The beginnings of the school can be traced back to 1870 when the Portsmouth Town Council received a report showing at least 8,000 children in the town were lacking school accommodation. Accordingly the Council unanimously passed a resolution adopting the provisions of the 1870 Elementary Education Act. In January of that year the School Board for the Borough was elected and the following November saw the first Board School in Portsmouth, this being the Boys Department at the Swan Street, Lancastrian School. By the end of 1872 three entirely new Board schools were being built.
1880 marked the Board’s first ten years during which twelve entirely new schools had opened providing 9,000 places although there were 11,000 names on the school registers.
By 1895 the Board had decided to provide three further schools, these being the last, and during this year the celebrated local architect A.E. Cogswell drew up his plans for the Francis Avenue School, and what later came to be regarded as the most adventurous school building project that he had undertaken. His plans provided sufficient accommodation for 596 boys, 580 girls and 740 infants on a two acre site at a cost of £16,000 inclusive of boundary walls, playground, furniture and caretaker’s residence.
Thus at 9:00am on Monday 25th October 1897, the school opened with Mr J Lewis as Headmaster, seven other male staff and 260 boys. In the afternoon the school was visited by the Clerk to the School Board. The Council noted the opening by proclaiming that the ‘cause of education made further progress by the opening of a fine new school in Francis Avenue. This made the 24th school opened by the School Board since 1870’. The Evening News recorded the event in its third edition on that day (there being six editions daily at that time) as follows: “FRANCIS AVENUE BOARD SCHOOLS – The new Board Schools in Francis Avenue, Southsea were opened for educational purposes this morning. Mr J.T. Lewis is head master, and Mr J,C. Pearce is second master. Mr. George Bore having been promoted to the head mastership of the Binstead-road School.”
Although Cogswell‘s architecture was referred to as ‘creating an exciting and original design’, he did not seem to share the enthusiasm of others. In a letter he wrote to the Education Committee some years later, in 1912, he recalled: “The building has been kept very plain, we having been asked to build as cheap a school as possible”.
By the end of October 1897 the number of children registered at the school had increased to 271 which Mr Lewis noted as being very pleasing, However, although absenteeism was, on the whole, very low, there were occasions when attendance was not as good as perhaps it should have been. Bad weather was one reason for not coming to school, as was the attraction of outside events. On the 17th November 1897, Mr Lewis recorded in the school log that the launch of HMS Formidable at the dockyard proved a greater attraction than lessons. A little earlier, on the 1st November 1897 the school was closed for one day’s holiday when for the first time, but certainly not the last, it was used as a polling station for the municipal election. The first term closed on the 22nd December 1897 at 4:00pm.
Other events also have a familiar feel to them. On the 21st February 1898 Mr Lewis referred to his having ‘a rough morning’ (he does not elaborate). The following day he noted that a heavy snowstorm caused leaks in several classrooms.
In 1903, in accordance with the Education Act 1902, the Portsmouth School Board was dissolved and its functions were transferred to Portsmouth Borough Council as the new Local Education Authority.
In March 1904 the School underwent one of the many changes that it has endured during its life. A girls’ school for pupils proceeding from elementary education was established in March 1904, initially at the Francis Avenue School. It was planned to provide what was then known as ‘higher education’ for 320 girls. Miss A M Hitchcock BA, whose photograph is displayed on the wall of the Head’s room at Priory School, was appointed head mistress with eight assistants. One of her distinctions was that she drew her teacher’s pension for a longer period than she taught: having retired as a head in 1930, she died at the age of 100 in 1972. It was accepted from the start that the site was inadequate and temporary, and the decision was made to move to a plot in Fawcett Road adjacent to the boys’ school in1905. The School continued as Francis Avenue School for boys, girls and infants.
In the early years of the 20th century Portsmouth was in the process of establishing a Municipal College, particularly for the training of school teachers. However, the new buildings were not finished so the solution was ‘a movable iron structure’ provided in 1904 for the accommodation of the girl pupil teachers. The ‘Day Training College’ was erected in the playground of the Francis Avenue School at a cost of £857, this was the ‘tin university’ which consisted of ‘three classrooms which could be made into one large room if required, the Principal’s study, staffroom and an exceptionally large cloakroom, which had to be used ‘for assembly, drill and music’. This was a completely inadequate hut, with a leaking roof, insufficient storage space and cramped accommodation. Thankfully, within a short time, the pioneering students moved to new accommodation in the new Municipal College near the Guildhall.
In 1929 a Senior School for boys and girls was established in the Northern buildings, which are now Fernhurst Junior School. In 1932 a worker fell from scaffolding whist decorating the school and was taken to the Royal Hospital with back and leg injuries. The School had a Radio Society in the 1930’s and held demonstrations of both wireless and the newly invented television.
In 1934 a Blind Scholars’ Department was opened under Miss Rampage, this was renamed the Blind and Myope School in 1940, it closed later that year when the pupils were evacuated to Bournemouth. In 1939 the schools was used as a centre for the distribution of Gas Masks. Later during the war a paper collection centre was based at the school as well as a Civil Defence Wardens’ Centre.
At the outbreak of war schools were closed, and some of the pupils were evacuated to the Isle of Wight to escape the expected bombing of the City. The school re-opened in April 1940.
The Senior School was renamed Southern Secondary Modern for Boys and Girls in 1948. The Girls had their own playground and used the upper half of the building, whilst the boys used the lower half. The boys’ Secondary Modern transferred to what is now Craneswater Junior School in 1958, and the School renamed Southern Secondary Modern for Girls. What is now Devonshire Infants became a mixed Junior and Infant School until 1960 when it became Francis Avenue Junior Mixed.
With the changes to the Schools system in 1974, Secondary Modern Schools were amalgamated with the Grammar Schools in Portsmouth. This resulted in Priory Comprehensive School being formed, and Portsmouth Southern Modern School for Girls ceased to exist, with its function being provided by Priory. The site in Francis Avenue now became Fernhurst Middle School, which moved to the larger northern building, and Devonshire First School occupied the smaller southern building on the site. In 1993 this changed to Fernhurst Junior School and Devonshire Infant School.
John Lewis 1897-1905
George Green 1911-1918
Thomas Green 1923
H Haskell 1928
F March 1934-1936
J Matthews 1937-1940
W Hawkins 1946
A Hosmer 1948
Miss Harriet King 1900-1911
Miss H Williams 1918-1925
Miss A Smith 1928
Miss E Cooper 1934-1940
Miss M Hennesey 1946-1948 (girls & Infants)
Miss Clara Flux 1900-1911
Miss Clark 1918
Miss R Beedem 1923-1928
Miss M Whitehead 1934-1936
Miss M Hennesey 1937-1940
Headmaster – A Hosmer 1948-1956
Headmistress – Miss E Jeffreys 1948-1958
Miss E Jeffreys
Miss L N Speer
Miss Outen (Dept Head)
Mrs E James
Mrs C Chick
Miss WJ Beer
Miss AS Allpress
Mrs O Edwards
Miss E Howell
Mrs G Verbiest
Miss Rogers Mr Mepham
Mrs M Selby
Mr N Hinds – 1998
Mrs S Lawlor 1998-2003
Mrs M Waters (acting) 2003-2005
Mrs R Kirby 2006 – present
‘A short History of Priory School’: Brian Davies
‘The City of Portsmouth College of Education’: John Webb