

    I was a pupil in the original school from 1956 to 1963. I am trying to find any photographs of the original school. There was also another class on a middle floor along with a cloakroom. The ground floor also housed the hall used for assembly and school plays at Mayday.


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