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Leicester Special Collections

School Buildings

Compilation of recordings containing memories of school buildings during the Victorian and Edwardian era, from the East Midlands Oral History Archive. A full transcript can be found here:

Photograph of the children of Southfields Infants School in the playground, 1907

Photograph of the children of Southfields Infants School in the playground, 1907,  from a recent accession from the School of Education, S75/C1

The Victorians rebuilt the country

The introduction of compulsory elementary education obviously necessitated the construction of a large number of new school buildings.  The work of E.R. Robson, architect to the London School Board, had a powerful influence on the appearance and layout of many of these buildings.  Robson favoured multi-storey red-brick constructions with gables and segmented windows, placed high up, to stop children from becoming distracted by the view outside.  The Gothic style and the Queen Anne style, preferred by Robson, were popular.  Britain was a world-leader in industry, had a vast Empire and a fast-expanding population, and so the Victorians embarked on a huge programme of public building – town halls, prisons, hospitals and libraries, as well as schools.  ‘The Victorians rebuilt the country, from sewers to spires.’* 

  *Philip Wilkinson, English Buildings Blogspot,

Drawing showing the use of a 'code of drill' within Victorian classrooms


A light, cheerful, warm and airy room

Robson gave the most careful consideration to every aspect of his designs, from the numbers to be accommodated and the layout of the desks, through the siting of the entrances and exits and the lighting, to the provision of heating and ventilation.  All this, he argued, had an important effect on the health and performance of the children.  ‘Much of the restlessness, inattention and apparent stupidity, often observable among the children,’ he wrote, ‘is due more to want of freshness in the air than to dullness in the scholar.  A teacher will find his task materially facilitated if carried on in a light, cheerful, warm and airy room’*.  He advocated the use of a ‘code of drill’, a system by which the children could be commanded by code words to perform certain actions with ‘smartness and precision’, as ‘the importance of doing things in a regular and orderly manner cannot be too forcibly impressed’**.  These drawings demonstrate how the class should be trained to stand up and quit the double-desks then commonly used. 

E.R. Robson, School Architecture, (Leicester, 1972), *p. 266, ** p. 377 & p. 378, 720.942 ROB

We all sat with our hands behind our backs

The rationale behind the use of double desks was, of course, mainly to accommodate large classes of 60 or more pupils in the limited space available.  In this extract from an interview conducted in 1985, Mrs M.E. Hayes recalls her early education at Narborough Road School, Leicester from 1905: 

‘Did they have difficulty fitting [50-60 pupils] in?’

‘No, no, we used to have desks to fit two, a long desk and behind it was a long form and you sat side-by-side … We all sat with our hands behind our backs ... all through the lesson.’

‘Was that to keep discipline?’

‘More or less … they didn’t like you talking a lot.’

                        East Midlands Oral History Archive, Special Collections Online,

Commercial and Poor Girls’ School, Bury, 1846


A higher and nobler spirit

Another well-respected Victorian architect (he was described as the ‘Nestor of British architecture’* by The Builder in 1875), who championed the importance of good design in school buildings, was Henry Edward Kendall.  Writing in 1847, Kendall was of the opinion that the architecture of public buildings in general had become ‘stripped of its high and lofty character and degraded to the level of tasteless ignorance’, but that, in recent years, ‘this delightful art’ had thankfully been revived by ‘a higher and nobler spirit’**.  His output was varied, ranging from public buildings and churches to private houses.   The Guildhall Feoffment Schools of Bury St. Edmunds are an example of his work on school buildings; he proposed a number of alternative designs for these in his book, Designs for Schools and School Houses.  Here we see views of the Commercial School fronting on College Street, built in 1846 to Kendall’s design, and the Poor Girls’ School in Wells Street (still to be built, at the time when this book was published). 

*James Stevens Curl, ‘Kendall, Henry Edward’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,

Henry Edward Kendall, Designs for Schools and School Houses, Parochial and National, (London, 1847), **p. 1 & ‘1846, Commercial and Poor Girls’ School, Bury’, SCH 00028

Design 2 for the Combined Schools, Bury, 1847


 A modern scholastic building

In this sketch, Kendall has united the boys’ and girls’ schools and the master’s house, in an effort to ‘produce a combination, exhibiting a picturesque adaptation of some distinguishing features, and the character of Early English Collegiate Edifices’ in ‘a modern scholastic building’.  The accommodation was intended for 130 boys and 110 girls and he estimated the cost of construction as £400 for the schools, excluding the provision of desks and chairs, and £320 for the master’s house.

Henry Edward Kendall, Designs for Schools and School Houses, Parochial and National, (London, 1847), ‘Design 2 for the Combined Schools, Bury’, SCH 00028

Design 3 for a Single School, Bury, 1847

An enduring design

This third alternative design is for a single school to accommodate 150 children.  Here Kendall has opted for ‘the style of half-timbered houses prevalent in England from the 15th to the beginning of the 17th century’.  He puts the cost of construction at £300 plus £180 for the adjacent master’s apartments.  Kendall clearly took pleasure in experimenting with different ideas for the Bury schools.  In the event, the Poor Boys’ School on Bridewell Lane was completed to his design in 1843, in red brick and flint, in the domestic gothic style.  Three years later, another of his designs was adopted for the nearby Commercial School on College Street, which originally had two small stepped gables (no longer in existence) and was decorated with the arms of Bury St. Edmunds and of Jankyn Smythe, founder of the Guildhall Feoffment Trust.  The two schools were amalgamated in 1931 and, in 1936, incorporated the Poor Girls’ School in Wells Street. The Guildhall Feoffment Primary School (still run by the Trust) continues to teach children in Kendall’s buildings, a testament to their quality and suitability.  The School celebrated its 170th anniversary in 2013, taking part in a memorial service for Jankyn Smythe, whose coat of arms still adorns the building*.   

*East Anglian Daily Times, (11 July 2013),

Henry Edward Kendall, Designs for Schools and School Houses, Parochial and National, (London, 1847), ‘Design 3 for a Single School, Bury’, SCH 00028

The Working Lads’ Institute, 1886

What is a boy to do?

The Working Lads’ Institute in Whitechapel, opened in 1878, is an example of a very different type of Victorian school, and its premises, depicted here in The Boy’s Own Paper, reflect that.  It was founded by Henry Hill, a City merchant, to provide ‘a place where lads could meet in the evening for instruction and amusement’ and to address the problems caused by ‘thousands of lads engaged daily in the City, who leave their employment about seven o’clock … and are not expected at their lodgings or homes until ten, or even later.  Being without friends or resources, their leisure hours are in many cases a curse rather than a blessing.  They wander about the streets, are found in numbers in doubtful places of entertainment, and in short are exposed to all the dangers and temptations of a great city at their most critical age.  But what is a boy to do*?’

The Boy’s Own Paper, No. 365, Vol. VIII, (London, 9 January 1886), *p.236 & p. 237, PER 050 B5020

No one need learn unless he pleases

The Institute had a gymnasium, a refreshment-room with reasonably priced food, a reading-room, classrooms and dormitories, offering accommodation for those who had nowhere else to sleep at a rate of 2 shillings per week.  ‘One peculiarity of the Lads’ Institute is that no one need learn unless he pleases.  Each member pays an entrance fee of sixpence and a subscription of sixpence a month, and this makes him free of the building.  All the classes are free, but no pressure is brought to bear to induce him to join them*.’  However, there was no shortage of takers for the various classes on offer.  In 1896, Rev. Thomas Jackson took over the running of the Institute and extended its activities to help homeless boys, who would otherwise be living on the street, and to receive boys referred to the Institute by the Police and Magistrates’ Courts.  The Institute eventually closed in only 1973**.

*The Boy’s Own Paper, No. 365, Vol. VIII, (London, 9 January 1886), p.236, PER 050 B5020

**London Metropolitan Archives, City of London,