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The History behind Sir John Cass Red Coat School

John Cass was the son of Thomas Cass, a Naval architect. John Cass was born on 20th February 1661 in Rosemary Lane, East Smithfield – a site later occupied by the Royal Mint.

Four years after the birth of John Cass, the family moved to Grove Street (now Victoria Park Road) in the Parish of Hackney, in order to escape the Great Plague. The young John Cass must have seen from his new home the glare of the Great Fire sweeping through the city in September 1666.

Thomas Cass (father of John Cass) died in 1699 leaving a considerable fortune, largely in property in Hackney, which still belongs to the Sir John Cass Foundation. We have no knowledge of any particular calling followed by his son, John Cass, who seems to have been a fairly typical city gentleman. He was Master both of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters and the Worshipful Company of Grocers. He was an Alderman of the City and also sheriff; he was a member of the Parliament for the city in two successive Parliaments, and it was in this capacity that in 1713 he presented the City’s address of congratulation to Queen Anne on the conclusion of the Treaty of Utrecht (the occasion on which he was knighted).

At this time, the incumbent at St Botolph without Aldgate was Dr Thomas Bray, the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Cass and Bray became friendly, and in 1710 one provided the money and other the site for Sir John Cass’s Schools. The schools opened on 8th March 1710 and the occasion was marked by a service in St Botolph’s Church as which the sermon was preached by Sir Williams Dawes (then Bishop of Chester and later Archbishop of York). It was attended by 14 peers and 40 members of the House of Commons, and was followed by a dinner in the Drapers’ Hall at which a subscription of £100 was raised towards the school.

The first school building stood in the corner of the Churchyard of St Botolph’s and consisted of two storeys. The school was housed on the upper floor, and the rents from the shops on the ground floor, and the fees for the burials in the vaults below, were applied to the upkeep of the school. The pupils (there were 50 boys and 40 girls) wore a blue-coat uniform, and took their meals in Aldgate, which stood across the road, and was where the Master and Mistress lived.

On the evening of 3rd July 1718 Sir John Cass became seriously ill, and gave instructions for a new will, by which the whole of his property would be left to the school on the death of his wife. There were various delays, and by the time that he dies on 5th July Cass has managed to sign only two of the eight pages of the will. There is an old legend that he had a haemorrhage of the lungs which stained the quill pen with which he was writing, and it is for this reason that the pupils of the school still wear red goose quills when they attend St Botolph’s Church on the anniversary of their Founder’s birth each year.

Lady Cass died in 1733 and, because of the incomplete nature of the will; the school was forced to close down from lack of funds. Several years later a lawsuit was commenced, and in view of the depositions of witnesses to Sir John Cass’s intention at the time of his death, the partially-signed will was upheld.

A Foundation was established to administer the estate, the first Chairman and Receiver being Jeremiah Bentham, the father of Jeremy Bentham who founded University College, London. On his death, Jeremiah Bentham left his silver-gilt loving cup to the Foundation, and the Founder’s memory is still drunk in this cup each year.

In the 18th Century the school was organised like most charity schools and the children were taught subjects which were likely to be useful to them when they were put out as apprentices or in service after they had finished their education.

The school was brought under Government inspection in the 1890’s and until 1966 catered for pupils up to sixteen years of age.

Red Coat School was founded in 1724 by masters of the Merchant Navy to provide an education for the orphans of seamen. Originally the school stood in Mile End, but during the 19th century a new building was erected in Stepney Green, near St Dunstans’s Church.

After the war of 1939 – 45 discussions were opened to bring Sir John Cass’s Foundation school within the framework of the Education Act 1944, by providing separate schools for pupils of secondary and primary ages’ the negotiations continued for fifteen years, largely because of the difficulty of finding a suitable site.

Soon after the war, a site in Stepney was designated for the rebuilding of a Red Coat School. In the London Development Plan, provision was made also for the re-organisation of the all- age school in Aldgate, in order to provide separate secondary and primary accommodation. Negotiations took some considerable time, but in 1961 a firm decision was taken to unite the secondary part of the Foundation School with Red Coat Secondary School, and to erect a new building on the site in Stepney Way.