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John Henshaw: A British Schools Headmaster

Derived from Harpenden Free Press articles, 1952 &1958 and "Harpenden British Schools" by Lieut.-Col. Durnford, 1891

John Henshaw was headmaster from 1861-1903, firstly at the British Schools, Park Hall, Leyton Road, and latterly at the Victoria Road Schools, which took the place of the British Schools. During his long career he influenced the lives of many local residents.

Photograph of Portrait of Mr Henshaw, Headmaster of the British Schools, by Frank O Salisbury. Credit: LHS archives – HC156

At that time, the requirements of the Education Department were straightforward:

“It is required of the managers and teachers that all reasonable care is taken, in the ordinary management of the school, to bring up the children in habits of punctuality, of good manners and language, of cleanliness and neatness, and also to impress upon the children the importance of cheerful obedience to duty, of consideration and respect for others, and of honour and truthfulness in work and act” (Art. 101(b)). Of particular importance to Mr Henshaw was to ensure his pupils had good handwriting.

Inspectors’ Reports

John Henshaw’s successful application of the Education Department’s code was evident in many of the School Inspectors’ reports, extracts of which included: “This is quite a model village school” (1864); “I have seen few village schools so good as this” (1866); In 1869 Mr Henshaw’s certificate was raised “three stages in consideration of his long and successful service as an elementary teacher”; “the high quality of the school work here continues to be remarkable, and reflects great credit upon the Master and his staff” (1876); “The School Master is evidently a superior man – well qualified to teach and appears sincerely anxious to secure the best interests of his scholars. There has been no change in the head-mastership for nearly 31 years, and during this long period the annual reports of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools show the highest appreciation of the School and of Mr Henshaw personally” (1891).

Girls playing on the Common outside the British School (Park Hall) Leyton Road. Credit: LHS archives

Strict Disciplinarian

To achieve such records Mr Henshaw was a strict disciplinarian, which earned him the nickname of “Cocky” by his pupils, and he was not averse to the use of punishment when required. Nevertheless, he was well respected by pupils and parents.  Many scholars owed their success in life to his tuition and were proud to say they had been taught “under Mr Henshaw”. Frederick Harris – a former pupil with first rate handwriting – was Town Clerk to Harpenden Urban District Council for many years.

Keen Gardener

Apart from his dedication to the education of his pupils – he would often provide extra tuition at his home to those pupils showing greater aptitude – Mr Henshaw was a keen gardener and regularly wore a buttonhole. He lived at Rothamsted Cottage, Hatching Green with his sister Harriette, and his garden there reflected his love of horticulture. He enjoyed showing visitors and pupils around his garden, teaching them the common and Latin names of various plants. He also instigated and organised Harpenden Horticultural Shows, which became popular events, where he often won prizes.

Portrait by Frank O. Salisbury

John Henshaw saw the school through the major relocation to new buildings in Victoria Road in 1898.

Victoria Road Schools (with Congregational Chapel on the left). Credit: LHS archives

He retired in 1903, and his presentation portrait in oils was painted by his most renowned former pupil, Frank O. Salisbury. Mr Henshaw’s great niece subsequently offered the portrait to Harpenden Urban Council, in 1952, and it hung in Harpenden Hall for some years, later to be stored in the attic there. It now hangs on the staircase leading to the Council Chamber in Harpenden Town Hall – where it is very difficult to photograph satisfactorily.


Mr Henshaw died in 1911, and was buried with his sister in Harpenden Parish Churchyard. Of note to his importance to the town, in a letter to Harpenden Free Press, some 40 years after his death, a reader lamented the neglect of his grave and deterioration of its inscription – cut by another former pupil, L/Cpl Guy Westwood, who was killed in action in 1917 – and suggested a replacement simple, but permanent, memorial be made to such a great man.

Frank Salisbury’s portrait of John Henshaw. Credit: Harpenden Town Council, photo by Jane Juby

Comments about this page

  • John Henshaw was born in 1837, in Wilmslow, Cheshire, and was baptised there on the 24th of September 1837.    He was a son of James Henshaw (1786 – 1867), and his wife Margaret (nee Hewitt, 1798 – 1857), who were married at Manchester Cathedral on the 22nd of February 1824. His father was a Blacksmith.

    At the time the 1851 census was taken, John was living with his parents and siblings at Reddish, which is just over 2 miles north of Stockport. –

    John Henshaw in household of James Henshaw, “England and Wales Census, 1851” —

    His mother died at Stockport in 1857.    John Henshaw had moved to Harpenden before the 1861 census was taken. –

    His father died at Harpenden in 1867, and was buried at Wilmslow on the 20th of February that year.         John’s sister Harriet was baptised on the 2nd of October 1831 at Wilmslow. She was living with John by the time the 1901 census was taken at Harpenden. -                                 John Henshaw, “England and Wales Census, 1901” —

    When John retired in 1903, he was also presented with a gold medal inscribed:                                   ”John Henshaw, headmaster Boys’ School 1861 – 1903.”

    This was presented to him by Colonel Durnford. -  ”Prize Distributions: School Master’s Wonderful Record.”  Herts Advertiser, Saturday 26 December 1903, p.8. -                   The British Newspaper Archive: Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited in partnership with the British Library.

    Harriet died at Harpenden, in the 3rd quarter of 1907. She was the sister who John was buried with at Harpenden in 1911. John died on the 24th of May 1911.

    John’s father James was a brother of one of my 5x great grandad’s Henry Henshaw (1773 – 1849). Some information about Henry, uncle of John Henshaw can be viewed here. –

    Cheadle Hulme – Interviews & People

     Thank you very much.


    By Richard Ebdon (27/01/2021)

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