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Roedean was founded by three entrepreneurial sisters – known locally as ‘the Firm’. Its purpose was academic advancement: to prepare girls for entrance to the newly opened Girton and Newnham Colleges at Cambridge.
Penelope Lawrence was the natural leader – energetic and confident, she commanded respect and inspired academic effort. Dorothy’s soft, gentle character inspired love and loyalty from her pupils. Millicent was the most practical, perceptive and entrepreneurial; she was also involved in local issues such as the state of the cliffs in Brighton.
You can see portraits of 'the Firm' in the main library.
There were 14 Lawrence children in total and other siblings also contributed to the School’s success - at one time, eight sisters were teaching at Roedean. Sylvia designed the school uniform, known as a ‘djibbah’, reputedly inspired by the dress of North African tribesmen. Theresa left England to found a sister school in South Africa. Paul contributed money and contacts to build up the school in the early years.
Brighton & Hove Bus Company have even named one of their buses after the Lawrence sisters. The company name their buses after noteworthy people who made a significant contribution to the area during their lifetime. Find out more about the bus.
Parents of the first pupils, 'there were ten [of them], six paying and four for show', intended their daughters to be capable of earning their own living. Although this was not a fashionable view in the late 1800s, the school – then known as Wimbledon House School - prospered in Lewes Crescent.
After ten successful years in Kemp Town, the school had outgrown its premises and in 1898 moved across to the present site at Roedean. Numbers grew steadily to over four hundred and fifty in the early 1920s, yet ‘the Firm’ ensured the family atmosphere was still maintained.
At the start of the Second World War, Roedean received girls from Francis Holland School in Clarence Gate. But in 1940, these evacuees, along with most Roedean girls, were moved up to Keswick in the Lake District as the Army commandeered the School.
At Keswick, Roedean was quickly absorbed into the community. The curriculum was maintained - teaching took place in the station waiting room, the local hotel’s conservatory and the Wesleyan Chapel – and exam results showed that work did not suffer. Outside classes, the girls walked and climbed, rowed and skated. In the holidays they volunteered to fire-fight, or to wrap prisoner of war parcels for the Red Cross.
Fifty girls did not travel north. At short notice they sailed to Canada and were hosted at Edgehill School in Nova Scotia. One Old Roedeanian recalls, 'We certainly gained in adaptability, resourcefulness and breadth of horizons; probably too in empathy and insight. But no matter how kind people were - and they were - we felt terribly cut off from home. We were safe, but certainly not carefree.'
Meanwhile, back in Brighton, Roedean had become HMS Vernon, home to over 30,000 sailors attending the Mining and Torpedo School and working for the electrical branches of the Navy. As a result of this period, Roedean is perhaps the only girls’ school in the country to have an Old Boys' Association.