By Ian McInnes
The words ‘Dulwich’ and ‘Schools’ are synonymous, yet whenever Dulwich appears in press articles or on TV, it tends to be the local Foundation Schools, Dulwich College, Alleyns and JAGS, that are mentioned. Locals know we have excellent state schools in terms of academic performance, their children use them, but perhaps not everyone realises that we also have some of the best examples architecturally. Primary schools like Bessemer Grange and Dulwich Wood (formerly Langbourne School) were trend setters in the 1940s and 50s, as Kingsdale and Charter are in more recent times, and the Charter School East Dulwich will be. And, we should also not forget the Victorian Board Schools, East and West Dulwich have an excellent selection of them, in good condition and, more importantly, all in their original use.
'Forster's Act', the pioneering Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first to establish a national, secular, non-charitable provision for the education of children aged 5-13. The Act required partially state-funded elementary schools to be established in areas where existing provision was inadequate. These were to be managed by elected school boards, and maintained out of the local rates. The two driving forces were the need for a literate and numerate workforce to ensure that Britain remained at the forefront of manufacture and commerce (where have we heard that recently?), and a genuine desire amongst many politicians to 'educate our masters' - the 1867 Reform Act had extended the franchise to the male urban working classes and they needed to be able to read and write.
The Act empowered school boards to educate children between the ages of 5 and 13 but exempted any child aged over 10 who had reached certain standards. The Act meant that attendance at school became compulsory and, although, the schools initially charged fees, poor parents could be exempted.
The School Board of London was the first to be founded in 1870. It was the most influential and one of the first truly democratic elected bodies in Britain, containing both women and members of all social classes. Its members included five MPs, eleven clergymen, the scientist Thomas Huxley, suffragist/educationalist Emily Davies, Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Benjamin Lucraft -, a working-class cabinetmaker, and city solicitor and local resident, Henry Gover (1835-95) - who lived at ‘Lyncombe’ No 1 Crescent Wood Road)
The Board's politics were ambitious and progressive, passing a by-law compelling parents to send children to school as early as 1871 - this was not compulsory nationally until 1880. However, while the stated intention was to keep children in school till aged 13, the reality was that many left by the age of 10 to earn money to help keep their families. It wasn’t until 1900 that 13 became the school leaving age.
Urban planning was not something the Victorians gave a great deal of thought to initially, and the piecemeal development of East Dulwich during the 1870s demonstrates this - it was left entirely to market forces. As a result, construction of schools usually came later than the housing and the buildings tended to have to fit onto the sites that were left - hence the frequent need to build them three floors high. Where a demand was identified, the Board would put up temporary corrugated iron huts to generate initial interest before building the actual school itself.
The schools themselves were designed to be architecturally imposing, to demonstrate that education was a noble purpose. By Victorian standards they were well built, light and airy, and the Board’s architects, E R Robson (from 1871-82) and T J Bailey (from 1882 onwards), created a distinctive and highly influential board school aesthetic. Their preference for the ‘Queen Anne style’ was then seen as forward looking, and was a reaction against the mid-Victorian Gothic Revival generally used for educational buildings up until that point - compare the 1860s buildings at Dulwich Hamlet with the later 1890s ones.
The schools did not escape contemporary criticism - both on the grounds of the expense to rate-payers, and for potentially radicalising the urban poor through secular education. Supporters like Charles Booth were unapologetic, believing in the power of universal education to transform society. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called Board Schools ‘'Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future'. The unpopularity of the Board with ratepayers, however, led to its abolition in 1902 and responsibility for educating London's children was transferred to the London County Council.
Bellenden Road School in Peckham (listed Grade II) was the first to open in the area in 1877. The first school to actually be built in East Dulwich was Heber Road Primary School in 1882. Designed by E R Robson, it is typical of his later work, and appears to be largely unaltered externally. The halls are located in the centre of the complex and an unusual tower marks the staircase at the west end. The twin facades to the north and south have flower motifs and plaques on every gable. The buildings were sympathetically re-roofed by Southwark Council about ten years ago.
Adys Road School was designed by T J Bailey when he was chief assistant to E R Robson - it is now the St Johns & St Clements C of E Primary School. Goodrich Primary School, T J Bailey's first school designed on his own, followed in 1886-87 and was published in the ‘Builder’ magazine the following year. There is a two storey (Boys and Girls) block with classroom façade facing to the north and hall façade facing south to the playground. The one storey (Infant) block to the south with has delicate bas reliefs on its gable ends. The roof which has been replaced, unfortunately without some of its original detail, and there is a later "bridging" block between the two main blocks which is less successful.
Goose Green Primary School (listed Grade II), originally called Grove Vale School opened in 1900. It sits on the site of a former plant nursery which was still in business as late as 1894. The body of the school consists of a three-storey block with the classroom façade to Grove Vale in the grand ‘late Bailey’ manner, rich in terracotta dressings. The style is neo-classical, almost baroque, with pediments, a cupola and a fleche but the building was never completed - the West wing is missing.
Moving westwards, Dulwich Hamlet School also received the Board treatment. Originally built in Gothic style by Charles Barry jnr. for James Allen’s Girls’ School in 1868 it was vacated when JAGS moved to East Dulwich Grove in 1886, the building was initially hired and later purchased by the Board. The result is a complex of Barry’s original building and one and two storey buildings, one of which appears to be an example of low key later Bailey.
In Lambeth, the Rosendale Primary School (also listed Grade II) dates from 1899. The site of this school was bought in 1894 for £2,800 despite some of the inhabitants of the adjacent houses protesting that the school would depreciate the value of their property and that there were “no poor children anywhere near”. Temporary iron school buildings for 360 children opened in January 1897. The permanent school provided accommodation for 476 children and 276 infants, and was built by Treasure and Son of Holloway for £15,589.
The Two-storey tall centre block has two wide bays whose paired central gables are divided by a tall chimney with a cupola on the ridge behind. The high-pitched tiled roof sweeps down to a moulded brick eaves cornice at much lower level. One-storey side wings have similar inner gabled sections and outer roofs with eaves much lower. Below the gables are tall windows; the flanking walls are blank but for ornamental panels with titles on the first floor of the central block. One-storey irregular return wings have projecting gabled ends and tall inner gables rising through eaves as in front. Curved brick shapes against a pale roughcast background give a Dutch appearance to the end gables
The other Board school in West Dulwich is the Kingswood Primary School, built (1878-80) by local Dulwich builder George Ward. Originally designed to hold 600 pupils, the substantial extensions in 1904-05 increased pupil numbers to 1200.
The Board schools of Dulwich
By Ian McInnes