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Essay

David Walker, Sheffield Schools (2008)


During the years after the war the West Riding of Yorkshire commissioned two schools, each for 510 pupils aged eleven to fifteen, in new housing areas within the Sheffield parish of Ecclesfield. At both Colley Secondary Modern School in Remington Avenue , and Yew Lane County Secondary School in Grenoside, a single-storey range of aluminium classrooms had already been erected as an interim measure. The briefs specified that these ranges should be incorporated within the new complexes, which were to meet the Government’s accommodation requirements following the Education Act of 1944.[1] The detailed planning was to be worked out in consultation with the County Education Officer’s specialist organisers and with Hubert Bennett, the County Architect.[2]

Although they were arranged differently, Colley and Yew Lane comprised similar component blocks loosely laid out as a series of open courts. In their planning and construction principles, and in many more detailed aspects, they appear to have been influenced by the Abbot-Wood Report of 1937, and by C.G. Stillman and R. Castle Cleary’s The Modern School published in 1949. They were designed in Spence’s new London office where Andrew Renton was partner-in-charge, and it seems likely that among the staff Edward Samuels, who had come from the Ministry of Education, played an important rôle in their development.[3]

The individual blocks varied in length, height and fabric to create visual interest within tight budgets and to allow construction to continue even if post-war shortages rendered some materials temporarily unavailable or sub-standard: problems were in fact experienced with the steelwork.[4] Nevertheless they were built to last with robustness, durability and good weathering characteristics all carefully considered, as well as simple maintenance and flexible, extendable use for when the school leaving age increased to sixteen. They were designed to be practical for many different purposes, both in respect of pupils’ curricular activities and out-of-hours use by the broader community, which had few other amenities at the time.[5]

Following accepted best practice for school design, most blocks were single-storey. The single-storey blocks were constructed with load-bearing brickwork, glazed to greater or lesser degree depending on their purpose, and with pre-stressed concrete beams supporting their roofs. The taller blocks, which were substantially glazed to ensure bright and airy conditions inside, employed structural steel frameworks of different kinds, with the roofs being carried on concrete beams or rolled steel joists. The use of brickwork in these taller blocks was mostly confined to gables.

In each complex the centrepiece was a three-storey block 172 feet long supported by a steel frame of eleven bays. This structure was subtly acknowledged in the principal elevations, each bay being four windows wide between the uprights. Since classrooms for general teaching were already catered for by the aluminium ranges, the new three-storey blocks contained generous cloakroom and lavatory provision on ground floor, with arts, crafts and domestic science rooms above. At Yew Lane the domestic science rooms included a model flat, the living room of which opened onto a deep railed balcony integrated within one of the gables. The cloakroom accommodation on ground floor could easily be converted into teaching space, or the depth of the whole block increased for modest cost.

In each complex a double-height assembly hall extended forward from the three-storey block on one side – to the left at Colley, right at Yew Lane – so forming a spacious court. This hall was supported by steel portal frames rising into a low-pitched roof. At one end the hall could be opened into the dining room to create a very large space for functions and exhibitions, and at the other there was a stage which shared changing rooms with the gymnasium. The walls around the proscenium arch were plastered at Colley and timber-boarded at Yew Lane to produce good acoustics, and the windows were fitted with Venetian metal and pleated fabric blinds to create blackout conditions for theatrical performances. As a semi-public space, the hall was relatively well finished, with the floor being of wood-block.

The double-height dining room was also steel-framed, with a glazed main frontage, brick gables and a flat roof. The changing rooms presented a long low brick frontage with simple entrance openings and comparatively few windows for privacy.

In both schools the double-height gymnasium and playing fields and wood and metal workshops were located as far as possible from the classrooms to minimise disturbance. The gymnasium’s hardwood strip floor was laid crosswise to the long flanks to help prevent splinter accidents, and Georgian wired glazing was a precaution against breakage. The single-storey workshops were of load-bearing brick, with flank walls mostly glazed to ensure good lighting conditions, and granolithic flooring to withstand especially heavy wear. They were located near a public road to accept deliveries of raw materials.

The two-storey block containing library and laboratory and the single-storey staff room block were, by contrast, arranged in relatively peaceful locations, although the latter had to supervise the playgrounds. While neither so long nor so tall as the three-storey block, the library and laboratory block was nevertheless similar in structure and appearance. The staff room was of load-bearing brick, with French windows.

The non-identical layouts of the schools’ component blocks resulted in two important differences between them. Colley had a glazed reception foyer between the dining room and a curving administration block, the latter faced with York stone on its entrance front. The foyer’s floor was laid in random marble pieces and contained a large plant-bed, a characteristic feature of the time. But at Yew Lane – where a much tighter budget prevailed – a more modest entrance was formed at the junction between the main three-storey block and the assembly hall.

The siting of Colley’s existing row of aluminium classrooms facing Remington Avenue encouraged the architects to position the large triple-height block behind it, with the double-height assembly hall forming a link between them, so that the main courtyard was enclosed on three sides. At Yew Lane the aluminium range lay to the rear of the triple-height block, and connection was made by a covered way incorporating a long greenhouse for teaching rural sciences.

Generally the interiors were painted in cool neutral shades, but with some brighter colours, patterned wallpapers and fabrics,[6] and timber-boarding used at focal points. The architects designed the built-in furniture and also chose the tables, chairs and fabrics in the library and staff room, but other items such as the bookshelves and laboratory fittings were provided by the County Supplies Department. Heating was through grilles set into the walls, each school having its own boiler-house.

Landscaping was carefully considered in layout, texture and colour to integrate the schools with their surroundings during all seasons of the year. Mounds and hazards were formed, some areas laid out to grass, and there was considerable planting of young trees such as maples and sycamores, shrubs, creepers, herbaceous plants and bulbs.

The architects’ records show that the general contractor at Colley was Henry Boot & Sons who began work in October 1951 and finished in April 1954. Their final account was for £157,619.[7] The school was opened by Herbert Morrison on 19 June that year, the prayer of dedication being offered by Leslie Hunter, Bishop of Sheffield.[8] In his address, Morrison thanked the architects warmly and remembered his previous collaboration with Basil Spence & Partners only a few years earlier: “He had been told on coming there that it was, so to speak, a ‘Festival of Britain’ school; certainly there was a flavour of the Festival.”[9]

The office records also show that Yew Lane was built by the Butterley Company between September 1953 and September 1956, just in time for the new academic year. Its much lower cost of £127,000 doubtless reflected economies made to satisfy the limits per pupil which had recently been imposed by the Education Ministry. The school was officially opened by Sir Ronald Gould, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, on 20 June 1957, with the Reverend Cuthbert Hayes in attendance.[10] Remarking that “any district that puts homes and schools in priority cannot have much wrong with it,” Gould warmly praised the design as being economical, yet at least as good as its best counterparts in America.[11]


FOOTNOTES

[1] As set out in the Building Regulations and accompanying Memorandum (1945).

[2] Subsequently of the London County Council.

[3] Information courtesy of Roger Button, in conversation with the author, 8 March 2007.

[4] Information courtesy of Jack Bonnington, in conversation with the author, 25 October 2006.

[5] W.S. Atkins & Partners acted as structural and services consultants at Yew Lane, but at Colley the services were entrusted to H.A. Sandford.

[6] At Yew Lane at least, these were respectively by Sanderson and Gerald Holtom.

[7] The Architects’ Journal states that work began on 31 March, i.e. immediately after the contract was signed.

[8] Ecclesfield, Formal Opening, Colley Secondary School …, copy of booklet at R.C.A.H.M.S.

[9] Sheffield Telegraph, 20 June 1954.

[10] Formal Opening of Ecclesfield Yew Lane County Secondary School …, copy of booklet at R.C.A.H.M.S.

[11] Sheffield Telegraph, 22 July 1957.