Benthal Primary School survives being nearly demolished – twice – to celebrate 70th birthday
- Credit: Picture: Siorna Ashby
Pupils dressed up in 1940s style on Friday to celebrate Benthal Primary School’s 70th anniversary. Emma Bartholomew looks back at the history of the school that Hackney Council threatened to knock down in the 1970s and again in the last decade
"Before I started designing it, I asked my own children, who were four at the time, what they liked and disliked about their schools," Paul Maas, the architect who designed Benthal Primary School's outlandish infant building in the 1960s, remembers.
Writing in a piece now being exhibited as part of a history display at Benthal, he also reminisced about schools he had attended himself, and apparently two things became clear.
"First, when small children play, they love to hide in bushes or places that have the characteristics of caves," he said. "And they often take blankets to simulate tents.
"So why did all the existing schools for these age groups have 9ft ceiling heights? Nobody seemed to be designing schools for small children. Also every small child I spoke to said that school buildings should be fun."
The result was a series of Moorish style pavilions with curving roofs and portal windows with interiors reminiscent of tents or caves.
The unique design was one of the arguments parents cited for not flattening the school four years ago, when it was included in a Hackney Council masterplan to create more pupil places by knocking some schools down and building others.
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Luckily for Benthal, it was deemed that projected pupil numbers were based on flawed data, and the school was saved.
Oddly enough, the unusual design had been used as an argument in the 1970s for knocking the school down - when children playing on its roof after hours became a plague for the caretaker and caused it to leak.
Paul was tasked by the Greater London Authority with designing a building for the infants, when it was deemed the site needed to expand to include a junior school. The two remained separate until 2006 when they amalgamated.
The original school, Rendlesham Road Board School, was built in 1876 and renamed Benthal Road School in 1903. It was heavily damaged by bombing on July 9, 1944, and demolished the following year.
A new infant school designed in the modernist style by the GLC's architects' department opened in September 1949 - the anniversary the school has commemorated this week, culminating in a tea party attended by former teachers and alumni.
An exhibition of memorabilia on show included photos of the bombed school site, a letter from the '40s asking for permission to demolish it, architect's drawings from the '60s, and a newsletter from the '80s.
Historian and author Ken Worpole has been in to tell pupils how children from "The Island" also attended the school, until it was declared slum housing and demolished in the 1970s.
The tight-knit, self-sufficient community comprised five streets of terraced Victorian homes where Stellman Close now stands - and was cut off from the world because of a geographical anomaly.
If you didn't want to walk miles around Hackney Downs, you would have to pay a toll and hop over someone's back wall to get in.
Elephants were stabled there for the nearby music hall, and they also kept chickens and ran a "pig club", with everyone chipping in cash and feeding the animals their slops.
Head teacher Louise Drew told the Gazette: "Ken told us how the school tried to help those families by providing boots and shoes - otherwise they would be coming in bare feet - and helping them with lunch. They were so incredibly poor. [The school] was a community 100 years ago and it's the same now."
She added: "It was saddening to think that the school might have been knocked down but after a number of years of the council umming and ahhing, when we got the absolute definitive answer in December it was saved.
"That was a big weight off my shoulders. It was absolutely the same for the staff, parents and the wider community."
In December the council also announced the school will be refurbished and the junior school's boiler, which has been in place since the school opened in 1949, will be replaced this summer.
"It's a running joke with me," said Louise. "It's been on its last legs the last two winters, and it was right at the top of my list when the council announced the refurb. It's being held together by sticking plasters. I always say to the people who are doing the improvements: 'This is a museum piece. It needs to go in the Hackney Archives.' It's done its time - 70 winters."
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