A Victorian Board School Design
Brighton’s last school in the Queen Anne style
In April 2015, the Brighton Society celebrated architect Thomas Simpson’s contribution to education in Brighton and Hove by unveiling a plaque at the Connaught Centre, Hove. Designed by Simpson, the building opened in 1884 as the Connaught Road Board Schools and Hove School Board offices. In this article, author Richard Bingham investigates the inspiration for another of Simpson’s well-known schools in the city – St Luke’s in Queen’s Park Rise.
St Luke’s Primary School (1900-1903) was the last of the many schools designed by architect Thomas Simpson for the Brighton (later Brighton and Preston) School Board. Like others up and down the country, the Brighton Board was established following the Education Act of 1870, which for the first time made local authorities responsible for the compulsory education of children up to the age of 13. The Act was one plank of the major social reforms of the Victorian period, and resulted in a national programme of school building Weiner, D, Architecture and Social Reform in late Victorian London, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1994 . Thomas Simpson (1825-1908) established his architectural practice in Brighton, where he was joined by his son, Gilbert Murray Simpson (1869-1954). Today, Simpson is noted principally for his “distinguished group of board schools” Antram, N and Morrice, R, Pevsner Architectural Guides, Brighton, 2008, Yale University Press , with St Luke’s in particular regarded as “the culmination of his career” Carder, T, The Encyclopaedia of Brighton, East Sussex County Council, Lewes, 1990 . The present essay will discuss St Luke’s in the context of the preoccupations of the School Boards, tracing how their concerns influenced both the elevations and the plan of the school. It will also investigate why St Luke’s and so many other English Board Schools were built in the Queen Anne style.
St Luke’s occupies an awkward site, large but roughly triangular and falling down one of Brighton’s hills. The school is located in Queen’s Park, a suburban area to the east of the town centre which by the turn of the century was proving very popular with the town’s growing lower middle classes (see Figure 1, below).
The site was acquired in February 1899 by the Brighton and Preston School Board from Henry Abbey, Brighton brewer and mayor of the town from 1875 to 1876, for the sum of £1,700 https://www.brightonhistory.org.uk/people/people_a.html accessed 28th April 2022The Contract for the sale is held at The Keep in Brighton object number R/C 4/305 . The massing of the school as built lends it a somewhat monumental appearance, a reflection perhaps of the self-confidence of an architect experienced with designing schools for a long-established Board (see Figure 2, below). The school itself is positioned close to the site’s north eastern corner and rather dominates the two storey terraced housing that surrounds it.
St Luke’s is formed in a rough T shape. At the rear, where the classrooms are located, the crossbar of the T faces south west. This rotation of the plan on its axis is designed to maximise natural light in the winter whilst avoiding excess glare and heat in summer. The extensive glazing to the rear elevation has been designed to create adequate natural light for the scholars to work by. Here, the ranges of twelve windows are articulated in four bays, each with a larger central window flanked by two smaller ones.
Finally, the vertical emphasis is even more pronounced at the rear elevation, where the downhill site allows for three full storeys instead of two plus a half basement level (see Figure 3, below). To the rear, the school dominates its hillside, affording handsome views of the English Channel.
The Board School Movement
By the mid-Victorian period, the parlous state of health of many working class children had been revealed. The starting gun for social reform was fired by the publication in 1842 of Edwin Chadwick’s ‘Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain’, which revealed this ill-health to be the result of poor sanitation and overcrowded housing. These social evils are consequent on poverty, yet reports like Chadwick’s linked the physical circumstances of working class children to their moral condition, so it was improving educational provision that was prescribed as an ameliorative measure Weiner (ibid) points out that concerns for the health of working class children were not child centred. Rather, they concerned the unfitness of such children to fight in colonial wars – many Board … Continue reading.
To help prevent the spread of disease, therefore, St Luke’s features numerous opening lights to provide proper ventilation. Similarly, the impressive amount of space given over at St Luke’s to playgrounds to both front and rear was intended not only for children’s free play but for instruction in physical exercise, or ‘drilling’. The provision of an on-site swimming bath was likewise perhaps less about leisure than further improving the children’s health and hygiene. Finally, the original plans for St Luke’s reveal a Manual Instruction classroom next to the school’s Swimming Bath (see Figure 4, below).
An early sign of vocational education – and a widening of the Victorian curriculum away from the “cardinal” subjects of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – training in manual labour such as this reflected elite concerns that England lacked the kind of skilled industrial workforce that was said to be making Germany the economic powerhouse of Europe Weiner (ibid).. The late Victorian social reform agenda was therefore not aimed at transforming the capitalist system of exploitation that caused urban poverty, but instead at the more utilitarian objective of improving the physical and economic resilience of the nation’s youngest generation.
St Luke’s and the Queen Anne Style
Architecturally, St Luke’s is a very late example of the Queen Anne style. Queen Anne broke with the muscularity of the mid-century Gothic Revival by harking back to lighter, more decorative and more domestic English and Flemish architectural styles rooted in the past. E R Robson, architect to the London School Board and the most influential designer of Board Schools, described this emerging style as “a quaint and able adaptation of old English brick architecture to modern school purposes” Girouard (1977) points out that E R Robson trained in the office of arch-Goth Sir George Gilbert Scott, and so was an early apostate from the Gothic style.. Red brick in a stretcher bond features prominently at St Luke’s, alongside most of the decorative features listed by architectural historian Mark Giroud as constituting the appeal to architects of the new/old Queen Anne style:
The early and mid-seventeenth century had supplied them with gables, whether straight or Flemish, brick pilasters, brick pediments, ribbed chimney-stacks and prominent plaster covers; from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, came sash windows, hipped roofs, wooden cupolas…the architects had mixed them all together, [and]made roofs and chimney stacks especially prominent. (Girouard, 1977)
With its stepped gables and its ogee-capped turrets, the attention-grabbing roofline of St Luke’s is, indeed, the most obvious borrowing from Jacobean prodigy houses such as Holland House (1606-1607). In addition to this perceived Englishness, Queen Anne appealed to the School Boards because it was a recognisably secular style. At Board Schools, the teaching of denominational catechisms was banned by the Cowper Temple Clause of the 1870 Act John T Smith. ‘The enemy within?’: the clergyman and the English school boards, 1870–1902.’ History of Education Vol. 38, No. 1, January 2009.. Prior to this, educational provision in England had been voluntaristic and was dominated by the Church of England, whose schools were increasingly built in the Gothic Revival style, a style followed by the earliest Board schools as well.
By gradually adopting the Queen Anne style, many if not all School Boards were distinguishing themselves not only from the heavy Gothic style of architecture but also from its religious associations. Queen Anne is thus one of the plethora of historicist architectural styles that characterised so much of the built environment in the nineteenth century – including the Gothic Revival itself, against which Queen Anne was a reaction – but one that was uniquely suited to the presentational needs of the School Boards.
For all the late-Victorian utilitarianism of the Board School movement, we have seen how the Queen Anne style was also highly decorated. In Sweetness and Light: The Queen Anne Movement 1860-1900, Girouard explains that this was because the Queen Anne style was also closely aligned to the liberal values of the more progressive members of the elected School Boards. Jane Martin, for example, notes that many of the twenty nine women elected to the London School Board were also active in suffragette politics.Jane Martin, Entering the public arena: female members … Continue reading
This politically active fraction of the newly-confident middle classes were more child-centred in their concern for the improving effects of State education, acquiescing in the argument made by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy for a new aesthetic of “sweetness and light”. In an educational context, light symbolises the knowledge and understanding that Board Schools were intended to bring to ill-educated working class children; sweetness represents the notion that beauty can civilise them, too. As we have seen, in Board Schools like St Luke’s, and within the Queen Anne style generally, this civilising sense of beauty is expressed primarily through architectural decoration. Simpson brings a wide range of materials and decorative devices to bear on the frontal elevation of St Luke’s in particular. Brick pilasters emphasise the vertical, framing the tall sashed windows, some of which are aproned by red brick laid in a herringbone pattern. The brick pilasters reach up to a classical entablature with a frieze, dentil and crowning aedicules. The stair towers are particularly adorned, the third stage featuring an elliptical window decorated with stone spandrels and cut and rubbed brick swagging. Bands of red brick and stone culminate each stair tower in four stacks, with gablets in between. Above, an octagonal cupola points cheerily at the sky. The hipped roof, meanwhile, is decorated by a finial, banded tall chimney stacks at each corner and a further cupola. St Luke’s therefore ticks off many of the architectural adornments in Girouard’s extensive list: brick pilasters, cupolas, tall stacks, sashed windows and brick aprons.
If the Queen Anne frontal elevation of St Luke’s announces the school to be part of a new educational movement – one that not only trains the children to be useful citizens but also educates them as human beings – the interior plan affords a fascinating insight into contemporary changes in the way space was organised within such a school.
At St Luke’s, each floor is arranged around a long central corridor, with classrooms to the rear – where pupils benefitted from the light and fresh air afforded by the deep sash windows – and offices and cloakrooms to the front, where the high ceilings even afforded space for a mezzanine level. Prior to the Board School era, schools had commonly consisted of a single, large ‘School Room’ where the entire cohort of pupils would be instructed by a single teacher. Through much of the nineteenth century this single space might then be subdivided by the means of sliding partitions or curtains in order to facilitate smaller group teaching, sometimes led by other trained teachers but more commonly by older pupils who instructed their younger peers Seaborne, M, and Lowe, R, The English School: Its Architecture and Organisation, Vol. 2, 1870-1970, Routledge, London and New York, 1977.. As schools became larger and employed greater numbers of qualified teachers, School Rooms were gradually abandoned in favour of the present system of separate classes, a system already in place in German schools Like E R Robson, the architectural advisor to the London School Board, Thomas Simpson visited Germany to research the national system of education there and its buildings in particular, so would have … Continue reading.
However, such a solution was widely rejected for English schools as being unaffordable, so for many years teenage “pupil teachers” were employed to supplement the work of qualified, adult teachers at Board Schools up and down the country. The report of the Brighton and Preston School Board for 1881, for example, notes that Bible classes were provided to a number of pupil teachers in order to prepare them for giving religious instruction. (The education at Board Schools remained “broadly Christian”: it was catechising for one denomination or other that was outlawed by the 1870 Act.)
To help qualified teachers oversee the work of such pupil teachers, the “School Room” was therefore frequently retained alongside separate classrooms. The plan at St Luke’s thus shows a double-sized classroom sandwiched in between separate classrooms on all three floors (see Figure 5, below). This would have meant that some classes could be doubled up, and taught by a teacher for some of the lesson, then divided into two groups, one taught by the pupil teacher and the other by a qualified, adult teacher. In this case, a traditional School Room that could be divided by a screen – a screen that, at the same time, allowed the adult teacher to supervise the work of the pupil teacher – would have been ideal. It is interesting to note that, today, the “School Rooms” shown on the plan for St Luke’s have been subdivided into two separate classrooms by a partition wall that nonetheless retains a door between the classrooms. In his original plan, Simpson was therefore integrating legacy and emergent styles of classroom organisation, and offering teachers a high degree of flexibility that reflected the reality of English education at the time.
At St Luke’s, a two storey Hall wing projects north-eastwards from the middle of the crossbar of the T. This wing separates the two pupil entrances located at either end of that crossbar, one of which is signed ‘Boys’ and the other ‘Girls’, reflecting the separate education of males and females. This projecting wing also contains the large assembly halls for both the infant and junior schools, arranged one above the other. Again, this reveals the common practice of locating the infant school on the ground floor and the junior school above. The prominent stair towers already mentioned therefore cater for St Luke’s circulation needs, allowing older pupils to troop up and down to their classrooms numerous times every day. With its lofty high ceilings, the hall wing suggests the increasing importance in later Board Schools like St Luke’s of assembling the juniors or infants for collective acts, thereby replacing the communal function of the School Room. Seaborne and Lowe give the example of one headteacher bringing his school together in the hall to listen to a valedictory account of Scott’s Arctic expeditions on the occasion of the death of a national hero Seaborne, M, and Lowe, R, The English School: Its Architecture and Organisation, Vol. 2, 1870-1970 . Then, as now, the school hall would also have provided space for indoor Physical Exercise, or “drilling”.
The significance of the first floor hall in particular is indicated by its impressive open timber roof supported by arched collar beams Historic England https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1380894?section=official-list-entry accessed 12/3/22 . Outside, the window range is framed by brick pilasters that rise up through bands of stone and red brick to meet a segmental pediment decorated with floral ornaments and a cartouche bearing the Brighton Borough emblem. St Luke’s was opened in 1903, just one year after responsibility for schooling was transferred from the School Boards to local authorities. By placing its emblem on the cartouche, Brighton Borough was thus asserting its mastery over the new and prestigious school.
Financing St Luke’s
The accusations levelled at historicist styles such as Queen Anne are manifold. From a modernist perspective, facadism – the placing of undue emphasis on the frontal appearance of a building – serves to obscure their function. At St Luke’s we have seen how function is very evident in the glazing schemes and in the stair towers. Nonetheless, critics have rightly pointed to the contrast between the highly decorated facades of Board schools and their bare interiors Weiner (ibid). In the case of Board Schools, such facadism is not perhaps surprising.
The building and running costs of Board Schools were paid for by a levy on the Rates, despite the fact that many of the ratepayers would have sent their own children to private or voluntary schools. This is perhaps why the “Summary of the Work Accomplished by the School Board” published by the Brighton and Preston School Board in 1881 comprises a variety of key performance indicators aimed at persuading ratepayers as to the value for money it offers. Indeed, the report includes a number of items indicating that members were perfectly aware of the niceties of their political position. There is, for example, a favourable comparison between the truancy rates amongst pupils in Voluntary (ie religious) schools and schools operated by the Brighton and Preston Board. There is also boasting of a healthy outperformance in exam results by pupils at Brighton Board Schools when compared to the national average: in 1881, 99.1% of pupils in Board Schools in Brighton passed their elementary exams whereas only 88.3% of pupils passed nationally. Moreover, this outperformance was achieved at an average a cost of just “18s 11d” per pupil, which was “but 4d per pupil above the average for the whole country” Interestingly, the Board cites the educational system of Germany, that paragon of educational innovation and patent threat to the realm, to elicit support for the 1870 model of universal compulsory … Continue reading.
Readers of the report could not fail to be impressed. Similarly, ratepayers passing by the impressively decorated façade of St Luke’s also could not fail to be impressed. At St Luke’s money was spent on the interior of the school – not only in the roof of the first floor hall but also in the attractive blue-green Arts and Crafts wall tiles that decorate each classroom below their dado rails – but overall there is little doubt that the façade of St Luke’s betrays a self-advertising flamboyance that is lacking from the interior Such decoration was also lacking in earlier Simpson designs for the Brighton School Board. Compare, for example, the decorated façade of St Luke’s with the plain façade of Finsbury Road school in … Continue reading.
When Queen Anne first emerged, a range of terms were proposed for it, from Re-Renaissance to Debased Classical. As Ian Sutton observes, these labels fail to encapsulate the mercurial and syncretic appeal of nineteenth century historicist styles:
If one has to find labels for them one can specify Neoclassical, Neo-Baroque, Neo- Renaissance, Italianate and so on. But the truth is that these historical elements are like ingredients stirred into a soup; the result is a new flavour of its own. (Sutton, p 285-286)
Such new flavours thrive when they are adopted by influential architects like E R Robson, who then inspire talented provincial architects such as Thomas Simpson to dip a spoon of their own into the rich melange. Moreover, those new flavours only appeal if they meet the tastes of eager patrons with access to funds. In this respect we have seen how the Queen Anne style was adopted by School Boards such as Brighton because of its ideological associations with the same secular, liberal and civic values that were driving late Victorian social reform.
By the time he came to design St Luke’s, Thomas Simpson had already designed numerous schools in Brighton and Hove. His expertise meant that he provided the pupils with a large, well-lit, well-ventilated school whose curriculum included at least a degree of vocational education, as well as provision for free play. Teachers, meanwhile, were provided with ample offices, a set of flexible teaching rooms and two impressive assembly halls where the pupils could be gathered together. That St Luke’s continues to thrive today suggests that Simpson did an exceptionally good job.
Richard Bingham is a freelance writer with a particular interest in architecture. Under the pen name Mark Peterson, he has published two Brighton-set crime novels. Richard would like to thank St Luke’s present-day Acting Headteacher, Kay Watson, for allowing him to visit the school. He also thanks Ninka Willcock for reading the first draft and for her generous advice.
Girouard, M, Sweetness and Light: The Queen Anne” Movement, 1860-1900, Clarendon Press, London, 1977.
Seaborne, M, and Lowe, R, The English School: Its Architecture and Organisation, Vol. 2, 1870-1970, Routledge, London and New York, 1977.
Sutton, I, Western Architecture: A Survey from Ancient Greece to the Present, Thames and Hudson, London, 2000
Weiner, D, Architecture and Social Reform in late Victorian London, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1994
|↑1||Weiner, D, Architecture and Social Reform in late Victorian London, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 1994|
|↑2||Antram, N and Morrice, R, Pevsner Architectural Guides, Brighton, 2008, Yale University Press|
|↑3||Carder, T, The Encyclopaedia of Brighton, East Sussex County Council, Lewes, 1990|
|↑4||https://www.brightonhistory.org.uk/people/people_a.html accessed 28th April 2022The Contract for the sale is held at The Keep in Brighton object number R/C 4/305|
|↑5||Weiner (ibid) points out that concerns for the health of working class children were not child centred. Rather, they concerned the unfitness of such children to fight in colonial wars – many Board schools featured so-called ‘marching corridors’ – and the need for a more educated workforce if Britain was to compete with the emergent superpower of the German economy.|
|↑6||Courtesy of The Keep Archive, Brighton, object number DB/D113/35.|
|↑8||Girouard (1977) points out that E R Robson trained in the office of arch-Goth Sir George Gilbert Scott, and so was an early apostate from the Gothic style.|
|↑9||John T Smith. ‘The enemy within?’: the clergyman and the English school boards, 1870–1902.’ History of Education Vol. 38, No. 1, January 2009.|
|↑10||Jane Martin, for example, notes that many of the twenty nine women elected to the London School Board were also active in suffragette politics.Jane Martin, Entering the public arena: female members of the London School Board 1870-1904, History of Education, Vol 2, No. 3, 1993. In 1876 Catherine Ricketts was elected as the sole female member of the Brighton and Preston School Board. Ricketts’ religious motivation is indicated by the fact that in Brighton she gave Bible instruction to pupil teachers and, more dramatically, by the fact that in 1878 Ricketts left England to become the first missionary of The Women’s Missionary Association, serving in the Shantou mission in China until 1907. https://commons.datacite.org/doi.org/10.25549/impa-m7664?query= accessed 28th April 2022.|
|↑11||Seaborne, M, and Lowe, R, The English School: Its Architecture and Organisation, Vol. 2, 1870-1970, Routledge, London and New York, 1977.|
|↑12||Like E R Robson, the architectural advisor to the London School Board, Thomas Simpson visited Germany to research the national system of education there and its buildings in particular, so would have been aware of the German investment in separate classrooms and individual class teachers https://www.brighton-society.org.uk/connaught-centre-success/ accessed 9th March 2022.|
|↑13||Courtesy of The Keep Archive, object number DB/D113/35.|
|↑14||Seaborne, M, and Lowe, R, The English School: Its Architecture and Organisation, Vol. 2, 1870-1970|
|↑15||Historic England https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1380894?section=official-list-entry accessed 12/3/22|
|↑17||Interestingly, the Board cites the educational system of Germany, that paragon of educational innovation and patent threat to the realm, to elicit support for the 1870 model of universal compulsory primary education: “in German towns, where compulsory attendance at school has been the law for two or three generations, there does not exist more than five per cent of absenteeism”. Courtesy of The Keep, object number PAR 277/7/2/22/31|
|↑18||Such decoration was also lacking in earlier Simpson designs for the Brighton School Board. Compare, for example, the decorated façade of St Luke’s with the plain façade of Finsbury Road school in Hanover (1881). The lack of expenditure on the latter’s façade may be because it was an early Board school, or because this school served a working class area of the city|