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  Exploring Southwark and discovering its history

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Jerwood Space / Orange Street School

Jerwood Space, the arts centre in Union Street, is clearly a hybrid of a building, incorporating Victorian red brickwork on the lower floors with a late 20th century wood and glass roof extension. Copperfield Street, the road that runs to the rear of the building, used to be called Orange Street and this gave its name to the original Victorian building, the Orange Street School.

Orange Street school location Jerwood Space

Jerwood Space viewed from Union Street

Orange Street School was one of the first schools built by the School Board of London, set up as a result of the 1870 Education Act to provide education for working class children.  Before the Act was passed, education, often in the form of Ragged Schools, was offered voluntarily and funded by charitable donations by religious institutions, Anglican, Catholic and non-conformist.  As such, there was a large element of religious instruction taught alongside reading, writing and arithmetic and the School Boards set up throughout the country provided a more secular education.  The Act ensured there were sufficient schools to provide an adequate education for all children within an area. The School Board of London made school attendance compulsory in 1871 which became the law nationally in 1880, followed by the provision of free education in 1891.

(Click to enlarge)

In overcrowded Southwark, there was a need to build several schools to ensure there was adequate provision. Orange Street School was one of the first schools to be built and was completed in 1874.  An area of tiny, overcrowded houses in courts and cramped, small streets had been compulsorily purchased and demolished to provide a site for the school.  

E R Robson had been appointed Chief Architect by the School Board and Orange Street School was one of his first designs. The building was set back from the street to allow sunlight into the playground and for passers-by to view the building better.  Originally the boundary was marked with iron railings but these were soon replaced by a brick wall as it was considered it would afford “better protection in so rough an area.”  The building comprised three storeys with separate floors each for infants, girls and boys and there were also separate entrances for boys and girls.  On each floor there was a large school room, which could be divided into separate areas with the use of partitions, and additional separate class-rooms.  The girls’ department was on the top floor which had greater space for the storage of their outdoor clothes which was not felt to be necessary on the boys’ floor as few of the boys attending owned an overcoat.  Just after the school opened, there was a total of 809 children at the school: 297 infants, 262 girls and 250 boys.


But in the poverty stricken areas of London, the introduction of compulsory schooling, far from being welcomed by parents was met with resentment: “In some districts of London building a Board School was like planting a fort in an enemy’s country.  The building was the symbol of tyranny and oppression, and often the school keeper had difficulty in protecting it from malicious damage.  The School Board was the public enemy that deprived honest citizens of the services of the children, taking the children from profitable employment in shop and factory and setting them to the profitless tasks of learning to read and write. And hostility from parents rubbed off on children making them not the most apt of pupils.”  (Philpott, 1904)  Additionally, older girls were needed to look after the younger children while parents were at work, and because of this, a Baby’s Room was included in the Infants Department of Orange Street School where younger siblings could be cared for, an early form of crèche.















“After school was over the headmistress and her assistant devoted many hours to making garments for the poorest children.  They carried out what was then a very bold scheme of sending parties of children to Brighton for a summer holiday.  The children had to be despatched clean as well as neatly clad, and as baths did not enter into the economy of many of their lives, these instruments of civilisation were provided on the school premises; but they were regarded with such aversion that in some cases the cleansing process could only be accomplished [by force]. The people of the neighbourhood were not only poor but astonishingly ignorant and the headmistress, when her kindly disposition became known, was in great demand as a letter writer.  By these and other services she and her teachers quite broke down the feeling of hostility with which the school was at first regarded, and it became the chief and for a time almost the only civilising and humanising agency in the neighbourhood.”


The first headmistress of the school was Mrs Elizabeth Burgwin, a remarkable, determined woman from Suffolk whose father was an agricultural labourer.  She had moved to London when she was 14 years old to undertake a five year pupil teacher apprenticeship and eventually, aged only 24, was appointed head teacher at Orange Street.  She noticed that many of her pupils were weak and restless and was told by a doctor who she called in to examine the children that they were “decidedly hungry.”  Realising that the children’s hunger was getting in the way of their making progress in their school lessons, Mrs Burgwin began to provide meals at midday, initially some bread and a hot drink.  She established a local charity to raise funds to provide hot meals to children during the winter months and in 1884, she received the support of George R Sims, the writer whose work had drawn attention to the terrible conditions experienced by those living in London’s slums.  A dining room was hired in a local lodging house that provided food, not just for pupils of the Orange Street School, but for children from other schools in the area.  By 1891, the charity was providing over 186,000 dinners and over 25,000 breakfasts each year.


Mrs Burgwin left her position at Orange Street in 1891 when she was appointed the school board’s first superintendent of schools for children with learning difficulties and there is a special school named after her in Hammersmith today.  This dedicated teacher died aged 90 in 1940. A year after Mrs Burgwin left, the Orange Street School underwent a refurbishment and additions included three new classrooms, a cookery room, a laundry and technical rooms, as well as a school keeper’s house, and was now able to accommodate a total of 1,300 pupils. Over the years however, the landscape of Southwark changed as industry expanded and the population of Southwark decreased as more of the population moved out to newly built houses in the suburbs.  By the 1930s, there were only 200 pupils enrolled.  When the nearby Blackfriars Senior School for Boys was destroyed by a fire, the school amalgamated with the Orange Street Senior School for Boys and became known as the John Harvard Senior School for Boys.  This was separate from the John Harvard Centre which held classes in the same building that taught technical skills to adult students.


When World War II broke out, the pupils were evacuated to Hove.  The school suffered a devastating attack from a high explosive in October 1940 but thankfully there were no injuries or fatalities as the school was empty.  As a result, the entire second floor was demolished which was not replaced until after the building had been occupied by Jerwood Space for a few years.  After the war, the population of North Southwark declined still further as industry moved out of the area and John Harvard School amalgamated with other schools, and though other schools moved in temporarily while new, modern premises were built for them, it left the building with no permanent purpose, classed as unsuitable for modern educational needs.  It became a centre for adult education in the late sixties until the centre was closed in 1996.  


The building was put up for sale and purchased by the Jerwood Foundation and, funded by a Lottery Grant, converted the building to rehearsal studios and gallery for emerging artists.  Since then, further renovations have been carried out, with more additions including replacing the bombed and demolished second floor to create more rehearsal studios and meeting rooms.



ER Robson (1875) School Architecture

Hugh B Philpott (1904) London at School:  the Story of the School Board 1870-1904

The Historical Slate website

Imogen Lee  (2007) The Space beneath the Jerwood Space: a history of the site


Orange Street School

Hugh Philpott described the pupils at Orange Street “as having been almost inconceivably rough and downgraded.  The general poverty and the squalor of many of the homes were worse than anything with which teachers had come in contact.” The teachers at the school felt compelled by the obvious need of the children to perform many humanitarian acts that were well outside their official duties: