Leamington Architect remembers Shrubland Street School

Sandy Hickey

by Sandy Hickey

15/02/2022, in Main Blog | South Warwickshire Blog

I wanted to write something about a piece of architecture in my area. But what?  One of my colleagues has BedZED on her doorstep, a pioneering eco-development in Sutton showcasing low energy solutions – something that is close to my heart – in a tight knit community less than 20 years old.

I was contemplating what to write about while delivering newsletters in Leamington Old Town when the by-line on the headline ‘A Proud History’ caught my eye. A former pupil and local historian, Allan Jennings, has published a book about Shrubland Street School and the local area.

My first house was a little two bedroom Victorian terraced house overlooking Shrubland Street School – described at the time of building as ‘Modern Gothic’.

For those who don’t know, it is a beautiful Victorian structure of richly embossed red brick with multi gabled elevations and fancy brickwork. It’s tall elegantly proportioned white painted windows were designed to flood light into the high airy classrooms in an age of candle and gaslight. The rhythmic gabled elevations are topped by a visually stimulating roofscape hosting a cascade of slate covered gabled roofs to the street elevations and hipped roofs to the playground. The roof is finished off with two striking white painted cruciform cupulas topped off with an elegant wind vane on each.

Budget problems

As we often find with our own house projects, the client’s needs were greater than the available funds. So although it was designed as a whole, it was built in two stages, the Girls and Infants schools were completed in 1884 and the Boys school in 1891.

Despite this, the quote from the builder still came in above budget. Following much discussion, it was decided to increase the funding to ensure they got the space and quality they required. Over a hundred years later we are still reaping the benefits of this decision, with the use of quality materials; good workmanship and generous spaces providing excellent functional design that has stood the test of time and still delights the eye.

One of the things that impressed the Victorians about medieval buildings was the marriage of materials and structure. At Shrubland Street School the brick and stone external walls provide the decoration within them, rather than decoration being applied after the structure was built. The red brick is relieved by bands and mouldings of Staffordshire brindled bricks, terracotta and stonework.

“great attention has been paid throughout to the sanitary arrangements and ventilation“.

When the school was planned, houses were still being heated by open fires in their principle rooms. In contrast the school was designed from the start with a central heating system comprising a central boiler (the chimney is still be seen in the photographs) with heat distributed using both a hot water radiator system and a hot air system.

Material choice

The entrance halls and corridors had floors of Staffordshire quarry tiles with dado of glazed brickwork, the practicality of which has stood the test of time and is very much back in favour. These types of ceramics are again being manufactured, allowing home owners to repair or reinstate them in their homes.

At the time of construction the classroom floors were described as “paved with cubes of wood which will contribute materially to quiet quietude and the preservation of order”, something we probably all yearn for in our homes.

As time went on and the way education progressed, alterations were made to met new and changing requirements. We know in June 1938 there was the addition of a verandah to each of the wings of classrooms. This was to avoid the need to pass directly through the classrooms.

During World War Two Shrubland Street School played an essential part for the local community. At the commencement of the war air raid shelters were built under the playground large enough to hold  up to 250 people from the surrounding houses.

Leamington was seen to be much safer than other parts of the country, so at the beginning of the war it welcomed 298 children with 57 teachers  from Birmingham and then a further 915 children and 121 staff from other areas. In total Shrubland Street School accepted 125 evacuee children from all over the UK. Imagine all those extra children and adults packed into tiny Victorian terraces; some of our elegant stuccoed town houses or the brand new semi-detached properties to the south of the school (The ones in The Close got their new roof tiles blown off by a bomb that landed in the middle of the road – a bit too close for comfort to the school).

Respecting the past and adapting for the future

The 1947 Abercrombie report suggesting plans for the future of Leamington proposed demolition of the school. Luckily it was saved and refurbished in 1965.

Sadly the bell tower with it’s tall elegant spire is no more. A lightning strike during the summer holidays of 1973 tore a hole in the roof of the tower and sent tiles crashing to the ground. The local paper reported an inspection was undertaken and there was no danger to the public and that repairs were completed before the school reopened in September. Was it seen to be cheaper to remove the tower rather than repair it?  Today we tend to have a different view of our historic buildings and homes. Now if a piece of heritage is removed it often finds its way to a reclamation place and new home.

In 1996 the school became a community primary school and was reorganised into the way we are familiar with today. To mark its new status it chose a logo based on the stone sun on the west elevation.

With this transformation, further alterations were made to the building. The partition forming a long thin corridor and the reception classroom in The West Wing was finally removed to create a new large activity area. One of the rooms was divided to form new changing rooms. The east wing, previously open plan was enclosed to form the new infants area and carpeted to allow a very different style of teaching to the Victorian methods. It is fascinating to see how we alter our buildings, putting changes in and taking them out again as our needs evolve.

Of course Shrubland Street School wasn’t the only beautiful Victorian school to be built in the area. Schools were also built in Leicester Street (demolished in 1975), Clapham Terrace and Milverton School on Rugby Road.

These Victorian schools are still providing good quality schooling for the latest generations of local Leamington families, but they also play an important part in drawing new people to the delights of living in Leamington.