History of the School

St Catherine’s School opened for business in 1885.   A group of local country gentry formed a committee to establish a school for ‘middle class’ girls – among them were Revd. Canon Musgrave, Revd. John Sapte, the Rt.Hon George Cubitt (later Lord Ashcombe), Joseph Merriman, Headmaster of Cranleigh and and the MP for South Surrey William Brodrick.  As a group they had founded Cranleigh School and now decided to create a similar school for girls, conveniently near the railway station.   

Six acres of land was purchased and the building of the School was swiftly realised.  It was named St Catherine’s after St Catherine of Alexandria who was martyred on a wheel for affirming her faith – hence the school badge is a wheel. 

1885 – 1887 The first headmistress was Susan Burnett who left after two years to become a missionary in Japan

1887 – 1925  Mrs Charlotte Russell Baker held the role of headmistress for 38 years.   Hers was a significant period in establishing the School and it was extended to house more boarders.
1n 1893 the School received an anonymous gift of £1,00 to build a Chapel and one year later the Archbishop of Canterbury dedicated the building in a splendid ceremony basing his address on the words from Hebrews 6 v.1 “Let us go on”, which was adopted as the school motto.
The Chapel is a fine example of late 19th century gothic revival architecture with all the interior decoration and stained glass designed by Charles Eamer Kempe and a fine Henry Willis & Sons Organ.  This period also saw the construction of the Sanatorium in 1897(donated by Lady Ashcombe), which is the current Music School, and also a fire caused by a lightening bolt in 1907, which destroyed much of the main buildings.

1826-1947  Miss Agatha Symes was headmistress during the period when School Block and the Speech Hall were built.  The School remained open during WW2 and took more than 30 extra girls who had been evacuated from St Mary’s Hall, Brighton.  On 17th December 1942, two bombs fell on Bramley, one on a train at the neighbouring station to the School, killing 7 passengers, including one St Catherine’s pupil.

1947 - 1970  Miss Celia Stoner guided the School through the post-war years of recovery and expansion.  The Warren (the white gothic villa) and Church House (the current Prep School) were both purchased during this period.  Building activity included a gymnasium, open-air swimming pool and the dining hall.

1970 – 1982  For the next 12 years Miss Barbara Platt was headmistress.  Under her tenure, new 6th form accommodation was built initially with the construction of the single story Unit and later extended this by erecting a building on stilts over this.  Extra classrooms and labs were also installed in West Block and an air-dome was installed over the swimming pool.

1982 – 1994  Mr John Palmer was the first male head of St Catherine’s.   In 1985 the centenary of the founding of the School was celebrated. The Centenary Building was built, providing dedicated 6th form accommodation for boarders, a lecture theatre and a common room. 

1994 – 2000  Over the next 6 years Mrs Claire Oulton further modernisation included the construction of the John Palmer Art Centre and the Millennium Building, housing chemistry labs, language labs and classrooms.

2000 -     In 2000, our current Headmistress, Mrs Alice Phillips joined St Catherine’s.  She has overseen the expansion of the Prep School as well as the building of the senior school Anniversary Halls (to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of the School).  The Anniversary Halls have been an impressive addition to the School, with state of the art auditorium/concert hall, drama studio, sports hall, dance studio, music and sports facilities.  This was opened in 2014 by our Patron, the Duchess of Cornwall.    Mrs Phillips has recently launched the Create the Future Campaign which includes plans for 3 projects : The 6 – an impressive new 6th form boarding centre, which is already underway; The Catalyst – a state-of-the-art space for the collaborative teaching of Maths, the Sciences, IT and Tech; and The Art&Maker Space – to extend and improve the creative arts facilities, bringing them all under one roof. 

St Catherine’s is a vibrant, busy school with a rich and interesting history.  Please visit the link to our Digital Archive above if you are interested in learning more about the ongoing transformation of our School.

Let us go on!....

School Motto


‘Let us go on … unto perfection’ (Hebrews VI, i) was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, as the text for his sermon when he dedicated our beautiful late Victorian Chapel in 1894. We do not know who adopted this as the School’s motto, but in doing so, she – we must assume it was our Headmistress at the time - selected only the opening four words, wisely removing any pressure to achieve perfection and preferring to leave the meaning open to interpretation. These four short words, imbued with a sense of anticipation, and affording it a welcome versatility, have been our mantra ever since.

Not Latin or Greek – which would not be understood immediately by many without translation - it’s a fantastic forward looking statement. No use crying over spilt milk, just move on forwards. The past is the past. We must live with it. It’s inclusive - ‘us’, not ‘me’ or ‘I’. It’s Biblical – we are a Church of England School – but it is not overly evangelical and can speak to anyone of any faith.

It is also practical and pragmatic. Many a school internal email at times of trial ends quite simply with LUGO. We all know what we mean by it – encouragement and purposefulness – and so do the girls who also use it, and I understand many St Catherine’s families do too. That is why, as mottos go, we think it’s wonderful.

It has stood the test of time. It can be used in times of joy and celebration, or, when times might be tougher. One of the skills we develop in our young women is resilience. ‘Let us go on…’ sits well at the end of a congratulatory message and, equally, can convey so much to a sports team who have just been defeated by a whisker.

‘Let us go on…’ is embedded too in the everyday life of the school L.U.G.O. – our 4 teaching groups in years 7 and 8 are assigned one of these letters – U3L, L4U, U4G etc. Thus we make it very clear that we do not stream or band the girls in this very academic cohort by ability or any other kind of rank.

‘Let us go on…’ suggests a collegiate approach. There is no sense any individual is on her own – as a School community we are in it together. We can imagine Charlotte Russell-Baker, one of our longest-serving and highly esteemed former Headmistresses finding comfort in these words in 1907 when she witnessed St Catherine’s partially destroyed by fire after a lightning strike. We have the most poignant photograph in our archives of her standing beneath a capacious black umbrella, lamenting the damage sustained.

It also sits well with the St Catherine’s Association – a community of over 7000 members, and growing daily, comprising girls, staff, alumnae, parents, governors and friends of the school, past and present. The Association makes it possible to bridge the years, bringing together current pupils with those who are now in exciting careers, to those who left St Catherine’s long before the Equal Pay Act!

‘Let us go on…’ sums up an eternal spirit, a life force which transcends the here and now.

‘Let us go on…’ Indeed!