Few schools owe their origin to a cow, a village maiden and an archer's arrow. The cow was being milked in a field outside the village of Islington in the mid 16th century; the maid, Alice Wilkes - accompanied by a young servant - stopped to watch and try her hand in milking; the arrow from nearby butts, sailed across the field and pierced the crown of her hat, miraculously without injuring her. Much impressed by her providential escape, she vowed that when rich enough she would do something for posterity to mark her gratitude.
Some 50 years later, Alice Wilkes, thrice widowed by a brewer, a mercer and latterly by Judge Thomas Owen, was a lady of considerable wealth. Reminded of her vow by the servant, she established a school for 30 boy scholars from Islington in 1613. She entrusted the administration of the school and its endowment to the Worshipful Company of Brewers which, for nearly four centuries as Trustees of the Dame Alice Owen Foundation, has supported and encouraged the school.
A girls' school was founded in 1886 and in the late 1960s a search was made for a new location. Eventually a combined school was opened in 1973 on the present site in Potters Bar.
Certain traditions and customs have been retained, the two most notable being -
Dame Alice herself instructed the Governors to visit the school annually to inspect the scholars' progress. Today, this visit forms part of the school's Open Day and prize giving ceremony. The original scholars collected flowers from the surrounding fields to make buttonholes for themselves and to decorate the school; the custom today is for carnations to be worn by all pupils and to be presented to the Governors at Visitation.
It was long-established for the Governors to present the boy who welcomed them at Visitation with a small sum of money. From this probably derives the custom of presenting pupils with "beer money". Nowadays, Year 7 pupils receive a crown coin at Brewers' Hall in the City of London while other pupils receive a sum which rises with their seniority.