From the Archives

Since its foundation in 1907, Downe House has succeeded in retaining its traditions and heritage whilst evolving to provide girls with an innovative education.

Our founding principles remain in place today

Downe House School was founded in Charles Darwin’s former home in Downe, Kent by the 30-year old Miss Olive Willis. Miss Willis was a remarkable and idiosyncratic woman with very strong views on how girls should be educated. She set out to create a school that would be different and that would meet the needs of young women by valuing and prizing individuals with a very strong sense of community.

She was of the firm belief that every individual mattered, that relationships between girls and staff should be ‘normal’ and that girls should be stimulated and interested in subjects outside the normal curriculum. She felt that time at school should be seen in relation to life as a whole and never as an end in itself.

Miss Willis believed that excellence, excitement and enthusiasm for the world around should be hallmarks of that school community, that teachers should not be placed on pedestals and that girls should not be expected to rush around in a feverish attempt to behave like boys. Wander around our calm and extremely happy boarding school community and you will see that those founding principles are very much in place today.

Starting with just three pupils, the School grew quite quickly and by 1918, there were 52 girls. A Chapel, gymnasium and classrooms were erected in the grounds and the School rented two other houses in the village of Downe. By 1922, numbers had grown to more than 80 and the School, for academic, economic and practical reasons, had clearly outgrown its premises.

The decision was made to purchase ‘The Cloisters’, an estate in Cold Ash, Berkshire that had previously belonged to an organisation called ‘The School of Silence’ and in April 1922, the School moved to its present site.

Now over 100 years after its foundation, Downe is home to 580 girls. The beautiful site of 110 acres retains most of the original buildings but many others have been added in the intervening years.

Girls’ education has changed fundamentally and immensely, particularly during the last 60 years, and Downe House, led by a succession of inspiring headmistresses, has responded to those changes and challenges. Some of Miss Willis’ revolutionary ideas no longer operate in the way they did but the vision that created them is still there, underpinning and strengthening a thoroughly modern school.


Discover more about the history of Downe House by using our interactive timeline.


Our Headmistress

Mrs Emma McKendrick has been the Headmistress of Downe House for over twenty years and has successfully guided and inspired thousands of girls as well as overseeing extensive development and change. Read about her ethos and approach in the Headmistress’ Welcome to Downe House.


Tours & Open Mornings

The best way to find out more about Downe House is to experience it for yourself. Book a personal tour or join us at one of our Open Mornings, available throughout the year.

Book your tickets | Academic Conference – Maximising Pupils’ Potential | Thursday 13 June 2024
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