The Old Grammarians’ Association 1902-2002
Battersea Grammar School Old Boys
Some notes on the Arms of the Sir Walter St John's Schools
with particular reference to BGS
It will not have gone unnoticed by those readers of the memorabilia
on this web site that the arms of Sir Walter St John are displayed
in a variety of forms. It might be helpful, therefore, to
put down a few words of explanation as regards authenticity.
Those who wish to take the matter further should read the
appendix on Sinjun Heraldry in Frank Smallwood's excellent
'A History of Sir Walter St John's School, Battersea 1700
Where there is no record of a grant of arms by
the College of Arms to an institution, such as a school, as
is the case with the Sir Walter St John's Schools, Smallwood
suggests that honour demands that the arms borne by the founder
should be faithfully reproduced so that they would be clearly
recognisable by Sir Walter himself. Fortunately a number of
seventeenth century examples of the St John arms can be seen
today in the truly remarkable east window of St Mary's Church,
Battersea. An authentic reproduction of Sir Walter's arms appears
on the cover of Smallwood's history referred to above (figure
As can be seen the arms have a number of component elements
- there is the shield and the devices there-on, the helm or
helmet, the crest, the torse (the junction between the crest
and the helmet), the mantling or drapery, and the motto.
In heraldic terms the St John shield is 'blazoned' or described,
as having an 'argent field' or background, which is depicted
in either silver or white. The upper part of the shield (the
'chief') is a horizontal red (gules) band with two gold (or)
five pointed stars or 'mullets'. These represent spur-rowels
and should have centre piercings. The simplicity of the shield
is an indication of the antiquity of the family. Where a man
of 'coat-armour' married a woman from a family of like standing,
he was entitled to modify his arms by 'impaling' or adding
his wife's arms to his own. Since Sir Walter's wife was Johanna
St John her arms (also a shield argent with a chief gules
with two mullets or, pierced) were 'impaled' with his. That
is to say the shield is divided vertically with Sir Walter's
arms on the dexter side - the wearer's right side of the shield,
that is the spectator's left - and his wife's on the other,
Sir Walter was a baronet, a hereditary rank first created
by James I in connection with the colonisation of Ulster.
Baronets were entitled to display the badge of a baronet as
an 'augmentation' to their arms. The badge comprised an 'escutcheon'
or small shield displaying a left hand, severed cleanly at
the wrist, portrayed vertically with the palm facing the spectator.
The escutcheon should be argent and the hand, gules (figure
2). The legend of the hand dates from the Vikings. It had
been decided that the first of two competing Viking chiefs
to touch the soil of Ireland would be declared lord of the
land. With yards to go in the race for possession one of the
rivals cut off his left hand with his sword and threw it ashore,
thereby securing the prize. However one should be careful
not to confuse the escutcheon of a baronet with the 'red hand'
of Ulster, which is a right hand with the palm facing the
spectator, open and erect 'couped at the wrist, gules', as
portrayed for example in the arms of the four provinces quartered
as the arms of Ireland (figure 3). I have been unable to discover
why the hand is displayed in two forms.
Sir Walter chose also to display a cadency mark, a black (sable)
crescent, on the dexter side of the escutcheon to indicate that
he was from the second branch of the family. This was not really
necessary since he was then the only St John with the rank of
a baronet and could have relied on the escutcheon to provide
the necessary identification. However his wife was a younger
daughter and therefore was obliged to display a sable mullet
to distinguish her from her elder sister.
According to Smallwood the form of the helmet is a matter
of artistic choice. For baronets and knights it should be
depicted as being of steel. Peers had silver helmets and the
sovereign gold. Before the Restoration the helmet was normally
shown facing the dexter side but after 1660 the practice grew
up of depicting the helmet full face, with the visor open.
The St John crest is a gold falcon 'rising' from a green hillock
(mount vert) with the wings 'displayed' ie extended on either
side of the body, and 'inverted', ie pointing downwards. The
bird is 'belled' having a gold bell tied to each leg with
a leather thong or 'jess'. It also wears a red coronet as
a collar with three conventional strawberry leaves. These
indicate that Sir Walter held a lesser rank than a duke, who
could show five of the eight leaves to which he was entitled.
This comprises a wreath of twisted fillets and represents
the means of affixing the crest to the helmet, for example
by leather thongs. The torse should show six alternations
as it spans the top of the helmet and be coloured with the
principal metal (argent) and colour (gules) in the shield,
the metal leading on the dexter side.
The Mantling or Drapery
This originates from the custom of draping fabric over the
helmet to give some protection from the sun. The more battle
hardened the warrior the greater the shredding of the mantling.
There are no rules about how the drapery should be depicted
but it should not be over elaborate and thereby detract from
the arms. The colouring of the mantling usually is the principal
metal and colour of the shield (argent and gules in our case),
with the metal showing on the lining or inner side of the
Smallwood suggests that the motto 'Rather Deathe than False
of Faythe' is a Victorian invention. The St Johns used a number
of family mottos, but this was not one of them. It first appeared
stamped on school bibles in the mid 1850s and is carved in
stone over the entrance of the Sinjuns school building which
opened in 1859. But as Smallwood says its lack of antiquity
should in no way detract from its suitability as the schools'
motto, given that it reflects Sir Walter's faithfulness to
the parliamentary cause in particularly turbulent times.
The Schools’ Use of the Arms
In 1875 when the Sir Walter St John's School in Battersea
High Street was separated into a middle and an upper school
(with the latter becoming Battersea Grammar School) both schools
used a coat of arms on their headed documents which was virtually
the same, although both omitted the cadency marks - Sir Walter's
sable crescent and his wife's sable mullet. The differences
can be seen by comparing figures 4 and 5. It is interesting
to speculate why this was, given that both schools were governed
by the same trust. Presumably the schools wanted to establish
their own separate identities.
Sir Walter St. John's School (1886)
Battersea Grammar School (1889)
BGS kept the depiction of its arms unchanged
until 1940 when the arms shown in figure 6 first appeared
on the school prize distribution programme. The school magazine
is silent on the reason why this was done and who did the
design. There are two points of particular interest. Sir
Walter's cadency mark was placed below the escutcheon. It
was understood in my day that this was done to distinguish
the BGS arms from those of Sinjuns. The escutcheon correctly
obtrudes slightly onto the chief, indicating that it was
an added augmentation to the arms. But, unwittingly one
hopes, the red hand of Ulster was used instead of the baronet's
badge. There were also too many strawberry leaves depicted
in the coronet. Interestingly the old design was retained
on the school magazine cover (figure 7) until 1948. In that
year 'The Old Grammarian' magazine was first published and
it naturally featured the then new coat of arms, which the
Old Grammarians continue to use to this day.
Another change to the BGS arms was made in 1959 (figure 8).
Again no reasons for this are given in the magazine. The new
design was by D Christie-Murray and D Escott who published
a series of schools' arms including 'The Arms of Sir Walter
St John's School and Battersea Grammar School' in handsome
folders, with a detailed description, priced 2s. 6d. each.
The correct baronets badge is used but the position of Sir
Walter's cadency mark is incorrect for Sinjuns in that the
crescent should be in the next position of honour in the shield,
ie on the dexter side of the escutcheon (see figure 1). Moreover
the wings of the falcon are not inverted but are shown 'elevated
and addorsed' ie the wings are spread and back to back, tips
upwards. I could find no such depictions in St Mary's. But
as the creature is clearly a belled and jessed falcon 'rising'
it would no doubt pass the Sir Walter St John recognition
As an aside, when in 1920, BGS introduced the white striped
black blazer it seems to have been agreed that Sinjuns would
use the St John shield as their breast pocket blazer badge
and BGS the falcon rising, wings displayed and inverted. This
latter was embroidered, dexter facing, in red with a gold
coronet. This was used until the new arms were introduced
in 1959 when Walter Langford adopted the elevated and addorsed
version, in gold for the BGS Upper School and in red for the
And finally as regards school colours, early school photographs
show BGS boys wearing a tie with thick black and white horizontal
stripes. After the Great War boys were wearing a red and white
striped tie on a black ground. The school also had a Corps
tie which had an additional yellow/brown stripe. After the
Second World War house ties were introduced with an extra
stripe in the relevant house colour. In 1924 the Old Grammarians'
Association promulgated its colours (which we still use) of
old gold, white and red on a black ground, tinctures which
Sir Walter St John would readily recognise as being taken
from his arms.
M F Poffley
10 March 2002