The London School Board School

In 1870 Parliament had passed the Compulsory Education Act, but ‘Education for All' was a completely new idea and some people resented it. One said, ‘We shall be educating donkeys next.' Others saw it as a wonderful advance.

In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he is travelling into London by train with Dr. Watson and says:-

“Look at those big isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates.

“The Board Schools?

“Lighthouses my boy! 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 London School Board was appointed to create the hundreds of new schools which would be needed for this revolutionary policy. Education for all had long been the policy in the United States of America, but it was new in England and there was much ground to make up.

The first priority was in the overcrowded area of Central London and often sites were difficult to find. Queen's Head Street School, near the Angel, had difficulty finding even a very small site. It became Islington Green School and covers a large area today, but the first site took some finding.

There had been schools near Highbury Corner for years, so the need for places was not so urgent as elsewhere and Board did no have time to build here until 1887.

Hopes for education ran high, but the buildings had to be paid for and the London School Board was determined to carry public opinion with it. People had to realise that they were getting good value for their new education taxes. One way was to make the new school buildings stand out against the drab, ordinary streets, so they were tall and in a distinctive new style called ‘Sweetness and Light'. They out-topped the surrounding houses, were full of light, in bright yellow and red brickwork with huge windows, and were designed to dominate the London skyline.

The Board did not just build good buildings, they more than this. They first priced the cost of building and then ADDED TEN PER CENT, so that the architect could make the building of ‘architectural interest'. It was this 10% of extra money which paid for the good quality materials, the fine workmanship and the elaborate decorative features like bell towers to house the school opening bell, and good quality ironwork and stone work. Compare this with the school building immediately after the Second World War, when the country was almost bankrupt.

Woodberry Down Comprehensive School in Stoke Newington was the first new Comprehensive School in London North of the Thames, now incorporated in Stoke Newington School, Clissold Road. During the course of building we took TWO 10% CUTS. As a result, the architect had to spend a great deal on his foundations, which were on a very difficult site, and then had to skimp the rest. Door frames were thin 1 inch boards, so that if you slammed a door it came away from the wall.

The Wrought Iron gates of Cannonbury School and the fine cut limestone pillars are examples of the high quality work in these early schools. The school had tall, wrought iron gates set between attractive limestone pillars. These square blocks are carefully reeded, with attractive capping blocks projecting at the top. They are carved elegantly, with Boys' Entrance and Girls and Infants, both grammatically correct. One gate has an apostrophe and the other does not, for good grammatical reasons. The gates led to separate playgrounds. One notice is possessive and one was not. Clearly learning began at the school gates: there are no greengrocers' apostrophes here.


The original wrought iron gate

The wire replacement gate

The Three gates to Canonbury Primary School in 2003

 

The First School Building

In 1887 a three-decker school was built to a design that the London School Board had already made famous.

It is quite difficult to work out the history of the school building. Many drawings have been lost so the source material is sparse. The solution depends on

  1. The 1868 Ordnance Survey Map
  2. Bacon's map of 1888, immediately after the school was first built
  3. The Sectional Elevation of 1891
  4. The Plan of 1910.

By going backwards and forwards through these few documents we can begin to tease out the story.

The 1888 map shows the long narrow site and a curious zig-zag shape, part school and part school­keeper's house. The 1891 Sectional Drawing shows, among many other things, details of room heights and desk tiers. The 1910 Plan shows the extensions at each end, the new flat Roof Marching Space, and the reason why a new School-keeper's House had to be built.

The Original School Building of 1887

Finding the Site

The 1888 map shows the long narrow site and a curious zig-zag shape, part school and part school-keeper's house. The 1891 Sectional Drawing shows, among many other things, details of room heights and desk tiers. The 1910 Plan shows the extensions at each end, the new flat Roof Marching Space, and the reason why a new School-keeper's House had to be built.

1863

1896

1913

1952

1868 Ordnance Survey shows some fields numbered ready for sale and development

 


The Bacon 1888 map of Canonbury School issued
soon after the school was opened

The Sectional Elevation of the 1877 building shown below,
was seen from the direction of the arrow. The 1888 map shows the long narrow site and a curious zig-zag shape,
part school and part school-keeper's house.

The 1891 Sectional Drawing shows, among many other things, details of room heights and desk tiers. The 1910 Plan shows the extensions at each end, the new flat Roof Marching Space, and the reason why a new School-keeper's House had to be built.

Bacon's map of 1888 showing the 1887 School built on part of the nursery land. The London School Board seems to have bought a long, narrow strip at the top of lots 286 and 287 running between Compton Road and Canonbury Road. The zigzag shape of the school building has been marked in black.

The new school stood south of the block of houses which ran up to St Paul 's Road. The original British School which was taken over by Unity Chapel was behind the houses in Canonbury Road and Compton Road, just North of the new School site.


The Section of the 1887School building made for the 1891 Extension.


The Section of the 1887 School building seen from the
direction of the arrow (South) in the 1888 map above.

This drawing was made for the Enlargement of the school in 1891 but it is the only drawing we have of the original 1887 school building. It shows the building before the 1891 enlargement had started.

The drawing was made on Victorian Art Paper with a chalk surface, which gave an excellent appearance. It must have looked delightful in its original state but, by the time Michael Marland and I had to deal with it, the drawing was in a sorry state. It had hung in the Head Teacher's Room until 1991, a century after it was drawn, and had become so damp over the years that the chalk surface had stuck to the glass of the picture frame. Only the glass was holding the drawing together. If we had removed the picture from the frame it would have dissolved in dust. Instead we had to clean the outside of the glass carefully and photocopy the drawing through the glass. With age and deterioration, it gave a poor photocopy which needed a lot of restoration to achieve even this quality.

A Description of the Sectional Drawing

This is a sectional drawing and shows the inside of the 1877 building cut through along the section line in the zig-zag drawing above and with the near front wall removed. You are looking inside a cut cake.

The two storey school keeper's house was not cut by the section line, so we see the front elevation of the house and the section of the school. Notice that the ground floor classroom is as tall as the eaves of the School keeper's house. The second floor ceiling reaches above its chimney pot.

The 1887 Sectional Elevation of the 1887 building is the only one we have of the School at this time, but it is very helpful because it tells us so much about these early schools. They are very different from our modern ones and for very good reasons.

In the 1887 drawing the new walls are shown in black, but it is not easy to understand exactly what was done from this one drawing. All we can do is to pick out some details. There are pitched roofs and very high ceilings.

Windows are large but have small panes as they do today and there are big chimney stacks. These can still be found in the structure of the school although there are no open fires any more.

The walls had about a metre of glazed brick at the bottom and were plastered above. These glazed bricks are very hard-wearing

Why are the Classroom Ceilings so High?


A Section showing the high ceilings and the tiers for desks


Queen's Head Street School, c. 1929

This is a picture of the school which became Islington Green School, and is now City of London Academy.
The children in Canonbury School would have looked just like these, in similar desks.

The photograph shows that the desks were arranged in tiers and the back windows started above the teacher's head when she was standing on the top tier. I those days children were not allowed to move about much. The Activity Method, which called for children to move about, conduct experiments, and work in groups, was years in the future. The classroom floors would have to be leveled before that became possible. Instead, the children worked in their desks and classes had to be dismissed in lines to reduce the danger of falling down the steps. So ceilings had to be high because the floors were tiered.

The Fear of Tuberculosis

The second and most important reason for these high ceilings was the danger of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis was less common in the country and in mountainous country but it was rife in towns, with their pollution and overcrowded houses. It is a very serious disease, affecting mainly the lungs, but it can attack other parts of the body. It is spread by coughing and breathing out the bacillus so that other people are infected. Almost every family, poor and wealthy, had someone who suffered from the disease, or knew of someone who had died of it. The only known cure was fresh air. A long, slow process of recovery in a mountain resort in Switzerland was the best, but how many could afford that? People had to live near their work, despite their bad living conditions and overcrowding.


Graph of Deaths from Tuberculosis from 1840 to 1970

In 1840 there were 4000 deaths per million from Tuberculosis. We tend to know of artists and writers who died of Tuberculosis because their lives have been recorded. Katherine Mansfield, George Orwell and many others died of it, but they are a tiny, tiny proportion of the total.

Slowly, better living conditions reduced the death toll but even when the tuberculosis bacillus was identified, in the 1880s, there were still 2000 deaths per million. This was the time that Canonbury School and Queen's Head Street School were being built. The death rate had been halved but this does not tell the whole story. TB makes it difficult for the patient to earn a living. There were long periods of sickness at home or in hospital. These patients had to be supported by their relations or some form of charity. There was no free Health Service and no unemployment pay, so one tuberculosis victim could bring distress to the whole family.

This was years before the modern drugs which are available today. The list of medicines for Paddington Children's Hospital in 1914, at the start of the First World War, consisted of: -

Bromide of Potassium, Carbonate of Bismuth, Cod liver oil, Glycerine, and Quinine. No others are mentioned in their records at this time.

Compare this with our modern drug list and the resources available to modern doctors. No wonder children needed fresh air and why it played such a large part in the conscious planning for child health.

Open Air Schools

'The London County Council developed school sites on the outskirts of London, in, for example, Muswell Hill, Shooters Hill and other places where the winds blew free. Classes visited them one day a week by coach to work in open air classrooms, botanize and play games. In town, some schools had open-air classrooms in the playground, or rather gritty desks in the open, where children could do their lessons in good weather. This emphasis on fresh air and physical exercise which would ensure deep breathing, was the main defense against Tuberculosis.

The Chairman of The School Board for London in 1884 said:-

'At the instance of the Chairman of the Works Committee, whose connection with measures for arresting disease in London is well known, special attention has been paid to the. sanitary condition of our schools, and it may be safely said that this is now as well considered and as complete as in a first rate hospital. At a time when dangerous epidemics threaten the metropolis, I feel that this will be satisfactory to the public mind. In some of our schools considerations of expense and contracted sites have compelled us to provide playgrounds on the roof. It is worthy of note that the winning school in the drill competition this year as confined to ran airy but confinedspace of this kind.'

It was to be another twenty-six years before Queen's s Head School and Canonbury Schools were lucky enough to get them.

Roof top Marching Spaces

The emphasis on physical exercise which would ensure deep breathing was the other side of the coin. The 1910 drawing shows a covered Marching Space so that exercise could be taken in the open air in all weathers. The Chairman of The School Board for London in 1884 had said:-

'At the instance of the Chairman of the Works Committee, whose connection with measures for arresting disease in London is well known, special attention has been paid to the sanitary condition of our schools, and it may be safely said that this is now as well considered and as complete as in a first rate hospital. At a time when dangerous epidemics threaten the metropolis, I feel that this will be satisfact­ory to the public mind. In some of our schools considerations of expense and contracted sites have compelled us to provide playgrounds on the roof. It is worthy of note that the winning school in the drill competition this year as confined to an airy but confined space of this kind.'

The Third Reason Large Class Sizes

Classes too were very large. Sixty children in one classroom could rapidly infect each other, so each child needed plenty of fresh air which was changed regularly. Therefore schools were built with big classrooms and very high ceilings. There were windows on both sides of the classroom, to change the air continually. Medical Officers of Health were perpetually writing about the 'Cross Draught Theory' The fight against tuberculosis was long and slow. Pasteur discovered that heating milk above 70° C killed the tuberculosis bacteria. Eventually milk had to be Pasteurized by law and one of the main sources of infection was being controlled. By the end of World War II, in 1945, the death rate from tuberculosis; was down to 500 per million, one eighth of the 1840 figure. This had been achieved by better nourishment, better housing, Pasteurisation, and very high classroom ceilings must also have played some part. Only at this stage was a drug cure found.

By 1950 Streptomycin was widely available and, when BCG vaccination was introduced, the illness was practically eliminated in the West. At last there was a specific cure for tuberculosis and the isolation hospitals, which had housed thousands of sufferers, were being closed. Classroom ceilings could be lowered. Compare the ceiling heights of the present 1910 building and those of modern schools.

The Fourth Reason

There is a fourth factor often forgotten in our western world where most people have bathrooms and adequate washing facilities. Many of these children would not have had running water in the house and very few indeed would have had running hot water, so the class rooms could have become very smelly. This was another reason for plenty of fresh air.

Thus Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases, large classes and therefore large floor areas, coal fires in each classroom, personal cleanliness, and general ventilation, were all affecting the design of schools in 1884.

The Extension of the School in 1891

The school became so overcrowded that they had to refuse admissions and, in 1891, the building was enlarged. The Sectional Elevation shows the inside of the building looking from the South. The left hand end of the building is not in section. We are looking at the outside of a building with its own front door: This must have been the first School-keeper's house. It was set back from the rest of the building and so was behind the section line which cuts the main school building. This School ­keeper's house had been blacked-in in the 1888 map (shown earlier).

In the 1891 drawing the new walls are shown in black, but it is not easy to understand exactly what was done from this one drawing. All we can do is to pick out some details. There are pitched roofs and very high ceilings. This was typical in the early schools because of tuberculosis. This disease was widespread and the only known cure, or hope for avoiding the disease, was plenty of fresh air. Classes were large and each child needed a lot of air. Therefore the classrooms had to have very high ceilings, with huge windows and plenty of moving air. When they were cold the children were told to stand up and do arm exercises to make themselves warm, but the windows stayed open. Architects could not lower the ceilings until much later, when Streptomycin had been discovered and people could be cured of tuberculosis.

Windows are large but have small panes as they do today and there are big chimney stacks. These can still be found although there are no open fires any more.

There was a period, about 1912, when the London County Council was putting in fireproof floors instead of the original wooden ones. Some floors are marked `Fireproof floor', while others are still timber, with diagonal bracing. Were they putting in fireproof floors throughout the school?

The walls had about a metre of glazed brick at the bottom and were plastered above. These glazed bricks are very hard-wearing and can still be found in the school.

The School Enlargement in 1910

In 1910 the school was again enlarged. In the process, the School-keeper's cottage was demolished and a new one built near the road. The school was extended at both ends to provide more classrooms. In the floor plan below the extensions have been tinted. Some traces of the changes can still be found. For example, the I- shaped girders in the ceiling of the Ground Floor Hall are not all of the same type. Today old and new technologies stand side by side for all to see. The early ones are riveted together, while the 1910 ones have been extruded [squeezed out] between rollers when red or even white hot.

 

Light From the Right


Two classrooms in a corridor.

These two classrooms are on the opposite side of the same corridor in the 1910 Extension but they are arranged completely differently. The tiers for the desks are at different ends of the rooms and the entrances are at different ends of the corridor. Both rooms have the same area but they have been laid out at right angles to each other. One has three windows and the other has only two. One has three tiers if steps while the other has four. Why are there all theses differences?

The reason may be quite unexpected but is perfectly logical and applies to all classrooms even today. Most people are right handed, so it suits them best if light comes from their left.

The unfortunate minority who are left handed and would prefer the light to come front the right, are outnumbered and classroom light always favours the majority. Light comes from both sides of the building, so the classrooms have to be turned to suit its light and one can still see the narrower/wider classrooms sticking out as this one does, in school plans.

The I Shaped Girders in Canonbury School Hall

I-shaped girders are very strong because they have flanges top and bottom to give them stiffness. These flanges resist bending and because, there are four of them, they resist bending in all directions. Girders like this are made by extruding (squeezing out) white hot, or red hot metal between shaped rollers, rather as we squeeze toothpaste out of a tube. Early machines were not powerful enough to extrude the complete I girders. All they could do was to extrude the L-shaped flanges. Four of these were then riveted to a thick plate of sheet iron with red hot rivets. These were hammered close and then they shrank as they cooled. This shrinkage pulled the rivets even tighter.

Early girders were made of wrought iron. At that time the furnaces were not hot enough to melt the iron. The iron was heated to red/white heat and hammered to remove the impurities. These came to the surface as flakes and fell off, leaving the pure wrought iron. Later there were two changes in technology. Furnaces became hotter and rolling machines more powerful.

1. The furnaces became so hot that the iron could be melted. Instead of the impurities having to be hammered out, they floated to the surface of the molten iron, like the scum on top of a saucepan of soup, and could be poured off before the pure metal below was run off into ingots. This allowed the steel masters to create mild steel instead of wrought iron. Mild steel is a completely different material from the earlier wrought iron.

2. The extrusion machines became more powerful so that they could extrude complete I sections and there was no more need for riveting several pieces together.

In Canonbury School the two technologies of 1884 and 1910 stand side by side to show how the power of furnaces and machines had advanced in those few years. This was an advance in about 25 years, just as our computers have advanced. You are looking at a very important time change.


The 1884 Riveted I Girders in the Canonbury School Hall Ceiling

This is a composite beam made of angle plates and flat sheets of iron riveted together to form an I beam.


The 1884 and the 1910 Girders side by side

The nearer girder is one of the 1884 riveted ones. The next ones, further into the shadow and hard to photograph, date from 1910 and were rolled in one piece by much more powerful machines, with no need for rivets.

The New Boilers and the old Flues

In the Lower School Hall is an access plate for a flue brush. This led to the back of a fire in the next classroom. When the chimney was blocked with soot it had to be cleared, so the chimney sweep opened this plate and pushed his brush up the chimney until it came out of the chimney pot far above. Today we seldom see chimney sweeps because London is a smoke free zone and we do not have open fires.

The Marching Space

The building extensions had used up a lot of the playground space, so a Marching Space was built on top of the Eastern Extension. This provided a safe area on the roof and behind the walls for physical exercise. Flat Roofs were built in this and many other schools at this period. The Islington Green drawings still exist and the story of the Roof Marching Space in that story explains what happened in Canonbury School as well.

Cannonbury School
 

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last revised: October 15, 2011 4:52 PM