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At The Rochelle Infants’ School

February 13, 2013
by the gentle author

On the day that the fate of the Rochelle Infants’ School Building at Arnold Circus on the Boundary Estate will be decided by Tower Hamlets Council, I trace the origins of this modest yet beautiful edifice which tells a unique and important story .

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 surrounding streets were razed and 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 Old 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 Old 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 today.

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 Old 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. In the classrooms, 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. Yet this evening Tower Hamlets Council votes on a proposed series of alterations to the building which will 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 height classrooms with mezzanine floors which will require removing the decorative casings of the beams in the process. Enacting these changes, and more which are proposed, will eradicate much of the meaning of the building – both as a witness of the lives of the people of the Old Nichol, and as a pertinent reminder of an era when improving the lot of the poor, and allowing them human dignity, became a priority.

Sign the petition to protect the Rochelle Infants School Building


Lucinda Rogers’ sketch of the Club Row elevation of 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 double height classrooms and the eight barred openings that gave light and air to the covered playground

Double height classrooms designed by Robson, as employed at Nichol St Infants’ School (From School Architecture 1874)

In 1880, the site of Nichol St Infants School surrounded by the streets of the Old 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

Tower Hamlets Development Committee meet to decide on the application to alter the Rochelle Infants School Building at 7pm today, Wednesday February 13th, Tower Hamlets Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, London, E14 2BG

UPDATE: 20:26pm 13/02/2013 The council voted to reject the plans, but the next chapter is uncertain. Sign the petition to support the sympathetic preservation of the Rochelle Infants’ School.

My grateful thanks to Tom Ridge who supplied his research as the basis of this feature.

You may like to read about some people who were educated at Rochelle School

Joan Rose

Maurice Franklin

Aubrey Goldsmith

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Vicky permalink
    February 13, 2013

    Another beautiful building about to be desecrated, but lets hope the outcome here is a better one. Surely a use can be found for these buildings which does not destroy their symmetry and beauty. Tom Ridge has done another sterling job researching the history of the school, as he did with the Jewish maternity hospital recently.
    Tower Hamlets Development Committee – you won’t let us down, will you?

  2. gary permalink
    February 13, 2013

    in years to come this blog could well be important witting testimony to a London long gone, very well done and I think we should have more of Mr Pussy in every post after all he is your muse!!!!!! Well Done, start protesting now.

  3. Oxana permalink
    February 13, 2013

    What puzzles me about London is that former schools (purpose built and planned buildings) are used for anything but schools and modern schoolchildren attend places which were never intended to be a school. (My kid for example goes to a places which used to be a printing house)

  4. aubrey permalink
    February 13, 2013

    Its architecture fits perfectly with the surrounding Boundary Estate. Extensive alterations would be a travesty. Should radical refurbishment be carried out then, in my opinion, a historic building would have been destroyed. Mores the pity. Although I was not educated at this institution, I did attend some activities in the evenings after school.

  5. Ron Pummell permalink
    February 13, 2013

    I attended Columbia Rd Junior School from 1942 until July 1948. At one time we walked to Rochelle Street School for our Lunch. The Headmaster at Columbia Rd. was Mr Nelson and other male staff were M/s Bridle, King, Hawkins and Norman. Female teachers included Misses Clarke, Doe and Johnson. The milk lady was Mrs Smith who lived in that court between Ezra and Shipton St opposite the bakers.
    I well remember Mr Norman, who always wore a bowler hat outside, helping a youny 10 year old boy to walk quicker back to his classroom after morning assembly.

  6. February 13, 2013

    Hopefully, it will be a unanimous NO from Tower Hamlets members tonight – just as it was TWICE NO for the demolition of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange. These were both historic public buildings in our Borough that are now only viewed as development opportunities by their new owners. Local history groups or historians like Tom Ridge, are never consulted on these applications. Why? Then the similarly excluded wider communities who live and work near, in or around these historic Tower Hamlets buildings are left with no voice except to sign petitions to object.
    We have been through Mother Levy’s Jewish Maternity Home, Spitalfields Market’s Exchange (also The Gun pub, Barclays Bank and Dorset Street), and now the Rochelle Street Infants School – all have had to resort to petitions to try and protect Tower Hamlets’ built heritage.
    Mother Levy’s was tragically demolished – it did not even make it to Committee. Let that be the last, please. (English Heritage are yet to decide on Listing for the 1929 Exchange.)
    Thank you to the Gentle Author for once again showing the world the wonderful historic buildings we have and for highlighting another campaign to stop this seemingly endless destruction.

  7. annie permalink
    February 13, 2013

    Thank you for a very interesting article on the Rochelle School.

    I have had the pleasure of seeing inside on two or three occasions in the past few years when it has been used to show art exhibitions, it’s such an interesting building.
    I had assumed that it was built at the same time as the Boundary Estate so was very interested to read it had been there in the times of the original slum.
    I really hope it can be saved in it’s original form.

  8. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    February 14, 2013

    What an interesting story,& what a good point made by oxana,why cant these old schoolbuildings be adapted to modern times & modern teaching ideas.Much better than some of these awful 60 s buildings that are falling down already.

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