Unprecedented political and social change in the second half of the 19th century in Britain benefited women and children in particular. The 1870 Education Act introduced free elementary education for both girls and boys. However, for most of the pioneers of girls' education the Act did not go far enough and the National Union for improving the education of women of all classes was established in 1871. The National Union set up a limited liability company to fund the creation of girls' schools in areas where there was a need for "good and cheap" day education, seeking also to promote teacher training and to increase the number of women and girls attending University Local Examinations. As a result the Girls' Public Day School Trust was founded in 1872 and very quickly established schools in Bath, Norwich, Nottingham and Oxford as well as London.
The Trust founded Wimbledon High School in 1880, opening on 9 November at No 74 (now No 78) Wimbledon Hill Road with 12 students and Miss Edith Hastings as Headmistress, aged just 29. During the next ten years the number of girls increased to 200, the buildings expanded into Mansel Road and the first "old girl" passed her BA examination at the University of London. From the very beginning, Miss Hastings wanted to inculcate a love of learning and a care for others in the girls and these two ideals have been at the heart of the school ethos ever since. The importance of extracurricular activities was also recognised, with sport and drama playing a central role in the life of students.
WHS continued to expand and gain a reputation for giving an excellent all-round education which continued during the difficult years of the First World War. When news of the first gas attacks was received, the timetable was suspended for the Upper School and the girls and staff made respirators for the troops. However, the major event for the school at this time happened on the home front; in February 1917 a fire broke out and gutted the main building. Such was the spirit of Headmistress Miss Gavin and her staff, it took only three weeks to find alternative accommodation nearby and it was business as usual.
The new building was formally opened by the Duchess of Atholl in October 1920 and included a gymnasium and two new laboratories. By this time more land had been acquired and WHS occupied most of the site on the corner of Wimbledon Hill Road and Mansel Road. Despite this growth there was a pressing need for better sporting facilities. Fortunately for the school, the popularity of the All England Tennis Club's annual championship was also growing and they too were looking for more space. With the enthusiasm and financial help of the parents, WHS was able to buy the Nursery Road site in 1923 from the All England Club, which had already moved to its present location in Church Road.
It was during the 1920s that WHS stepped into the national arena when Headmistress Miss Lewis championed the cause for girls' schools, like boys' public schools, to be eligible for tax relief in respect of school buildings. Five years on, in 1930, a favourable judgment was given by the House of Lords and the school received a substantial sum, in repayment of tax. With this money the school purchased an acre of the Draxmont Estate, expanded again, and by the outbreak of the Second World War, the school was fast approaching its Golden Jubilee with 500 girls on roll.
The WWII years were a struggle for WHS and the new headmistress Miss Littlewood. Numbers fell and the school buildings suffered from the 1940 Blitz and the flying bombs of 1944. In 1944 the second great Education Act was passed and like its predecessor, it would have a major effect on girls' education in the Wimbledon area. The Act introduced freely available secondary education for all, and the Trust applied for "direct grant" status. WHS was one of almost 200 schools that received a grant from the Department of Education to ensure that at least 25 per cent of the entry each year were awarded free places. This system, which was to last for almost 30 years, ensured that WHS flourished once more: numbers increased, the sixth form expanded and many more girls went on to colleges and universities. In 1962 by virtue of its excellent A Level results and the number of girls going to university, WHS was nationally recognised as one of the best girls' schools in the country.
Direct Grant status ended in the mid 1970s and the Trust made the decision to remain wholly within the independent sector. WHS was once again thrown back on its own reputation and resources. This was a challenge to which the school rose magnificently under the leadership of Mrs Piper and since the mid 70s the school has seen a steady rise in student numbers, academic achievement and new buildings.
Under subsequent Headmistresses, the development of the school site has continued. In 2000 the new Junior School was opened with increased capacity; 2005 saw the opening of a Design & Technology Centre and in 2007 students performed for the first time in the Rutherford Centre for the Performing Arts, the theatre named after actress and former pupil, Dame Margaret Rutherford.