Save The Rochelle Infants’ School
Back in February, Tower Hamlets Council Planning Committee voted to refuse alterations to the Rochelle Infants’ School that would erase the social history of this important building at the core of Arnold Circus, Britain’s first Council Estate.
Yet this week, James Moores, the current owner, appeals to the Planning Inspectorate to overturn this decision and permit him to alter the structure so that he can turn the building over to commercial use as corporate offices, taking it away from use by the people of the Boundary Estate as a community resource forever.
It was thanks in no small measure to objections sent by readers of Spitalfields Life that the Council rejected the application to alter the school, and so today I publish a revised version of my original article, outlining the significance of the building and including new material uncovered about this historic structure.
This is Contributing Artist Lucinda Rogers‘ sketch of the facade of the former Nichol St Infants’ School that opened in 1879, known as Rochelle Infants’ School since 1900. Yet even those who are familiar with this corner of Shoreditch may not recognise it, because the Boundary Estate was constructed around the school as Britain’s first social housing in 1895.
Blending so harmoniously with the Estate buildings on either side, few realise that this school carries the history of those who once lived here in the notorious slum known as The Nichol, for whom it was built. Apart from the bandstand created from the pile of the rubble of their demolished homes, the school is now the only visible evidence of their existence. But, unlike the inscrutable mound, through the nature and detail of its design this fascinating building speaks eloquently of life in The Nichol.
Walk down Montclare St and enter the yard beside the old Wash House to see this view of the elegant facade, conceived upon an eighteenth century model with two symmetrical wings framing an imposing central entrance beneath a gable in the Queen Anne style, which today looks out upon an area divided by low walls into gardens and courtyards. The central tower contains two separate staircases – gently sloping for child safety – a shallower one for juniors and a steeper one for senior infants, leading to the covered playground on the roof. Walk around the block to Club Row and you will see the other elevation, with its row of eight neo-classical arched windows interspersed by brick pilasters, by which the building is most commonly recognised.
Nichol St Infants’ School was designed by the progressive school architect Edward Robert Robson, who had worked with George Gilbert Scott and knew Dante Gabriel Rossetti personally. In the East End, he was also responsible for the People’s Palace in Mile End and the Jews’ Free School in Spitalfields. Nichol St Infants’ School was constructed as a gesture of idealism to raise the aspirations of the residents of The Nichol. In his pioneering and definitive work of 1874, “School Architecture,” Robson wrote, “If popular education be worth its great price, its homes deserve something better than a passing thought. Schoolhouses are henceforth to take rank as public buildings, and should be planned and built in a manner befitting their new dignity.”
Accommodating over three hundred and sixty pupils within the restricted site of Nichol St Infants School required a playground upon the roof, which Robson designed with a metal cover taking into account that pupils might not possess adequate clothing for rain or poor weather. Recent research by engineering historian and industrial archaeologist, Malcolm Tucker, has confirmed that the metal roof of 1879 is a unique survivor, complete with its nineteenth century wrought iron structure and original iron trusses intact.
Robson’s arrangement of the classrooms exemplified his own ‘model plan’ that he devised as early as 1840. This consisted of one large schoolroom containing a ‘double classroom’ at each end with a partial wall down the middle separating two classes, permitting one senior teacher to supervise junior teachers and their classes. Schools could not afford to employ enough experienced teachers and Robson’s design provided an architectural solution to this deficiency by permitted teaching assistants to be overseen. The schoolroom at Rochelle is possibly the only example of this configuration still in existence.
The high ceilings and large windows were designed to admit plenty of light and air, offering sufficient ventilation to ameliorate the smell of a large number of unwashed infants packed closely together. The architect’s sensitivity to the children’s needs is evident in these considerations and many others, yet his concern extended beyond the material in this modest building, which possesses spare lyrical flourishes that transcend the utilitarian. A prime example is the unexpectedly intricate decorative wooden casing of the iron girders in the ceilings of the classrooms, as if to reward those who lifted their gaze upwards.
Today, the former Nichol St Infants School stands as the only unaltered example of Robson’s principles of school design and thus it is of unique importance, socially, historically and architecturally. In February, Tower Hamlets Council voted to reject the proposed series of alterations to the building enabling commercial office use which would change it irreversibly – partly demolishing Robson’s facade to create an extension, raising the roof level, thus destroying the covered playground with its original metal roof structure, and dividing up the double classrooms with their high ceilings by inserting mezzanine floors which will require removing the decorative casings of the beams in the process.
This week, James Moores, the owner, is appealing to the Planning Inspectorate to overturn that decision, thus permitting him to enact these changes and more which are proposed, that will eradicate much of the meaning of the building – both as a witness of the lives of the people of The Nichol, and as a pertinent reminder of an era when improving the lot of the poor, and allowing them human dignity, became a priority.
Just fifteen years after the school was completed, the Boundary Estate was constructed around it, with the position of the bandstand and the orientation of the seven roads radiating out from it defined by the location of Robson’s building. Thus his school became the keystone of Britain’s first social housing Estate – in its layout and in adopting Robson’s lyrical use of red brick detailing that referenced vernacular architecture of an earlier age but, most importantly, in the social values embodied. Remodelling Robson’s building to facilitate a permanent incursion of commercial offices that serve corporate business interests and preventing any future use by the people of the Boundary Estate would be a betrayal of the founding principles of this historic endeavour.
Lucinda Rogers’ sketch of the Club Row elevation of the former Nichol St School.
The stair tower leading to the covered playground was at the centre of the building, beneath these windows topped by E.R.Robson’s magnificenty flourished gable in the Queen Anne style.
In spite of an accretion of low walls, the facade of Nichol St Infants School is still intact.
The school seen from Club Row, formerly Nichols Row, showing the eight windows that give light to the schoolroom and the eight-barred openings that gave light and air to the covered playground.
Decorative roof beams in the schoolroom.
Double classrooms designed by Robson, as employed at Nichol St Infants’ School (From School Architecture 1874)
The site of Nichol St Infants School surrounded by the streets of The Nichol before they were replaced by the Boundary Estate. (Edina Historical Maps)
1895, the construction of the Boundary Esate around the Rochelle School and Nichol St School, seen at the centre of this photograph. The pile of rubble to the left became the bandstand at the centre of Arnold Circus. (City of London, London Metropolitan Archives)
This 1938 London County Council map shows the Boundary Estate as it remains today with the Rochelle Infants’ School Building half way up Club Row on the right.
Edward Robert Robson (1835-1917), Consulting Architect to Her Majesty’s Education Department.
Drawings copyright © Lucinda Rogers
You have until 5pm on Tuesday 13th August to write to the Planning Inspectorate, opposing the appeal and asking them to uphold Tower Hamlets Council’s decision to refuse the alterations to the Rochelle Infants’ School.
Send your email to Michael Joyce email@example.com quoting Appeal Case No. 2199055 Club Row Building and include your address.
If you would like to join THE FRIENDS OF ROCHELLE, a group dedicated to retaining the Rochelle School as a community asset for the people of the Boundary Estate please email firstname.lastname@example.org
My grateful thanks to Tom Ridge who supplied his research as the basis of this feature.
You may like to read about some local people who were educated at Rochelle School