The school was founded by John Roan (circa 1600 - 1644) of Greenwich, son of John Roan, a Sergeant of the Scullery to James I in the Palace of Placentia. In 1640, Roan was appointed Yeoman of His Majesty's Harriers. During the Civil War he was arrested for trying to obtain recruits for the King's Army and as a prisoner of war, he was 'stripped of all he had and in great necessity and want, ready to starve'. His brother Robert would not come to his aid, and his release was eventually obtained by a friend, Richard Wakeham.
In John Roan's Will, drawn up in March 1643, he left his property first to his wife Elizabeth, then to the daughters of Richard Wakeman during their lifetimes, and then to the founding of a school for 'poor town-bred children of Greenwich', 'up to the age of fifteen', wearing and school 'uniform and badge', and undertaking 'reading, writing and cyphering'. Roan's motives for founding a school may be attributed to his having died childless, his only son having been buried 'an infant' at Saint Alfege Church, Greenwich in 1624.
The Will also named the Vicar, the Churchwardens and the Overseers of the Poor of Saint Alfege, Greenwich as the Trustees. They were the forerunners of the School Governors (known as the Feoffees) of the Roan Charity (later Roan Schools Foundation), who managed the Roan Estate and appointed the School Master. The first Chairman of the Governors was Dr Thomas Plume.
Charitable bequests to the school included gifts by Sir William Hooker, Lord Mayor of London. The Charities Commissioners met in 1677 following the death of the last of the Wakemans named in the Will, to decide on the use of bequests to the poor of Greenwich. It was agreed that they be used for the building of a school, and that the Roan Estate would maintain it under the terms of the Will. The school began as the Grey Coat School or Roan's Charity school, and was opened for the education of boys in 1677-1678.
During the 18th century revenues of the Roan Estate grew dramatically. In the thirty years after 1775, the rentals trebled and by 1814 the Estate could afford to educate and clothe 100 boys. The first school building was surrendered to Greenwich Hospital in 1808 and a new school, paid for by the Hospital, was built in 1809 in Roan Street to accommodate 120 boys.
In 1814 Reverend George Mathew, Vicar and Chairman of the Governors proposed that the Roan Estate should make a contribution towards the education of girls in Greenwich. A decree was issued by the Master of the Rolls that £130 of the revenue of the Roan Estate was to be paid towards the maintenance of a school for girls. In January 1815 the National School of Industry was opened and became the forerunner of the Roan School for Girls.
In 1838 there were 200 boys. The demand for education grew and the Governors opened two branch schools at the junction of Old Woolwich Road and East Street. By 1853, the four Roan Charity schools were educating 630 boys and girls.
The Elementary Education Act 1870, aimed at putting education within the reach of all children, had a great impact on the Roan Schools. The School Board for London established by the Act began to lay its plans for new buildings and the Endowed Schools' Commissioners drew up a scheme of school closure and transfer of the boys and girls to the Board's two new schools built in 1877: one for 300 boys in East Street (later renamed Eastney Street) and one for 300 girls in Devonshire Road (later renamed Devonshire Drive), and the name was changed to the Roan Schools. The reorganisation was to give 'a superior education of the character usually given in the best middle class schools', and introduced a Headmaster for the boys' School and Headmistress for the girls' school, who were allowed to appoint assistant teachers, admit pupils and establish a curriculum.
As demand for accommodation grew, the boys' school moved to Maze Hill in 1928 and an extension was built at the Girls' school in 1937. The Roan Schools came to the forefront of London's Grammar Schools with modern purpose built buildings extra provision made for the sciences, library and games.
During the Second World War staff and pupils were evacuated for four years from 1939 first to Ticehurst, Flimwell and Stonegate, Kent, later to Rye and Bexhill, Sussex and a third move in June 1940 (for three years) to Ammanford and Llandebie, South Wales. During this time the South East London Emergency School was established by the London County Council in the Roan Girls' building. Pupils' fees were abolished under the Education Act 1944 and the junior school was closed.
In 1977, an agreement was made between the Inner London Education Authority and Roan Foundation Governors for the amalgamation of the Roan School for Boys, the Roan School for Girls and Charlton Secondary School for Boys and establishment of a new mixed comprehensive school, the John Roan School in 1980. New buildings were built at Westcombe Park Road in 1981 and last pupils in the former Roan Grammar School buildings were transferred in 1984.
The Inner London Education Authority was abolished in 1990 and from this time is managed by Greenwich Borough Council as a mixed comprehensive for 11 to 18 year olds and in 2002 there were 1,082 pupils. Their website in 2003 was http://www.thejohnroanschool.co.uk/.
For further details of John Roan School's earlier history see W J Kirby's 'The History of the Roan Schools' (1929) (reference LMA/4442/03/03/04/006).