Oldest School on the Isle of Dogs

In 2008, our school was 100 years old!

Harbinger School was built in 1908, then called ‘British Street School’. We are very proud of our history and have our very own book and song celebrating this.

Harbinger School is the oldest school on the Isle of Dogs, and its history is closely bound with the Island's own. Shaped by a huge bend in the River Thames, the Island is geographically one of London's most distinctive areas. It is also unique in terms of its social and industrial past. It was at the heart of the city's manufacturing industry for hundreds of years and was known particularly for its shipyards. But life was not easy then for the families who lived and worked here. Indeed, those who grew up on the Island often developed a keen understanding of the inequities of their times, and several prominent campaigners for social reform were born here, the most famous perhaps being George Lansbury, who rose to become leader of the Labour Party during the 1930s.

The Island must have been one of the liveliest places in London during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was an active street life and a sociable, mutually supportive culture. One can imagine the mingling smells of oil, hemp and tar; the noise of turbines and machines; the blare of foghorns across the river; the cries of street-sellers touting vegetables, bread, meat pies and ice-cream; and the to-ing and fro-ing of gas lamp lighters, road menders, horses and carts, lorries and bicycles. There were copperas and potash factories, white-lead plants, engineering works, paint factories, varnish and chemical plants, operations producing jam and preserves, ropemakers, flour mills, cooperages, rolling mills. In some of the docks boats were built, and to others ships from all over the world would load and unload their cargo, a maritime traffic that brought new-comers along with it. Just like today, the Island of a hundred years ago one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the capital and visitors and residents from Asia, India, China and Africa dwelt side-by-side with the native English.

Though Harbinger School celebrated its centenary in 2008, its first incarnation dates all the way back to 1846, when the Millwall British School was opened on a site across the road from the present one, some forty years before education in Britain became compulsory. The foundation of the school was part of a general effort to improve livelihoods and prospects for the Islands’ citizenry, and it immediately became an institution of vital importance for local families. In the decades that followed it grew in scale, until it was established on its current site in 1908, catering then for a thousand children aged three to thirteen, all of whom walked to school from the surrounding homes, some unable to afford boots or shoes to protect their feet even in the depths of winter. Part of the school was given over to the 'infants,' with a sandpit, a rocking horse and dolls house, and tables that could be inverted and slung with canvas to make beds for the mid-morning nap. Upstairs the big girls and boys were taught a full curriculum: arithmetic, poetry, history, spelling, essays and geography, with additional practical skills like woodwork, bookbinding, needlework and cooking. In the evening, the school would become a college for the children's mothers and fathers, teaching classes in tailoring, leatherwork, carpentry and boxing. Harbinger was part of the raising of generations: it was part of the social fabric of Island life.

Continuity and change are the twin poles of our world. Though Harbinger School has since these early days been transformed in innumerable ways, we still uphold the same ethos in the same building where those children of yesteryear took their first steps in life. We still serve and cherish the needs, hopes and aspirations of young people in this diverse and extraordinary place. We are proud to carry a long and illustrious tradition right into the present, and beyond.

Vaughan Pilikian – Parent Governor
May 2017

Harbinger School Centenary (1908 - 2008)

This book was printed and produced in 2008 by Babcock and Brown as a 100th birthday present to the School and the children.

It was written by Eve Hostettler, curator of the Island History Trust, using photographs and other resources from the Trust’s archives, with thanks to the many Islanders who have contributed
to the archives.


Harbinger School Centenary Song

Harbinger. Learn together side by side
Harbinger. Fly forever far and wide
Smile and look back at the friends you made
Remember all of the games you played
Here at Harbinger School

Listen to the Harbinger School Centenary song...

"Early years leaders enable children to develop their language skills swiftly."

- Ofsted, 2019